Commentary

This Sporting Life: Queue and A

Updated: June 17, 2009, 7:02 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

In this column several weeks ago, as part of a summer-long survey, I asked a deceptively simple question: What are sports for? And from "empathy" to "victory" and "exercise" to "education," you've been sending me your answers and comments.

These have been honest, earnest and provocative, and I thank everyone for their time and thoughtful effort so far. Keep 'em coming.

Very lightly edited for spelling, clarity and brevity, here are the first in the long line of your answers to the Trillion Dollar Question, What Are Sports For?

I've always thought sports were there to provide a platform on which to bond; a way to reach out to and bond with your fellow man. And isn't that what we all want, to know others really do understand what we're feeling?

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IISports fans bond over memories of great plays, like Derek Jeter's dive into the stands in 2004.

That is not simply just a logo adorning the front of your hat, it's a reminder that we're all in this together.

On a human-to-human level, sports is a win/win. These days, it's the only topic we can discuss in the workplace without crossing any moral or ethical lines … It's a common language … It's finding out you and your uptight, slave-driving boss are on the same team, part of the same circle of friends. "You were there when Derek Jeter made that phenomenal dive into the stands? Me too!" Best yet, it's the party that everyone's invited to, whether you're taking it all in from the nose-bleed seats or enjoying the view from the best seat in the house -- your recliner.
-- From Devina Douglas, out there somewhere on the Internet

What are sports for? Coming from a fairly diverse family and friends network, I decided to pose the question to a few people.

Dad (age 60-70): "Sports are for competition and goodwill. People play to exercise and compete. Sports also brings fans together." I didn't have the heart to mention that sports tears them apart as easily as religion or political affiliation.

Mom (age 50-60): "Sports, they make the world go round. Life without the Raiders? What?" Yes, she is a Raiders fan and enjoys cursing Al Davis at least once a week for good measure.

Fiancée (age 20-30): "Sports are silly and get people hurt. We should pay teachers …" Not exactly sure what she said after that; playoffs came on.

Fiancée's Son (age 5): "Sports? Like basketball? Like NBA Live on your Xbox360? Can we play?" Sure kiddo.

Best Friend's Mom (age 70+): "Sports are used to encourage friendly competition, and sometimes a bench-clearing brawl." She does love her exciting baseball games.

Me (age 20-30): "Sports, without them I might have spent all this time doing something remotely productive."
-- From the mysteriously named Lost Badfish of Scott, Oregon

I teach at a high school in a suburb of Minneapolis.

The main class that I teach is "Sports Literature," in which the entire semester basically centers around the question that you have posed. The first unit we do in the class is centered around the whole idea. Why do we take it so seriously? Why does it demand so much time and energy? Why do we feel so good when we win?

I believe the answer centers around our own insecurities as humans. When we win, we're good people and everyone will like us. When we lose, we're not good people and everyone will be mad at us. I spend four months attempting to destroy this idea, telling my students multiple times "you are not defined by what happens in a game." When our football team went undefeated and took the title, I told the many players in class, "Congratulations. So what?" Don't get me wrong, it was an accomplishment that they could be very proud of, and they worked really hard to get to that point, but I tell them that if they don't use their successes, and even their failures, to help people, or do something to make the world a better place, they have really accomplished nothing at all. By the same token, when our wrestling team choked away their section final last year, they came to school the next day looking like somebody had died. I tried to impress upon them that my opinion of them as people had not changed at all because of the defeat.

When you're in high school, being a great athlete means everything. This is why we study John Grisham's "Bleachers" and David Halberstam's "Sports Can Distract, But They Don't Heal" (one of the best articles I've ever read). It puts things in a new light for them. They show that being the star in high school is a temporary phenomenon and that the real problems of the world have never, and will never, be solved with a game, no matter how seriously we take it.

So, I guess my answer to your question would be this: Sports allow me to teach students things that they wouldn't otherwise learn.
-- From JN, Minnesota

All living creatures exist to compete; that is their purpose. As humans, we have both an exceptional body and an exceptional mind. Sports aren't a distraction from our lives, they are the pinnacle of human achievement.
-- C. Meade, Carlsbad

Howdy! I've done some thinking about the question you put out on ESPN. I got to thinking about it reading a review of a collection on essays on Darwin and literature, which put forth the view that fictional drama serves a real purpose of preparing our minds for life's struggles. A light bulb went off when I realized "Hey, at least half this stuff applies equally well to sports!" I wrote a pseudonymous post about this at a culture and politics Web site, the key part of it being these paragraphs:

"Watching men compete at, say, football gives us information which we might find useful someday in competitive situations which do not involve grass or a ball, the same way that watching Hamlet gives us information useful at some of those times when we do not find ourselves wondering whether to kill our uncle who rules Denmark. The lessons to be learned by watching sports range from those easily summarized, such as "keep your stick on the ice," to the more complex and subtle, such as getting a feel for how much unselfishness is too much when working on a team. A long time ago the sports-watching tribes outcompeted and defeated the tribes which held sports competitions but no one bothered to watch.

