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Karnes: Why We Truly Love Sports (Sept. 20)

By Casey Karnes | Friday, September 20, 2013


When you were watching a football game last weekend, chances are you saw a play that made you stand up and say “Wow.” For you, it might have been a touchdown catch or leaping interception, but for me it was a run by Giants second year running back David Wilson against the Denver Broncos.

As soon as Wilson received the handoff, defenders swamped him, forcing him to spin back to his left. This was no ordinary spin, as Wilson did the limbo with the defenders, contorting himself so that his spine and helmet were parallel to the ground. He somehow managed to keep his balance by getting one hand on the ground during his Cirque-du-Soleil spin, recovering only to find three Broncos defenders rushing at him with no protection. In his race to the sideline, Wilson managed to bounce off two would-be tacklers before finally being tugged down by the desperate third defender. 

What did this amazing run earn Wilson? Only a measly two yards, but also respect from me and all of the others he transfixed with his acrobatics.

Athleticism transcends sports. Do we watch football, baseball and basketball because we want our team to win? Yes. But there’s a reason we watch the Bulls and not the local YMCA team. We want to see people accomplish things that we could only dream of doing.

We love sports for the same reason we love movies and video games: They’re an escape from reality. They challenge the limits of our world. Athletes like Jadeveon Clowney and LeBron James are our generation’s Greek myths, god-like specimens capable of Herculean feats that elevate them above their fellow men.

We immortalize athletes with bronze statues and the written word, passing on their legends through oral tradition. Every little boy in Chicago has been told of the “glory days of Jordan,” and in 10 years every boy will hear about Derrick Rose, either about his accomplishments or the potential and athleticism he wasted.

Players as special and uniquely talented as Rose are remembered because even if they achieve nothing, they still engross us with what they could have been. Athletes like Michael Vick and Blake Griffin have won zero championships in their careers, but they rack up millions of views on YouTube for their highlights and garner an inordinate amount of attention compared to their peers. They stand out because you never know when that next “OMG” play will come, that moment where physics mean nothing and the world seems to bend to their will. 

Today’s athletes are so spectacular that we can’t help but imagine them competing in more than just their own sport. LeBron flying to catch an alley-oop makes us wonder how he’d look leaping to catch a pass from Tom Brady, and Usain Bolt burning up the track teases us about what could happen if he had a ball in his hands. Other than Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson, there isn’t a great track record of crossover stars, but that doesn’t stop fans from projecting their favorite football player’s stats if he had played baseball instead. When an athlete is as exceptional as LeBron, it’s impossible to look away regardless of what he or she is doing.

Athleticism isn’t the only thing that attracts us to sports, as team loyalty, love of competition and a desire to watch a fundamentally sound game all play a huge part as well. Sports like track and field or swimming, however, fail to gain the same following as sports like the NFL because they lack the potential for athletic improvisation. I could never swim as fast as Michael Phelps, but swimming in a straight line is something I could do anytime I want. 

When we watch athletes play we imagine ourselves in their shoes. Who hasn’t yelled “Kobe” while launching a fadeaway 3-pointer as an imaginary buzzer echoes in the background, or lowered the rim to eight feet in order to dunk on your friends like the stars do for real?

It’s this special athleticism that enraptures fans because at its core, fandom is envy. Comic fans dream of flying like Superman, movie fans of living as dangerously as James Bond and sports fans dream that one day it’ll be them leaping from the free throw line, sticking their tongue in the air and jamming it like Mike.

Contact Casey Karnes at wkarnes@nd.edu.
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.