Zen and the art of sports entertainment

I’ve had the privilege of seeing several amazing speakers since I arrived at Williams – Salman Rushdie, Howard Dean, Paul Farmer, Thomas Friedman and many others – but I didn’t enjoy any of them nearly as much as I enjoyed hearing Bob Costas and Fay Vincent ’60 last Thursday. Perhaps this is only because I’m a bit of a sports dork; I grew up watching and idolizing Costas as he broadcast Super Bowls, World Series, NBA Finals and Olympics. Indeed, I talked to one girl the other night that told me she thought Costas was “A blowhard,” and wondered, “Who the f— cares what he has to say?” Well, I do. And not just because I was eager to hear he and Vincent pontificate about revenue-sharing in baseball, the steroid era or old baseball locker room stories. What impressed me most about Costas and Vincent’s discussion was that they made me remember why I love sports so much.

I argue that both men demonstrated in their discussion how sports are the perfect entertainment medium for Americans – sports are obviously fun, but also represent the trials, controversies and heartbreaks of life in a largely consequence-free environment.

Several times during the discussion, I was struck by the thought that although Costas and Vincent were discussing sports, they could have been talking about a real-world issue. When they debated whether Pete Rose should have been given a lifetime ban from baseball for gambling, Vincent suggested that Rose’s lifetime ban served as a “powerful deterrent” to other players who otherwise might gamble, while Costas suggested that a suspension might have been the more prudent punishment. Though they were talking about gambling, their arguments could easily apply to a discussion about the viability of the death penalty: is its use as a deterrent powerful enough to justify the terribly harsh punishment for those convicted? Likewise, as Costas and Vincent discussed the revenue disparities between large market teams and small market teams, they might as well have been having an economics argument about how small businesses can compete against large ones.

But the beauty of sports is that these serious discussions can happen without the extra tension of real-world consequences. Costas, Vincent and legions of smack-talking radio hosts and ESPN idiots are free to let loose on sports issues largely because, in the end, Pete Rose’s status in baseball only substantively matters to Pete Rose and his family. In a country that doesn’t seem to care about a war happening as long as only the poor kids are fighting it, the detachment and make-believe nature of sports is the perfect entertainment.

Before I sound like I’m suggesting that sports are a kind of “opiate of the masses,” however, I’ll repeat that I think sports are generally a great thing for people. After an intelligent discussion about steroids in baseball, Costas would demand the score of the Red Sox game, then chide the bitter Yankee fans in the audience; sports allow you to exercise your brain, but keep it light at the same time. Here at Williams, I’ve grown wearily accustomed to obnoxious and self-obsessed New England sports fans – but I don’t hate them as much as I hate, say, Republicans, or that kid that keeps defecating all over the place.

Williams would do well to place more of an emphasis on athletics – not in admissions, where we admit more than enough muscular morons (I’m joking, Mr. Enraged Meathead), but in its effort to build a community. I often feel as if I’m alone in my appreciation for sports at Williams. On a campus where 50 percent of us are supposedly “athletes,” the fan support at Williams games is absolutely pathetic. Unless we’re playing Amherst, it seems, few people besides Morty and Harry Sheehy deign to come to games, and even fewer cheer. Are we too caught up in our own worlds – internship applications, econ problem sets, and “I have sooo much work this weekend that I can’t possibly go outside or talk to anyone” – that we can’t come out and support our college teams?

Costas kept talking about how sports give people a way to connect to each other that they otherwise might not have, and I think he’s absolutely right. Some might say that this is sad and pitiable, but sports are no different from art or literature or music in this regard – they give us something to talk about, some way of uniting us in an interest, some way to create real meaning with others. Thirty years from now, I probably won’t remember who won this year’s World Series (it will be the Rockies, by the way), but I’ll remember the friends I made as I rooted against the Red Sox.

Likewise, it’s clear that Williams sports, at a low Div. III level (there’s no Division IV, yet), aren’t substantively important. But in supporting your friends by going to the games with your friends, you can make meaning and community where none existed before.

Matt Roach ’08 is a history and English major from Middletown, Del.

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