Saturday, 6 June 2015

Sports: Why Bother?

New post! Yay! And it's not even directly anime related! See, I can think about other things. Sometimes. This is actually the first post in quite a while that I'm writing kind of on the spur of the moment, without some sort of outline prepared in advance. The goal is to write, edit, and publish the whole thing all today, so we'll see how that goes. I'll try not to ramble too much, but as per usual, I make no promises.

As the NBC announcers have been reminding me for several weeks now, it's championship season in many sports. In tennis, the French Open is wrapping up this weekend. In horse racing, today is the Belmont Stakes, and we had our first Triple Crown in 37 years! Both the NHL and NBA playoff finals are swinging into gear. A little over a month ago, Mayweather and Pacquiao had their big fight. In soccer (football), the English Premier League just ended, the Champions League final was today (congratulations Barcelona), and the FIFA Women's World Cup started today as well (in Canada, and we won our first game!). Looking beyond championships, MLB, MLS, MLL, and NASCAR are all running too. There's a lot of others too, but way too many for me to keep track of. Heck, it almost seems like American football is the only sport out of season right now. With all these sports competing for viewers, it begs the question: who cares? Actually, let me rephrase that. Obviously there are a lot of people who care. Odds are that everyone who will read this cares. The real question is: why do we care?

Now, you may be wondering "why do you care why we care?" Honestly, it's because I care too. Which is really strange. If you had talked with me last year, I would have told you that I have no interest in sports and then passive aggressively tried to change the topic of conversation (as I am prone to doing). Well, most of the time anyways. There were a few sports I would have put up with conversations about, but I wouldn't have felt any emotional investment in the conversation (unless it was about the Winter Olympics). But suddenly, sometime this year, I started to care. I've started to watch sports and enjoy them, and I want to know why. It just doesn't sound like a very me thing to do.

So let's start by briefly tracing my history with sports. As I try to remind people whenever I can, I grew up in Canada. Not all Canadian stereotypes are true, but the national love of hockey is. I watched Hockey Night in Canada most Saturday nights until it was my bedtime, and when I was old enough, I joined the local minor hockey program. I can't remember the ages that I played from, but I played for several years. I think I quit sometime in Peewee (under 13), because I couldn't take the pressure from the coaches. They cared too much, and it was becoming unpleasant. I then joined the local curling club, and played on the high school team all four years. I was interested in the sport, but I regret to say that I never really committed to it, so I never got very good. I enjoyed it much more than my experience with league hockey though. Since high school, I have never again played in any sports league, and I've barely ever played pick-up sports. I've been very inactive.

With a sports history that filled with apathy, it's pretty clear that playing sports isn't what made me care. So what's changed since then? I think there are two main components to that answer. The first is what made me start to take an interest in sports in general and is probably the biggest reason that anyone ever likes sports, and the second is what has expanded my sports of interest and is more related to me (though by no means unique to me).

It may be a kind of corny answer, but I honestly think the reason that I've started to care about sports, and the main reason that people care about sports at all is community. They allow people to relate to each other and bond. They create a common point of interest that people can use to build on and get closer together. American football has never been a sport that I've been very into, but I've been to plenty of Grey Cup and Super Bowl parties over the years, and tagging along with my parents to their small group's party was always something that I looked forward to growing up (side note: the Grey Cup is the CFL's trophy, and is more than twice as old as the Super Bowl). No one goes to a Super Bowl party for the sole purpose of watching the game, and to be perfectly honest, most people don't watch for the ads either. People go to be together with other, similar people. Everyone is gathered around this singular event, and they all know that. It doesn't matter which team they're cheering for, they have something to talk about with everyone else there.

The need for connection and community is one of the most fundamental parts of the human experience. Everyone has a deep-seated desire to be acknowledged and needed by others, and I believe that sports culture is one of the ways that has evolved in order to help fill this need. Of course, just bumping into a stranger wearing your favourite team's logo in the checkout line at the grocery store and sharing a quick conversation about how you really hope that they can make the playoffs this year is a very surface level connection. It won't satisfy the deep yearning that we have, but it can be a great starting point. Common interests are perfect for establishing a base connection that can be built on over time. Naturally, conversations must move past sports alone in order to build these deeper connections, but that's something done over time. And if you're not looking to create one of these deeper connections, it's still a lot of fun to have surface level conversations about things you like with other people.

Now, what does any of that have to do with me liking sports now? Well, this has been my loneliest year on record, by which I mean I have had the least contact with other people (and especially with people I'm close with), not that I would describe myself as lonely. To be fair, it's a situation entirely of my own making. I once again moved to a town where I know no one, just like when I started undergrad, only this time I'm not living in a dorm or on campus. I'm living in an apartment complex off campus, and I don't even have a roommate. I've enjoyed it, for sure, but there are distinct advantages to both living situations. Regardless, I wanted a way to stay connected with people, and I think that I unconsciously chose a newfound interest in sports as one way. I follow hockey and curling so I can stay connected to my Canadian roots. I check the NBA scores so I can join a conversation with the people at church (they're all Spurs fans), and the Premier League scores so I can join a conversation with the international students at school. And, whenever possible, I always root for the Canadian teams and players.

