Reader Request Week 2020 #5: Me and Sports

A “Hilketa” player, ready to bash another player. Art by Tim Paul.

Go, team! Kevin Sims asks:

What are your views on professional and amateur sports? Do you have a favorite sport/team? You’ve created a fictitious sport in the Locked-In universe and one of the characters from those books was a legendary basketball player, but I’ve never read a blog or a tweet from you about sports in general.

Here’s a fun fact: In the late 90s/early 00s, I wrote several weekly newsletters for AOL, which they used as member retention tools, i.e. reasons for people to stay subscribed to the service when by that time one could just go out on the Internet. One of the newsletters I wrote was on sports, in which I, in the guise of a sports fan named “Bucky Blast,” would opine of the sports news of the day and solicit reader comment for the newsgroup forum.

It was, far and away, the most popular of the newsletters I wrote, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and the feedback I would get from them was that they really appreciated how knowledgeable and passionate “Bucky” was about sports. And truth to tell, it was also my favorite of the newsletters to write — it was fun, and it was nice to write something that a lot of people enjoyed and engaged with on a regular basis. I was sad to stop writing it when AOL eventually quit the newsletter business — or at least, quit wanting to pay me for them.

People who knew me were surprised both that I was writing a sports newsletter and that I enjoyed it, because, like Kevin here, as far as they knew I had never expressed much particular interest in sports, either as a fan or as an athlete. Likewise, Krissy is occasionally dumbfounded when at family gatherings or the company functions she brings me to as a spouse, I can fluently speak sports to cousins and coworkers even though she never ever sees me evince even the slightest interest in the activity at all.

So what gives?

Simply: I’m not actually a fan of sports — which is, I don’t passionately care about a particular sport or team, or the world of sports in general — but I find the phenomena of sports fascinating: How it functions in our society, how people respond to its structure and celebrities, and how we talk about it — and also, the conditions of excellence it requires, and the commitment one has to undertake to achieve that excellence. It’s an active part of the human condition and how could one (at least, the one that is me) not be interested in that?

Also, and I think this is important, I never really subscribed to the nerd/jock division that was prevalent in the culture when I was growing up, and still exists to a greater or lesser extent. I played sports in high school — I ran track and cross country and played soccer — and I went to a small enough high school that nearly everyone played sports of one sort or another. And so a lot of our nerds were jocks, and a lot of our jocks also did theater and so on. Then I went to the University of Chicago, where everyone was a nerd, even the jocks, and we were Division III in any event, i.e., the NCAA division where college sports were an affectation, not a revenue generator. All this was and is useful because it means I don’t have any deep-seated resentment of sports or the people who love them passionately. They’re not my tribe, but they’re not my enemy, either.

Anecdotally, that seems to be more often the case these days. It’s not a new or particularly interesting statement to make that there’s not all that much of a difference between sports fans and “nerd” fans. One wears their favorite team jerseys while the other wears t-shirts with their favorite media characters; one cosplays and the other paints themselves up in team colors; and so on. This is even more the case with the immense commercial rise of nerds in the last two decades: San Diego Comic Con and DragonCon (and all the other immense media conventions) fill up hotels and restaurants as effectively as a Super Bowl and have just as many celebrities showing up to be part of the proceedings, albeit different celebrities. And in these COVID times, both groups are feeling the same uncertainty of wondering when, if ever, they are going to gather again in their tens of thousands to celebrate their thing. The similarities are enough that to also note that there is these days a non-trivial overlap between sports fans and nerds — that people are entirely comfortable expressing their love for both the Cubs and Firefly — seems anticlimactic.

(And even more anticlimactic when you factor in the rise of eSports, which these days is the only sports anyone is getting at the moment! But that’s a subject that would require its own whole piece.)

Here’s another thing which I think contributes to my knowledge and interest in sports: As a journalist, I found sports writing consistently some of the best and most interesting journalism out there — some of the most readable, in fact, so I enjoyed reading it. Sports journalists were allowed to write with style and sarcasm and sentimentality that journalists reporting on news and politics were usually not allowed, for various reasons. Like entertainment reporting, where I worked, sports journalism was more “feature-y” on a regular basis, which allowed the writers to get away with more. It’s fun to write and fun to read. So I would — and do! — read a lot of it. And when you read a lot about anything, you tend to pick up a knowledge base about it.

