Mazurek: Not everything can be a sport
Marek Mazurek | Tuesday, April 14, 2015
There are many debates in the sports world today, including those about performance enhancing drugs, salary caps, shot clocks and so on. However, one debate that is not given much attention is the most fundamental to the sports world: What is a sport?
Merriam-Webster defines a sport as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other.” But do we as a sports culture subscribe to this definition? Basketball and football would definitely be sports by this definition, but what about more obscure activities like synchronized swimming or stock-car racing?
For instance, does moving the steering wheel and pushing the gas pedal in a NASCAR race constitute enough “physical activity” to count as a sport in the Merriam-Webster definition? Do synchronized swimmers truly compete against each other when they perform different routines and are judged subjectively?
My goal here is not to belittle NASCAR or synchronized swimming, both of which require incredible amounts of talent and commitment, but to illustrate the point that any dictionary definition of a sport is too broad. Instead, I move that we define a sport as this: A competitive activity, that uses primarily human effort, in which the winner is determined through head-to-head competition or absolute and objective scores.
My definition is notably more restrictive of what is considered a sport. NASCAR and equestrian events would not qualify because they does not use “primarily human effort” and neither would synchronized swimming because it is based on subjective scoring. The subjective scoring aspect of my definition also excludes more popular activities like ice skating, gymnastics and snowboarding.
Humans as judges and referees are inherently flawed, as is evident by the numerous blown calls in the NCAA tournament, and to base a sport on such subjectivity is thus also flawed. For example, if ice skater A is better at executing jumps than ice skater B, but skater B is more graceful in the dance aspects of the routine, who is truly better? Unless the skaters perform the same routine it is impossible to tell. Sports require a concrete system of determining value or points and that is why I do not consider ice skating and other subjectively-scored activities to be a sports.
By this, I am not arguing that all sports should be played the same way. For instance football teams can choose to focus more on running the ball rather than passing or vice versa, but the number of points scored is constant no matter how a team scored.
Another factor that should be considering when defining a sport is our popular consciousness. I am a big believer that perception forms reality and when applied to this question. This means if the majority of people think something is a sport then it is a sport by virtue of perception. This doesn’t change much for more popular sports like football or baseball which are strongly rooted in our cultural history, but it does have ramifications for lesser known sports.
I turn again to synchronized swimming to show this point. In 1984, Saturday Night Live performed a skit spoofing synchronized swimming for being feminine, which featured comedians Harry Shearer and Martin Short. I did not write off synchronized swimming because Martin Short made fun of it, but situations like this debase the value of synchronize swimming in the eyes of the public, making it and other less popular activities less likely to be given the label of being a “sport.”
In an environment where some athletes are being paid millions of dollars, what is and is not a sport matters. Changes in the popularity of a sport can affect thousands of people and generate or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales and TV deals. This is why we, as a sports culture, must be careful and thoughtful about what is and is not a sport.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.