Sorting Out Sports

By Rob Patterson

In a recent column I mused on those that unlike me eschew television. My TV viewing now leads me to ponder those who dislike and even condemn competitive sports.

Doing so is like shooting fish in a barrel, as some very popular sports — boxing, football and hockey — have violent elements and can be damaging and injurious to the health and wellbeing of participants. Auto racing by its emissions alone is an environmental abomination, much less the hazards of a crash.

Sports can kill, for starters.

I don’t think it’s disingenuous of me to respond by saying, well, life can be violent and damaging.

Any true progressive longs for and hopefully works towards a more peaceful and safer world.

Yet the disdain for sports I sometimes have heard from leftists can feel as toxic as what they decry in sports.

I’m no jock. As a kid I was not just the last kid picked but the unwanted in neighborhood baseball games (I was never nurtured in the skills). Hurt like hell, but as an adult I like baseball and love to read and watch films about it.

Sports I enjoy and have skills in are more individual: swimming, cycling, horseback riding, sailing. I’ve had times in my life when I’ve run and played volleyball and racquetball for recreation. But I’m still more cerebral than athletic.

But the longer I live the more I have come to appreciate the value of sports as an element in our culture, even the sometimes violent ones with aspects that make any person who places high value on human safety and shared respect and holds pacifism as an ideal uneasy. My progression is anything but the specious quote often and wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill that a young man not liberal is heartless and an old one conservative a fool. Quite the opposite: Appreciating sports more comes from being more truly liberal.

My TV viewing has had its effect on this. I just watched an HBO documentary in which ABC TV Wide World of Sports announcer Jim McKay reflected on his life and career (My World in My Words from 2003). His view on sports and its media coverage reminded me about the very human and inspiring elements within them. Recent fare like the hockey documentary Broad Street Bullies and based on an exaggerated true story football feature Invincible both show how sports teams can help the spirit of a suffering city, in this case Philadelphia in the 1970s.

Intense rivalries can also forge brotherly bonds as shown in the docs McEnroe and Borg: Fire & Ice and Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals. I may find golf a yawn and its skills eluded me the few times I tried it. But the documentary Back Nine at Cherry Hills about Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer’s lives and convergence in the 1960 US Open was compelling indeed.

And rarely if ever has the case been made for the benefits of football as well as how powerfully network TV can show real life via fiction than the series Friday Night Lights. I must give sports some share of blame in how current party politics in America between Democrats and Republicans often feels at election times like fierce rival teams displaying the worst winner take all mentality.

But in the end it’s humans who are responsible for that, not sports.

The intense dislike of sports I sometimes encounter on the left, alas, feels all too much like the ideological rigidity that makes America’s right wing so dangerous. There are aspects of sports to dislike, decry, even work against.

But from too many who call themselves liberal I have heard such illiberal statements as “I hate sports” and “I hate Republicans.”

Such sentiments in addition to betraying the merits of having a liberal and open mind are also part of what holds the American left back from bringing more of the nation into our fold.

Appreciating sports in and of itself as well as a form and subject of entertainment is American democracy in effective action. It does not mean a tacit assent for its elements one might find objectionable. Plus it opens a wide range of stories within and lessons to be learned from the human condition and existence.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2011

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