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An Ode to Sports
And why society should support them, even if we don't enjoy them.
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Last week, two of the big-four sports organizations culminated their seasons in euphoric fashion. In both contests, members of the Denver Nuggets and Las Vegas Golden Knights were on the playing surface in jovial celebration before the final buzzer could sound. The Nuggets won their first NBA Championship, an achievement 56 years in the making, while the Golden Knights hoisted the NHL Stanley Cup after an exact half-century less of existence. As a franchise just 6 years old, they become the youngest NHL team to ever claim the most iconic trophy in sports.
In America, the Venn Diagram of sports fans and Leftists is two separate circles, as distant as the Sun and Pluto. This is not without reason. Though female sports leagues are growing in popularity, they are still sparse, leaving sports fandom dominated by the machismo culture of rowdy, jersey-clad bros, who have a fondness for inebriation. Leagues themselves are problematic, suppressing the devastating nature of brain injuries (the NHL still conflates concussions with broken fingers, lumping them together as “upper body injuries”), enabling sexual predation (serial rapist Deshaun Watson is onto the second year of his 183 million dollar contract), and thriving off the worst attributes of Capitalism (after years of claiming players who went to the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour were insulting 9/11 families, the PGA decided to sell itself to LIV just last week).
But despite all this, the essence of sport is still beautiful. Strip away the profiteering of billionaires and oppressive monarchies, and what you have is art in motion, driving millions to care for something that is ultimately inconsequential. Sports are frequently characterized in the most dire terms. Coaches, players, and fans alike employ bellicose rhetoric, equating a Sunday afternoon football game to total war. “Some people think football is a matter of life or death,” said renowned Liverpool Coach Bill Shankly. “I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
This, and every other attempt to make us believe athletic contests are worthy of this consequence, are dead wrong. Football, either American or European, is not war. Neither is hockey, basketball, or baseball. (Especially not baseball.) And yet, they allow us, the masses of spectators who will never step foot in the arena, to enjoy the passions, thrills, and emotions that are otherwise only found in such situations. It is preciously because sports allow us to enjoy euphoric camaraderie with a stadium of fifty thousand screaming strangers, each from vastly different lives, briefly united in their dedication, that we should champion their ability.
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Yes, the major American sporting organizations are downright duplicitous and vile. Like every other Capitalist organization, they care only about the bottom line. The NFL blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for speaking out against police injustice, only to scribble #EndRacism in the end zone once it became publicly favorable. UFC fighters are paid a fraction of their worth, all so the wife-beating President Dana White can add another wing to his Las Vegas mansion. Injuries are common, and as we saw from Damar Hamlin’s collapse on last season’s primetime Monday Night Football, sometimes they are life-threatening. (I wrote about the Damar Hamlin situation and the exploitation of NFL players, linked below.)
But all of these drawbacks are not inherent to sports, but by their existence in a Capitalist society. Team doctors drive players to compete while concussed because players are an expensive asset that must have their value recouped. Some young men would rather not risk the CTE associated with unpaid college football, but they play anyway, as the small chance of going pro is their only way out of the century-long exploitation of and underfunding of Black neighborhoods. Like most things it touches, Capitalism corrupts sports, poisoning what should be enjoyable and fulfilling pastimes with ulterior concerns. “Will he be taken care of?” we wonder as an injured linebacker is carted off the field. “Or will the owners cancel his contract, leaving him without medical coverage for life-altering injuries?” The thought lingers in the back of our minds, long after the final whistle.
One day, I hope we can alleviate these cancers with a system that removes the perverse incentive of profit so that the glory of artistic competition can be freely savored by all. Players, who are really just workers with ultra-unique talent, should reap the full value of their labor. Fans should be able to enjoy the thrill of a packed stadium, without having to finance high ticket prices. All these things are possible, but only if we’re willing to strive for a better future.
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What do you think about the role sports should play in our society? Share your thoughts in the comments below.