Now, that's a pretty... thoughtful reason for why someone would like sports. I'm sure that most people wouldn't identify that as their primary reason, and they would probably be right. It's great for an unconscious reason, but what are some reasons that people would give without having to psychoanalyze themselves? I guess an easy reason would be that they used to play the sport themselves, so they have an emotional investment in it already. I'm sure that I wouldn't follow curling at all if I hadn't played it myself. After all, it's such an odd and kind of boring sport for the uninitiated. Likewise, there are people who were the star quarterback or kicker in high school, and watching an American football game hits all their nostalgia buttons. Or they got injured and their career was cut short, so they're playing vicariously through the players on the screen. Or they have some sort of connection with one of the players, so they're watching to cheer them on. That's why my town cheered for the LA Kings last year. Or they just enjoy seeing very talented people do what they're best at. Personally, I often find myself in awe of the athletes on the screen.

So, there you go. There's part one: some reasons why I and others might have started to care about sports. But what about why the number of sports that I care about has grown? Obviously, some of that could be attributed to the points I just went over (for example, I like baseball more now because I've been to some games with friends and realized how fun it is to be there together with people, though it's no fun on TV). But what I'm most concerned with is why I'll suddenly put up with watching a basketball game. Historically, if you were to ask me my two least favourite sports, I would say baseball and basketball. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe because I was bad at them, or because I didn't understand them very well, or because they're so inexplicably popular. Probably all of the above, really. So why don't I hate basketball anymore? To answer that, let's start with volleyball.

Volleyball is a sport that I didn't care much for in high school, but got dragged to a few of our school's games anyways. I would describe myself as ambivalent about the whole matter. I saw some matches during the 2012 Olympics, but wasn't interested. Beach volleyball, with its 2-man teams intrigued me, but I couldn't bring myself to care about the 5-man team version. And then, earlier this year, I watched an anime. Yes, sorry, this is where anime comes in, though it could just have easily been something like Remember the Titans. The show was called Haikyuu!! and the theme song was done by one of my favourite bands, so I gave it a shot. It's a fairly typical sports anime about a high school volleyball team, though I of course didn't know what a typical sports anime was like when I started. It basically just means that it follows the team as they get better and compete in various tournaments. Because most sports anime seem to follow this same formula, a show needs two things to stand out from the rest: interesting characters, and interesting games. This is important.

When a show has interesting characters, you become invested in them, and you want to see how they do. You want to keep watching, and follow their journey. Really, good sports shows aren't about the sport; they're about the characters, and they use the sport as a vehicle to have the characters grow and interact. But because they're using the sport, they need to explain the sport, and that's key. They need to explain the rules so that when a basketball player gets 4 fouls, the audience knows to feel tense. They need to explain the goal  and scoring so that when a tennis player has break point when down 6-5 in the set, the audience knows to get excited. In order for the drama of the series to work, the game being played must be taught. And from the audience's perspective, in order to follow these characters and receive the reward of watching them grow, the game being played must be understood. It's sort of like reenforcement training, or gamification. Someone can learn something they otherwise wouldn't care to by being rewarded, giving them motivation to carry on.

Back to my story: after watching Haikyuu!!, I realized that I suddenly had an interest in volleyball, and I decided to see if this motivation training could work for one of my most disliked sports: basketball. So, I made the conscious choice to watch Kuroko's Basketball, the biggest name in current sports anime. And it worked. I understand the rules of basketball a lot better now, and I don't actually mind watching the sport anymore. Of course, I don't understand everything perfectly; the show's goal isn't to teach the rules of the sport, that's just a side effect. A very useful side effect. And like I said above, it's not an anime exclusive phenomenon either. You could do just as well with American shows, though it may be harder to find relevant shows. I can't say that I've heard of too many that fit the bill. And if it works for sports, it should theoretically work for anything. If you have something that you want to teach people, write an interesting story around it. Give your audience a reason to want to learn it. Educational media doesn't have to be boring.

Let's throw a final question in here at the end: why am I more interested in the smaller, less popular sports than the big name ones (minus hockey)? I find myself drawn to the odd sports, like tennis, or curling, or lacrosse. What's with that? I'm pretty sure that I don't know anyone who watches lacrosse, or even anyone who has ever played it. I don't think that I'm a sports hipster, so let's go ahead and rule that one out. No, I think the reason is that the small sports allow me to dream. The barrier of entry into the NFL or NHL is so high, with years of work, followed by the draft, followed by more years of work before being on the team for real... It's clearly difficult. But with curling, you just have to win a few specific tournaments with your team, and then you get to represent your country in the Olympics. Heck, Canada is probably the most difficult country to play curling in, in terms of high skill levels, so it's probably even easier in other countries that care less. Of course, these smaller sports don't support their players full time. They just don't have the money for that. But that just makes it easier to dream. I can think "wow, these people just play in their spare time, and they get to compete for their country at the Olympics!" or whatever competition they're in. "If they can do it in their spare time, so could I!"

There's no way that it's actually that simple, naturally. They put in long hours, and practice for years. They don't have spare time, because their spare time is practice time. And they have to do all of that exhausting practice on top of their already tiring jobs, and taking care of their families if they have them, and all of their other commitments. It probably costs them money to live that life. It's a level of dedication that, if I stop to think about it, I don't think that I could reach. But who says that I have to stop to think about it? When I'm watching their games; in those moments I can dream. Plus, I suppose it does make me feel a little special to care about something that not many others do. Kind of a lame reason though.

Well, I hope that I didn't ramble too much. I just wanted to try to organize my newfound thoughts on sports, and sort out my surprise at this change in myself. I think I feel a little better now, so that's good enough for now.

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