THE WIDE, WIDE, WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS ; What’s a Sport? Everything and Nothing
Patrick Hruby, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
25 September 2003
The Washington Times
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.
So you’re looking for sports, right? Presumably that’s why you’re slumming in this part of the paper. As opposed to the section that deals with bombs. Or the area that covers catastrophes.
Fear not. You’ve come to the right place. (And if you’re actually jonesing for catastrophic bombs, well, skip on over to Arts. Look for the capsule review on “Gigli.”)
Don’t be shy. Flip us open. Ruffle on through. On any given day, we have the scoop on large men chasing small leather balls. Small men on large horses chasing each other. Tall women tossing spheres through a ring. Short women kicking balls into a net. Pajama-clad men swinging sticks. Colorfully adorned drivers steering colorfully decaled cars in a seemingly endless series of circles.
All that, and not a single word on the circus. Which, come to think of it, might be a significant oversight.
“The circus is a sport,” said Barbara Pflughaupt, a spokeswoman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “We have world-class athletes. They’re performing 11 times a week. There is a competitive nature to what we do as well, because circus performers try to outdo each other all the time.”
In an era that embraces televised strongman contests and a televised Stuart Scott, there’s no question that the sports world belongs under the big top. Particularly if Don King is involved. That said, does the circus qualify as a sport? And if not, then what about elephant polo? Or unicycle hockey? Or trampoline?
Heck, what about curling?
“It’s kind of a running joke in the Olympics to make fun of the curlers,” said Ruben Gonzalez, a three-time Olympic luger and a motivational speaker. “To me, you should at least have to sweat or at least have a little bit of contact to make a sport. Then again, the curlers ripped us back, said we’re just a bunch of nuts hurtling down the chute.”
Ever since the first Neanderthal pummeled his cave mate for nothing more than sheer amusement - followed by the first Neanderthal promoter peddling the overpriced pay-per-view to the rest of his unsuspecting tribe - man has engaged in sport. And for nearly as long, he has devoted many of his waking and many more of his drinking hours to an underlying problem - one that hasn’t gotten any easier with the advent of rhythmic gymnastics, let alone competitive cheerleading.
Namely, what makes a sport a sport, worthy of inclusion on the page you’re holding?
“To create a box that says, ‘OK, these things are sports and these things aren’t,’ that probably doesn’t suit the nature of this discussion,” said Scott Branvold, a sports management professor at Robert Morris University. “You’re going to get arguments. We have them in class. Is auto racing a sport? Is chess?”
Formal definitions aren’t much help. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively.” At first glance, this looks great. All of our contents are accounted for. Plus jai alai.
Problem is, the dictionary definition applies as much to pro football as it does to, say, Celebrity Boxing. And “Dog Eat Dog.” And politics. And, quite frankly, most of what goes down at the average singles bar on any given Friday night. Not to mention tournament Scrabble and the National Spelling Bee - two activities in which the dictionary, it seems, would actually come in handy. (Apologies to Maurice Clarett and the rest of the NCAA’s, er, “scholar-athletes.”)
“There isn’t a legal definition of sport,” said Robert Jarvis, a professor of sports law at Nova Southeastern University Law Center. “I’ve been teaching this for years, and I have no idea what a sport is.”
So let’s lower our shoulders like the former Ohio State running back, leaving books to the eggheads who actually bother to sit through their midterms. And the egghead lawyers arguing that the NFL should accept underclassmen. Like there’s anything competitive about the classroom. Or the law, for that matter. What we need are common sense standards, something that separates the World Series from the World Footbag Championships. Besides groupies.
“I always have one student who says that women’s golf is not a sport, or that chess is not a sport,” Jarvis said. “What it comes down to is sweat. That seems to be the only thing we can agree on.”
Fine. Start there. And to perspiration, add eight other Sporting Commandments, culled from history, academia, current practice and the archives of Sports Illustrated’s semi-regular “Sport or Not a Sport?” feature.
(Why only nine commandments? Because Nos.1 and 2 of the Original Ten are a bit redundant. Besides, top 10 lists are so overdone).