Add this all up and it means that I have an interest in, and knowledge of, sports, even if at the end of the day it’s not “my thing.” It’s not! But it’s cool if it’s your thing, so long as you’re not a dick about it to others. Please note that “Enjoy your thing, but don’t be a dick about it” is a general mantra, not one relating directly to sports fans.

Now as relates to me directly: I don’t really have favorite sports teams, excepting some vague residual affection for the Dodgers, Lakers and Kings because they were the local teams when I was growing up. I don’t watch sports on TV although I enjoy going to live sports events with friends, because, you know, friends. I think Division I college football and basketball are a racket, but living in Ohio I’m also aware the entire state’s mood is affected by how well Ohio State’s teams are doing, which I find fascinating. I have affection for minor leagues and weird sports and will sometimes buy jerseys from minor league teams/sports with amusing names.

I play in a fantasy football league every year with friends and let the computer pick my team, a fact which everyone else in the league knows, so when my team beats theirs (occasionally) or wins the season (much rarer, but has happened) it annoys the fuck out of them, because they all made an effort. I like the sports movies of Ron Shelton, particularly Bull Durham, which I think is probably the best movie about baseball ever made. If I had to pick two sports to watch for the rest of eternity, I would probably pick curling and Australian Rules Football, the former because it’s a ridiculous sport right down to its pants, and the latter because I have absolutely no understanding of how it’s played even after looking up the rules. It just looks like dudes in togs running around with a ball, and honestly, that level of complete chaos appeals to me.

Finally: Hilketa, which is the sport I created in Head On, was an immense amount of fun to create and put together and I would absolutely love to make a video game or table top game based on it, I think it would be absolutely huge — the perfect eSport, in fact. Game makers, talk to my people about it.

I think that covers me and sports! Bucky Blast, heading to the showers.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

33 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2020 #5: Me and Sports”

  1. As a nerd with a more hostile view of sports, let me make clear that it’s not the sports fans who are being dicks about it. It’s society at large.
    I have lots of friends with deep passionate interests in things that don’t interest me at all, like gardening or knitting or sports, and occasionally they burble on too long about it, but that’s OK, we’re all human and we get overenthusiastic.
    But sports is the only recreational activity where there’s a societal expectation that everybody is interested in and knowledgeable about it, and that there’s something weird about you if you aren’t. That’s what I resent.

  2. Aussie Rules is hella fun to play! It was my high-school fencing team’s alternate sport, for days when both coach and fencers were tired of swords.

    Furthermore, it has the best “points scored” gestures by the referees, bar none.

  3. The reason you (and I) like Curling is that it’s the only Olympic sport that in which middle-aged white guys regularly get medals. :)

  4. For years I got by being a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. I could walk into any football discussion. After being mocked a bit for liking a losing team I got respect for being a “true fan”. The whole conversation I could just keep saying, “Next year is going to be their year.” Soon whomever I was talking to would start telling me the ways that next year could be their year. People I met one time would see me years later and shout, “Tampa Bay!”. It all worked perfectly until they went and got good and had actual fans and I was actually supposed to know things about the team.

  5. Not really a sports fan but, like you, try to pay a certain amount of attention to the sports world.

    Married to a Canadian, curling is the family sport of choice. Besides, what other sport mikes all the players? At the amateur level, the winners buy a round for their opponents (every club has a lounge/bar) and the prize is often a good bottle. Like golf, you can play well into your senior years. Search out a little known movie “Men with Brooms” for good laugh.

    I recently discovered Rugby 7. The perfect sport for those with short attention spans. Full size pitch, seven players a side, two seven minute halves and lots of scoring and non stop action. Simple rules, tackle the ball carrier, everyone pile on until he lets go.

    Finally, “Bull Durham” may be the best sports movie of all time.

  6. Even if there are sports this summer, almost no chance the Dayton Dragons will play, and I am going to miss them. I only go to a couple of games a year, but it’s a good time.

    Professional basketball is my passion, WNBA and NBA, and as an Ohio resident but who moved here from elsewhere, I share your sentiments on college sports and Ohio State in particular

  7. Jon, I also love both curling an Aussie Rules Football. I had the privilege of having a group of Melbourners explain the rules to me at a game (live) a few years back. Just forget the rules. It’s really just a keep-away where you want to kick the ball through the posts (preferably the middle ones).

