Why Sports are Important
Making Room for (Performed) Meritocracy in Self-Development
This is an article I’ve been sitting on for months now. On a night I’m struggling to write anything heavy, now’s the perfect time to dig it up.
I used to be REALLY into sports. Not in your typical, play a bunch of sports jock kind of into. I was an active consumer of sports as my favorite form of entertainment. Some of my earliest memories are watching the 2007–2010 Yankees with my father, us seated in the basement of my old childhood home (before I moved in 4th grade), watching them absolutely tear shit up. That team cost more than any in MLB history and was full of my first role models: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez (despite popular consensus I’ve always been a huge A-Rod fan), Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, & Bernie Williams (who made a surprisingly great R&B album after retiring in 2008).
The Yankees were the first team I identified on a personal level — their wins were my wins, their losses were my losses. I’ll never forget jumping for absolute joy when A-Rod hit a game winning home run against the Cleveland Indians and how utterly jubilant I was in that moment. I realize now it was driven more my Dad’s and A-Rod’s happiness in those moments (that year in particular he silenced a lot of critics and won MVP), but my 10 year old brain knew no different. The Yankees were my life. After winning the World Series in 2009, I invented the “high 27”(replacing a high 5 with 5 5s and a 2 tacked on for good measure) and brought it back to my elementary school feeling like a pimp with a shit eating grin. I kept that championship hat and tee shirt for a long time, as well as these cool 3D posters of my favorite players, even long after I stopped caring about baseball.
My baseball obsession lasted until high school, where I was introduced to NYC basketball through my friends from the Bronx and Queens and instantly hooked. The competitiveness, intimacy, teamwork, passion, style, and creativity within constraints the sport allowed for drew me in a visceral and immediate way that nothing else ever has. I moved from the Yankees to Knicks and felt similar highs and lows as they had an amazing season in 2013, reaching the 2nd round of the playoffs, and a bunch of disappointing ones after. I then moved to college and shifted focus to the Hoyas, and now back to the Knicks as I live just a 10 minute walk from Madison Square Garden.
Beyond my serious relationship with the NBA, I also tangentially followed a bunch of other sports in college: baseball, soccer, tennis, football, UFC, college basketball, boxing. My Bleacher Report app was STACKED. I don’t know how I had time to do anything. I was always watching or reading about something. I even wrote for the sports section of Georgetown’s student newspaper and covered the men’s crew, men’s basketball, and women’s field hockey teams for a little while. Every summer, I’d watch as much of the Olympics as I could, from swimming in the Summer to snowboarding in the Winter. I covered just about every sport you could imagine, including more non-traditional ones like bodybuilding and powerlifting.
I seriously thought I wanted to work in sports for a while and was planning a career in sports journalism before I caught the psychology/mental health bug. I even did a 2-season podcast on Georgetown basketball with my best friend at the time. Sports were a big part of my formative life.
Now, I don’t consider myself an athletic person. I get by, but I don’t turn any heads. Nor have I ever considered myself an athlete. I ran in middle school and freshman year, then quit because running competitively sucks. As much as I even loved basketball, I started playing relatively late in life and never committed enough to it in high school to get as good as I wanted to. I’m slowly getting there now (not to flex but I led my men’s league in scoring 😤) but have never derived my self-worth from my ability to perform well at a sport.
One thing I am is maniacally competitive. I find life boring if I don’t have a reference point to challenge, whether it’s internal or external, and sports provided me with the easiest framework for self-improvement I could find. They’re very thematic if you think about it.
The Sports School of Life
1) Put yourself out there and face the world
2) Get your ass kicked
3) Pick yourself back up
4) Work harder than the day before to get better
5) Rinse & repeat
The discipline and work ethic that sports breeds is unmatched, not to mention the humility and quiet confidence & strength that comes from repeated exposure to failure and forcibly working through the self-doubt that accompanies it. Raised in a family where I’m the only one who is remotely athletically inclined and follows or plays a single sport has made me appreciate just how important it is as a canvas for all the traits I mentioned above. I keep basketball around in my life for that reason. My building has a court and I try to play at least once a week there. Every time I do it makes me wish I had more of it in my life when I was younger.
Despite not considering myself an athlete, I’ve always related best to them. My closest platonic, work, and romantic relationships have been with people I met through playing sports or former serious high school/college athletes. Because I’m so competitive (and truthfully a bossy asshole) when playing basketball, most of the time we stop playing after a few games, but the point stands. Even as I’ve become older and my attachment to sports has waned, I still look for interest and involvement in a sport as a green flag in anyone I meet.
Although I haven’t had the same level of formative experiences a professional or even college athlete has had (in another life I’m an NBA player), my experience as spectator, consumer, writer, and player of sports has given me a unique perspective on them from multiple angles.
Sports as a form of entertainment is interesting— one on hand, I believe it provides inspiration so personal and real at a scale that no other content can do. I’ve always thought of athletes as the closest thing we have to real-life superheroes, both in stature and willpower. Especially for young kids, there’s something incredibly powerful about seeing another human person, not a cartoon, not a movie character, not even a musician, go head to head with other human people to test their best. Athletes can provide the role models that we may not have in our parents, teachers, or leaders.
On the other hand, sports make it easier for fans to vicariously live through an experience than any other form of entertainment. Entire industries have been built around passive consumption of sports, from advertising during games to team merch to betting. We even have FANTASY sports that are as popular than the sport themselves. I didn’t even include that in my college list of fandom, but I took fantasy football wayy too seriously in high school despite hating football. I look back on my “High 27” with a bit of disdain now at the fact that I was so attached to the Yankees that walked around my elementary school lunchroom like I actually did something, like I should be proud because I made the right choice. And that’s not even mentioning the utter ruin they can cause when you become too attached to a team and they lose. Talk about a ruined day. I always tell people my first (and hopefully only) toxic relationship was with the Georgetown Hoyas during my 4 years.
With COVID putting a pause on sports for months, the world got a chance to re-assess the relationship we want to have with them. Not only did we have time to break the habit, but athletes were humanized in a way unlike ever before and used their platforms to start talking more. Some chose to focused on calls for social justice and political elections while others chose to highlight their personal stances against vaccines. Regardless, for a moment, the illusion was broken. How would we react?
Results are mixed. NBA ratings are down significantly from pre-COVID levels, with the 2021 finals having 34 percent fewer viewers than 2019’s (a historically uneventful one), yet football is now the most watched content on television, with current ratings eclipsing 2019’s by 10 percent. In either case, in a world where nearly every other form of entertainment short of Netflix is no where near where it was before the pandemic, sports have proven to have the grit necessary to stem the tide. Which makes sense given what they stand for.
I guess after all they really do practice what they teach.