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Confession of a sports nonfan

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, August 25, 2005

A new academic year brings new classes, new roommates and new challenges (a category that sometimes includes the new roommates), but for many it is the new football season that really has them excited. With the arrival of a new head coach who has promised to put the fight back into the Fighting Irish, to say that the atmosphere of anticipation here is intense would be an understatement.

So why don’t I care?

Well, it’s not why you might think. It’s true that, being English, I wasn’t exposed to American football during my formative years. Like most of my compatriots I grew up in a family fanatically devoted to what we Brits (along with almost everyone else in the world) call football, which is to say, soccer. But for some reason it didn’t take and I am currently one of the few British men with no interest in soccer whatsoever. The others are called Richard and Charles. We sometimes meet up, although it turns out that shared non-interests aren’t a very firm basis for friendship.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing sports. In high school I played rugby and cricket. Rugby is actually quite similar to American football, except that you can’t pass forward and you don’t get to wear body armor. When I left for college, everyone – well it seemed like everyone – told me it would be a time of self-discovery. I joined the rowing club as the coxswain for the women’s boat, and one of the things I found out about myself while at college is that shouting orders at eight athletic women in Lycra is one of the very few things I am willing to get out of bed at 6 a.m. in order to do. My rowing career lasted for a very enjoyable year before I eventually quit, having come to the conclusion that this was catering to an aspect of my character that it was best not to encourage.

The point is that I can enjoy sports as a participant, but I’ve never been able to get anything out of them as a spectator. In his Meditations, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius recalls how he was taught not to take the side of the green or the blue party at the Circus games, nor to favor the heavily or lightly-armored gladiators in the arena. As a Stoic, he was supposed to avoid investing care in things outside of his own control; by not favoring one side over another he could greet any result with equanimity.

In a sports stadium the equanimity that Marcus Aurelius cultivated through self-discipline comes naturally to me (although in my case the Stoic temperament doesn’t seem to have carried over into other areas of my life, as my language anytime I stub my toe will testify). The problem is that it takes the fun out of watching sports if you are not invested in the outcome of the game. That, of course, is the reason why we support a particular team and place bets. It’s also the reason for the various traditions of the stadium – the cheering, the chanting, the rattling of keys – all are ways of turning spectators into participants. For whatever reason I seem to be immune to the effect.

I sometimes hear complaints from professors about the importance attached to football at the University. I can certainly see where they are coming from. When I first arrived here I often got asked what it was like being at a religious university and it was some time before I figured out that the religion being referred to was Catholicism.

Having said that, the professors are not exactly disinterested parties, and you (by “you” here I mean “I”) cannot help wondering if their complaint is not motivated at least in part by the thought that the undergraduates here might be more awed by their professors’ brains if only they were less fixated on the diameter of Brady Quinn’s arms.

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate Notre Dame football even for those of us who find that we cannot appreciate it. It unquestionably helps to foster the spirit of community on campus, and also contributes to the especially close bond between the University and its alumni.

Personally, I admire athletes, and not only because most of them could pick me up by the head with one hand. What I find most impressive is their dedication, their willingness to push themselves day after day after day to run faster and throw better than they – perhaps than anyone – has ever done before.

The ancient Greeks dated their history from the first Olympic Games and stopped wars in order to compete. I think it’s not coincidence that, of all the civilizations of the ancient world, they surpassed all others in their intellectual achievements as well. Physically and mentally, they strove to test the limits of human potential. On the sports field it is the physical prowess of the athlete that impresses us, but the habits that it took to acquire that prowess – the dedication, the discipline, the patience – are not just sporting virtues, they are scholarly ones too.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. In addition to being congenitally incapable of taking an interest in soccer, he also does not drink tea. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.