    Also, whilst in Melbourne, I adopted the Gelong Cats as my favorite team, a decision which earned me endless teasing from both my Fitzroy friends and from the Australian TSA-equivalent on my way home. :)

  8. If I had to pick two sports to watch for the rest of eternity, I would probably pick curling and Australian Rules Football, the former because it’s a ridiculous sport right down to its pants, and the latter because I have absolutely no understanding of how it’s played even after looking up the rules. It just looks like dudes in togs running around with a ball, and honestly, that level of complete chaos appeals to me.

    These are good choices. Curling is the most soothing sport to watch. It’s the Bob Ross of sports. My cousin from Perth described Australian Rules Football as “cross-country wrestling.” I can get behind that.

    …but living in Ohio I’m also aware the entire state’s mood is affected by how well Ohio State’s teams are doing, which I find fascinating.

    I found the same to be true while living in Wisconsin. I started watching the Packers games to predict how the Milwaukee traffic would be on Monday.

    My favorite sports are the ones with the most international appeal. Both the Winter and Summer Olympics are my first loves. I discovered soccer/football as an adult and follow the English Premier League. The fun part Formula 1 is that the races are in different countries, even though the results are predictable.

  9. I’m interested in sports insofar as they keep the riff raff busy on Sundays.

  10. Sports, like ‘nerd’ entertainment, has way more ‘watchers’ than ‘doers’. How many football fans play the game? How many nerd/fans cosplay or write fan-fic etc.?

    And that’s okay. But I find doing more interesting than watching. So I hunt and fish and target shoot because I was never much for ball games, and at 66 I doubt I’m The Natural ;-)

    PS another thumb up for Bull Durham

  11. You’re lucky you are not a sports fan because the last few weeks have been hell. The NCAA basketball tournament is always my favorite and I was very much looking foward to it. I put on an old game from one of my favorite teams in any sport about every other night from YouTube for my fix. I-racing got old fast and I just don’t see myself being much interested in watching games with no fans in attendance being played in enormous venues. Like a lot of our new normal right now, it could be many months to a couple of years before sports start to return to the popularity they once had.

    Sports was also our introduction to the caronavirus. Just before the s–t hit the fan we were playing our state basketball tournament. The virus spread like wildfire at a crowded local high school gym and five died, including the athletic director of our school. Unfortunately it all became very real after that.

  12. “Here’s another thing which I think contributes to my knowledge and interest in sports: As a journalist, I found sports writing consistently some of the best and most interesting journalism out there — some of the most readable, in fact, so I enjoyed reading it. Sports journalists were allowed to write with style and sarcasm and sentimentality that journalists reporting on news and politics were usually not allowed, for various reasons. Like entertainment reporting, where I worked, sports journalism was more “feature-y” on a regular basis, which allowed the writers to get away with more. It’s fun to write and fun to read. So I would — and do! — read a lot of it. And when you read a lot about anything, you tend to pick up a knowledge base about it.”

    Wonderfully written and true too!

  13. “Here’s another thing which I think contributes to my knowledge and interest in sports: As a journalist, I found sports writing consistently some of the best and most interesting journalism out there — some of the most readable, in fact, so I enjoyed reading it. Sports journalists were allowed to write with style and sarcasm and sentimentality that journalists reporting on news and politics were usually not allowed, for various reasons. Like entertainment reporting, where I worked, sports journalism was more “feature-y” on a regular basis, which allowed the writers to get away with more. It’s fun to write and fun to read. So I would — and do! — read a lot of it. And when you read a lot about anything, you tend to pick up a knowledge base about it.”

    *Wonderfully written, and true too!*

  14. Speaking as a car racing fan I do find it interesting that the big-time series (F1, Indy Car, NASCAR, etc.) have been involving themselves in online racing as a perfectly credible enterprise until actual racing can resume.

  15. my antipathy to sports is deep-seated. Here are two examples of why:
    I am a teacher. Teachers used to get reviewed by in-class observations by the principal. In one of my former schools, the “coach”, who also “taught” Social Studies, informed me that it didn’t matter what he did in the classroom – as long as he “took them to state.” And he was right. He took them to state, and our exceedingly poor district gave him a gold watch.

    Many many years ago, in another extremely small school district, the starting salary was $9k. If you had a Master’s degree, $11k. They hired a new, first-year-teacher “coach” at the salary of $16k.

    I have taught at schools where athletes were “coached” by having other people write papers for them, take tests for them, sit beside them giving them the answers, and on and on. In the next county, students were pulled out of class to sit in a whirlpool to get ready for/recuperate from the next game.

