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I got into sports, and you should too 

| Friday, April 9, 2021

A little more than a year ago, I decided to become a ‘sports guy.’ Not in the sense of participating — that’s a whole different ball game. I decided to be someone who watched sports, knew what was going on and could talk about it afterward.

I wasn’t totally ignorant of sports before. I played three sports a year growing up, as did my older siblings. My family watched frequently, rooting for the Yankees in the MLB and split between New York/New Jersey teams for the other major leagues. I’ve lived around conversations about sports for most of my life. When I was looking at colleges, I wanted to find a place where school spirit was manifested in athletic competition — and I obviously ended up choosing such a university. 

I had never been really invested in the whole enterprise, though. I watched the Super Bowl every year, but I rarely knew who would be playing before the day of the game. I played sports, but I was more comfortable in school, or extracurriculars like Boy Scouts or the band. I went to every Notre Dame home football game, as well as a bunch of hockey and basketball games; I learned a lot about how those games were played, since I had been a soccer player, baseball player and wrestler in my years of sports. But as of late 2019, I couldn’t tell you what a cornerback did, who played third base for the Yankees or name more than two or three current basketball players. My lack of interest definitely was related to, though not entirely because of, my being gay and out of shape. I never had the skills to excel in sports, and I never truly felt at home in that area of life.

I can’t quite put my finger on what spurred me to invest my time in sports-watching and “rededicate” myself to my favorite teams. It was absolutely a conscious decision: My friends and family rolled their eyes when I first publicly announced the move, and by now are quite tired of my discussing it. I definitely wanted to be more involved in sports conversations with straight men, a group that comprises most of my close friends. I’ve always been a fan of a friendly argument, and especially of winning them, which is probably clear from my major and the fact that I write a column for The Observer. I had known enough about sports to enter into arguments about them, but not enough to ever actually take a correct position; I very much wanted that to change. I enjoy thinking about complex ideas and learning about new areas, but I was looking for some area that I didn’t believe I was obligated to learn about, so there would be no pressure to learn at any particular pace or to any particular level. 

That last point was one I certainly could not have articulated a year ago, but it has proven to be the most rewarding aspect of my experience. In a year of worrying about a global pandemic, increasingly conspicuous political violence and economic despair, it was a welcome relief to think about the disastrous season of the New York Jets, hockey’s distinction between a ‘point’ and a ‘goal,’ and the never-ending debate over the top five most attractive quarterbacks in the NFL. (Two quick side notes: One, for those attracted to men, professional sports provide a wonderful supply of eye candy, and two, my straight guy friends have gotten quite a kick out of this aspect of my sports fandom.) It’s been great to spend time thinking about things that aren’t so consequential, to be able to really enjoy an activity without concern for its larger implications. 

Which isn’t to say, of course, that sports are apolitical, that they lack social influence, or that they don’t have profound impacts on both their participants and their fans. I’m a proponent of the idea that nothing is really apolitical, that every human interaction and activity has an impact on the functioning of the community, society and state. Sports, however, are not meant to function as a means of social reform or the implementation of justice. Those ideas impact how sports operate, and to some extent vice versa, but sports are meant to be enjoyed for the competitive spirit they instill. In my opinion, that sort of competitive spirit too often manifests itself in areas such as politics these days, where we shouldn’t be rooting for particular teams or individuals, but instead for the good of the country. Certain areas in life are meant to enact justice, others are meant to be competitive and fun. They always influence each other, while remaining fundamentally oriented towards different ends. 

I always thought the problem between me and sports was a problem with sports: It was too toxically masculine, too exclusive of LGBTQ folk, too focused on the kind of athletic success I didn’t value, too racially problematic. I wasn’t entirely wrong — those are all problems that major leagues and other athletic institutions need to address, especially the last. But I wasn’t entirely right either. The athletic arena has more to offer to the uninterested than I had realized: Communities that are largely but not exclusively tied to geography, an easy topic of conversation to bring up with both strangers and friends, intellectually stimulating subject matter, and an outlet for competitiveness without social discord. If you’re not into sports, and never gave it much of a try, I recommend you go for it. If it isn’t for you, that’s fine! But you might find it more fun and rewarding than you would have thought. I certainly have.

 

Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in philosophy, with a minor in constitutional studies. He currently lives off campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

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

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