By Tom Robotham
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about my love of baseball, and it’s on my mind once again as the World Series approaches. Lately, though, I’ve been reflecting on this in a broader context: Why are sports in general so captivating?
I realize, of course, that not everyone cares about them. I know people who have little interest in any sport. From time to time on social media, I even see people using the sarcastic term “sportsball” to indicate pride in their ignorance of baseball, football, basketball and soccer. The implication is that all of these games are indistinguishable and silly. In my experience, though, these naysayers represent a small minority. Most people I know have at least a casual interest in sports. The Super Bowl alone drew an audience of 115 million last January—and while it’s fair to say that some of those folks gathered around televisions as an excuse to party, there was a lot of interest in the game itself.
What interests me, however, are the avid fans—29 percent of Americans, according to Statista.com.
I count myself among them.
I’ll admit that aside from baseball—and the Mets in particular—my interest has ebbed and flowed over the years. But to one degree or another, I’ve always been drawn to sports, both as a spectator and a participant.
My dad was one influence in this regard, as I’ve noted in previous essays, but so were my friends. By the time my buddies and I reached elementary school, sports were part of our daily lives. When we weren’t on the Little League field, or watching games on TV, we could usually be found in the neighborhood schoolyard, playing stickball, handball, or touch football—and by the time we were 12 or so, we added basketball to the mix.
Frankly, I was never very good at any of them. But that didn’t really matter. I was good enough to derive endless enjoyment from these games and occasionally experience the thrill of making a great catch or faking out an opponent in game of one-on-one, then executing a smooth layup.
By the time I got to high school, the athletic gap among my peers was widening. My closest childhood friend joined the football team—and became quite good. For me, that was never a consideration. I had no talent for tackle football. I did, however, join the track team—and while I was middling runner, I received a most-improved trophy after an end-of-season cross-country meet.
In college, I took up recreational tennis and continued to play off and on for 40 years or so. (For the last few years, I’ve shied away from the courts because of various physical ailments, but I hope to pick it up again soon.) There’s something exhilarating about acing a serve, hitting a forehand with authority as the ball connects with the racket’s sweet spot, or lunging for a backhand and just barely clearing the net.
As an undergrad, I also joined the gymnastics team, which was open to anyone with an interest. I had no background in it—and wasn’t dedicated enough to tap my potential—but I found great satisfaction in learning basic skills—a kip-up on the high bar, a dislocate on the still rings, and scissors on the pommel horse, to name a few.
In middle age, I even developed some interest in golf, although I never played enough to hone my game. At the driving range or on the course, I’d hit worm-burners half the time (or whiff, then pretend it was just a warm-up swing), but all it took was a few good drives to make the experience pleasurable.
The only major sport I never played was soccer. Nobody did when I was a kid—not in my neighborhood, at any rate. By the time my kids came along, it seemed that every kid did—so much so that signing my kids up seemed as automatic as enrolling them in school. Little League too—hardball for my son and softball for my daughter—and I have profoundly fond memories of serving as assistant coach on both teams.
Those experiences reinforced my view that giving kids athletic opportunities is invaluable, regardless of their degree of talent. Sports teach kids important lessons about discipline, the rewards of effort, team cooperation, earned pride, putting defeat in perspective, and, most of all, the highs that come from vigorous exercise.
When my kids were growing up, their mom and I played tennis with them as well—something they enjoy doing to this day.
BOTH OF MY KIDS, are also avid Mets fans, which delights me to no end—and underscores one of the key benefits of sports, whether we’re watching or playing. They often serve as bonding experiences. Indeed, a highlight of my summer was attending a Mets game with my son and daughter, but baseball binds us even when we’re apart, as we text about great plays—or grave disappointments—while watching games on TV in our respective cities.
For my part, my interest in following sports besides baseball has broadened in recent years. Take football, for example. At 13, I was an avid Jets fan, as Joe Namath led the team to an unlikely Super Bowl victory. A couple of years later, I also took an interest in the Miami Dolphins, largely because I was in awe of running-back Mercury Morris. For most of my adulthood, by contrast, I’ve had little interest in football. I do appreciate the finer points of the game, though, and lately I’ve been watching it more often.
My renewed interest was spurred in part by the Jets’ acquisition of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. When Rodgers got hurt in game one—then the Jets went on to win without him—I was reminded of the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights. It was as if the game had been scripted in Hollywood, and it drove home another reason we love athletic competitions: the drama—the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, to quote the old TV show Wide World of Sports.
We live vicariously through our favorite players, feeling our own adrenalin rush when they do something spectacular on the field or court and sharing in their disappointment when they fail. The latter feeling sucks—feels as if I’ve failed, somehow. I’m sure people who are indifferent to sports think this sort of passionate involvement is baffling—and perhaps unhealthy—but I know I’m not alone in this regard.
The upside, however, is always far greater than the downside. This year’s Mets have been out of the running virtually since August 1, but I’ve continued to watch as religiously as ever. Right to the end of the regular season, they were still giving it their all, and giving fans countless joyful memories: jaw-dropping plays by shortstop Francisco Lindor and utility man Jeff McNeil, sparkling moments by various newcomers, just up from the minors—and, of course, the explosive power of Pete Alonso.
I was also deeply immersed in this year’s U.S. Open—especially the women’s final, featuring 19-year-old Coco Gauff. To watch her play is to watch excellence personified. In an age in which our culture often seems to celebrate mediocrity, I find myself hungering for examples of excellence. Professional sports offer them in abundance.
There is, however, yet another reason that professional sports are important for both individuals and society as a whole. Over the decades, they have provided role models for the disenfranchised. The achievements of Jackie Robinson cannot be overstated as a contribution to the civil rights movement; nor can those of Arthur Ashe, the Williams sisters or Gauff herself. Likewise, Billie Jean King played an enormous role in the fight for women’s rights—in sports and beyond.
Social activist Marian Wright Edelman once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and this quote underscores the importance of the aforementioned athletes. King and the Williams sisters, among others, helped young women like Gauff believe that they could rise to the same or greater heights.
As a white man, I’ve always had such role models readily at hand—something I used to take for granted, but no more. As I slide into old age, I’m eternally grateful for the inspiration given to me by my sports heroes: Mickey Mantle, Walt Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath and countless others. Indeed, to this day, when I watch Alonso or Lindor, the reality that I’m watching men my son’s age is suspended. For a few moments or a few hours, I am the child cheering them on. In these deeply troubled times, this kind of release is truly invaluable.