    Yes, I understand the idea that sports teach young people to persevere, to work together, to excel at something. But I also have seen sports used to teach young people self-entitlement, cheating, and disregard for studies.

  16. “sports is the only recreational activity where there’s a societal expectation that everybody is interested in and knowledgeable about it, and that there’s something weird about you if you aren’t.”

    As a big sports fan, I don’t find that to be true at all. There’s more like us, so you’ll get asked more often, but saying you don’t follow sports is no more weird than saying ‘I don’t cook’, or ‘I don’t have a green thumb.’

    Most of the hostility I’ve seen is that most citizens in a city or state subsidize arena construction or remodeling with their tax dollars, and many do object to that.

  17. Another thumbs up for Bull Durham. Also Damon Runyon. Apart from that, no interest in sports whatsoever, though I do remember, with affection, the time I attended a SRO roller derby game featuring the LA Thunderbirds and the Midwest Pioneers in Chicago’s old Sox park.

  18. Overlap between sports fans and “geeky” genre fans is not actually something new. The very first Worldcon in 1939 famously included a softball game! And when I was young (I’m older than John), it was normal to see crowds of fans (many in costume) gather in the hotel bar to watch sporting events on the bar’s television during SF conventions. Hugo/Nebula winner Geo. Alec Effinger even published a whole collection of SF sports stories back in the early eighties.

    I think the main thing that’s changed is not the amount of overlap between the two groups, but simply the percentage of the entire population that is (or is willing to admit to being) in the genre fans group. When I was young, I don’t think any professional athletes would have admitted to liking SF or comics or the like. Even if they did. Today, it’s commonplace!

  19. If I want to be pretentious, Bull Durham is one of my Three Great Baseball Movies. ^^;;

    Field of Dreams is baseball/sports as Myth, and can sometimes touch the same sensawonder that SF can reach.

    Major League is baseball as Fun – not at all realistic, but it manages to be both silly fun and to touch the root-for-the-underdog feeling that underlies many sports movies.

    And Bull Durham is Baseball gets Real. Still not completely realistic, but at least most of the baseball-related stuff feels like it could actually happen. :) And enough of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to keep it from the Polyanna league.

  20. > the conditions of excellence it requires, and the commitment one has
    > to undertake to achieve that excellence. It’s an active part of the
    > human condition and how could one (at least, the one that is me) not
    > be interested in that?
    >
    > [major snippage]
    >
    > I have affection for minor leagues and weird sports and will
    > sometimes buy jerseys from minor league teams/sports with amusing
    > names.
    >
    > [more major snippage]
    >
    > [Australian Rules Football] just looks like dudes in togs running
    > around with a ball, and honestly, that level of complete chaos
    > appeals to me.

    Have I got the league for you: AFL Women’s, https://womens.afl

    I don’t think of it as ‘minor league’ but it is, at the moment, a semi-professional competition.

    Meanwhile, the commitment of these women is extraordinary. And the ‘complete chaos’ is just as exhilarating as it is in the men’s competition.

  21. Thumbs up to Bull Durham, though I have soft spot for Field of Dreams, too.

    As for chaotic sports, John should abandon Australian Rules Football for hurling, which is mad in a lot of ways (perhaps not surprisingly, being an Irish sport with a long, long history). And so he would be able to say that his favorite sports are [ch]urling.

  22. Yes, a devoted baseball fan friend has been in complete mourning, due to cancellation of the season so far. I enjoy the purple prose of sports commentators on things like the Ironman — it’s beyond sentimental, it’s awash, but it’s a clue to what touches the fans in other sports, idealism, striving, etc., mostly at a level the rest of us can’t even aspire to.

  23. Only sport I ever played was Crew. I rowed 2 on the GMU Men’s Heavyweight 8 and 4. It was a lot of fun.

    Used to be a fan of the local NFL franchise here in the DC Area when I was growing up but, after several years of “I wish we could fire the owner” I decided I had better things to do on sunny fall Sunday afternoons.

  24. Got a cousin who went to two different state public universities in California decades ago and sent me hooded sweatshirts from each. One (UC Irvine) was the Anteaters and the other (UC Santa Cruz) was the Banana Slugs. I wore those sweatshirts proudly.

  25. When we (Americans) lived in Australia, we were mesmerized by Aussie Rules. We took to calling it Calvinball, after the game that Calvin used to play with Hobbs. As far as we could tell, the rules were the same….