Herein, the rules for the games. Let’s see which sports make the cut:
I: Thou shalt compete in a manner that requires antiperspirant
“It would only be a sport if you had to stand up for the whole game and hold something in each hand with your arms extended while the other players make their word.” - Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Scrabble.
No physical exertion leading to sweat, no sport. Simple as that. If a bit too vague. After all, lumberjack log rolling counts as a sweaty activity, as does jockeying for the last parking space in the Georgetown Safeway parking lot. And snorkeling off the coast of Bora Bora, assuming the presence of nearby sharks.
Still, sweat stands as useful opening punch, if only because it eliminates: (a) fantasy football; (b) fantasy baseball; © sitting on the couch in your boxers for seven consecutive hours on a Sunday, checking ESPN News for fantasy football and baseball updates.
(Then again, it’s possible that situation “c” could rapidly escalate into a sticky, prickly situation, provided you have a single television, a lone remote control, an increasingly angry significant other and a concurrent live broadcast of the “E!” network’s pre-Emmy red carpet show. Not that we speak from experience or anything).
After round one, then, fantasy sports, Scrabble, chess, checkers, the World Series of Poker and tournament Madden football are down for the count. Everything else is still bobbing and weaving. Or, in the case of underwater hockey, bobbling and gurgling.
II: Thou shalt reward mastery of a difficult and otherwise useless skill
“Who can’t eat? Everybody can eat.” - Los Angeles Clippers guard Quentin Richardson on hot dog eating contests.
If seventh grade P.E. class taught us anything beyond how to square dance and play pingpong, it’s that sports ought to be hard. Climb a rope hard. Ten pull-ups in a row hard. Run endless laps around the school while the teacher sits in a lawn chair reading the sports page hard.
Moreover, a sport should be difficult for the sake of, well, being difficult, requiring mastery of physical skills that are wholly unnecessary in the course of everyday life. Again, think square dancing. Or consider wrap-tackling. Amusing in those Terry Tate ads? Sure. Useful in a real world office setting? Probably not, unless you wear shoulder pads and a three-bar face mask to work.
For that reason, scratch horse racing, equestrian events and competitive eating from the list. Likewise, dump drinking games. Though bouncing quarters off a table and into a shot glass is both tough and unusual, getting sloshed is anything but.
III: Thou shalt run, jump, throw or risk bodily harm
“As long as there’s a chance you could die, it’s a sport.” - Oakland A’s pitcher Steve Sparks on bullfighting.
The ancient Greeks would have been perplexed - and perhaps a bit terrified - by our modern notion of golf as sport, to say nothing of Jesper Parnevik’s choice in coursewear. At the original Olympic Games, athletes squared off in four basic categories:
*Running (sprints, distance, racing in full battle armor).
*Jumping (long jump while holding weights).
*Throwing (discus, javelin).
*Beating people up (wrestling, boxing, “Pankration,” antiquity’s answer to K1 fighting).
Note that our classical forefathers also sanctioned pederasty and competing in the buff, hopefully not at the same time. Even so, their athletic notions remain sound. Really, what are our childhood proto-sports - tag, dodgeball, “smear the [expletive]” - if not exercises in sprinting and leaping, tossing and brawling?
Besides, the Greeks gave us democracy, the Parthenon and Plato. Plus the gyro. So let’s boot golf off the sports ark, along with NASCAR, beauty pageants, curling, illegal street racing and cycling (sorry, Lance).
Oh, and baseball gets to walk the plank, too, because of the designated hitter. Not that anyone will miss it (the DH, that is).
IV: Thou shalt keep score
“If it’s one guy, not a sport. If it’s a bunch of guys racing, a sport. If they’re racing in a thunderstorm, then it’s a sport televised on Fox.” - U.S. soccer player Clint Mathis on solo ballooning around the world.
Points or time, ya gotta keep score. Someone has to win. Someone has to lose. Not to get all cliched football announcer here, but isn’t that why they play the games? Outside of the billion-dollar broadcast deals?
Hence, bid adieu to diving, bullfighting, mountain climbing and renaissance jousting. Also wave goodbye to hunting, since deer don’t operate a scoreboard - and if they did, the count would be about 10 gazillion to two, including the guy that Bobby Knight shot. By accident. We think.