"Basically, spectator sports serve pretty much the same purpose as country music, novels, drama, paintings etc. Not exactly the same purpose -- what we learn from sports is not terribly useful for the purposes of courtship and mating -- but they are similar adaptations."

Roughly speaking, the Champions League is not the opiate of the masses but the Shakespeare of the masses.
-- Peter Klima, Krakow, Poland

I would answer that I consider sports to be an entertainment, but one that needs to be enjoyed within a specific context. Unlike many other forms of entertainment, there is no script to be found here. There are specific rules in place and that forms one part of the context. Those rules provide the "even playing field" where the combatants engage. There is also the context of history in sports, especially in baseball. It is in the history of the sport where the numbers that get discussed gain a real context. Whether it be Hack Wilson's RBI total from 1930 or the 1941 seasons of [Joe] DiMaggio or [Ted] Williams, the time period in which those seasons occurred makes the numbers mean something more.

You are correct that those in sports have been finding ways to cheat the system for as long as there have been sports. The idea should be to strive to make it as clean as possible, whether that means banning members of the White Sox, trying to remove the spit-ball, or preventing players from using PEDs.

You could make it so that PEDs were legal if you wanted to use them, but how does that change the perception of sports today and in the context of history?

The other night, the Don Larsen perfect game from the '56 World Series was on TV. As much as sports have changed, I couldn't help but notice that a 50-year-old game still looked very much like the modern game. I liked that sense of continuity. I think that would be lost if we decided to allow PEDs to be legally used. I think that loss of historical continuity would make sports less entertaining.
-- Jason Berman, online

Without getting too metaphysical, sport exists to glorify humanity and all that it can accomplish. To play a sport is to chase glory, that's what sport is for.
-- Louis Consolazio, online

Sports, as a whole, are a microcosm of life; the same values of teamwork, dedication, losing and winning with dignity, a sense of self-worth, and respect for one's self and others can be cross-trained on the playing field and carried over to the "real world."

However, in the transition area of sports where amateurs turn into professionals, the idealistic view ends. This is where sports turn into a source of entertainment and escape for the fans and the general public.

The professional athletes playing the game still have those values they once learned as amateurs; however the sense of self-preservation, and the bottom line of what-once-was-a-game-is-now-their-livelihood, skews their motivation and dictates their actions. This is why athletes would choose to go against their moral instincts and "cheat" the game by taking PEDs. That extra advantage they gain from such things as steroids can prolong their career and put them in a better position, financially, to take care of their family and generations to come. Anyone who could honestly say they wouldn't have, if the situation presented itself, taken steroids in the past decade if they were an MLB player is lying or kidding themselves. The rewards are just too great and the consequences are seemingly minimal.

To try and define one simple reason that sports exist would seem almost futile. We use the Olympic Games to unite the world on one grand stage; we use Little League to teach values, the Special Olympics to show the triumph of the human spirit, and the PED issues of professional sports today as a vehicle for moral discussion and analysis. All of these are equally important reasons for sports to exist -- without them life just wouldn't be as interesting.
-- N. Gorman, online

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan
Getty ImagesSpecial athletes, like Michael Jordan, leave us all in awe.

To me sports is about seeing athletes using their bodies and minds to perform feats that the average person can only dream about. It's Bob Beamon shattering the long jump record in '68, or Dr. J and Jordan hanging in the air for what seems like forever. Sports is that jaw-dropping moment that leaves you in awe of what you just saw and makes you forget everything else -- even if it is just for a minute. But somewhere along the way, winning, at least in the U.S., became everything.
-- Rick, Dayton

Recently I have realized that the media (and hence, mainstream fans) have disrespected athletes, in a sense. Of course I don't like the use of PEDs -- I think they are unhealthy and a reflection of greed and arrogance … and insecurity. Then again, athletes aren't really different from common people. We are equally as selfish and insecure. They don't really do anything that we don't do. They are human beings. It's not worth piling excessive blame on them when they aren't really different in any sense besides their excellent physical prowess. I just pray that the media and fans learn to treat athletes as they should -- like equals.
-- B. Moore, online

I've pondered your question, and wrote a lot. Feel free to use as much or as little as you like.
-- Jesse Squire, Sylvania, Ohio

Last week I received a phone call from a disgruntled and angry ex-girlfriend, a girl who hadn't played competitive sports since she was nine, complaining about how she always screws up, what a failure she is, and how terrible her life is and how at times she just doesn't want to wake up. For the record, she's a med student starting her rotations, so from my perspective, I think she's doing pretty well.

After I hung up the phone, I sat down to eat and watch "Kobe: Doin' Work." Kobe is by all accounts one of the best basketball players of a generation, but he is also a giant failure.

With the lens focused on him for two hours, you see that about 50 percent of what he does is wrong. He misses defensive assignments, bricks shots, commits terrible fouls and generally does not look like quite the all-star that he is when put under that scrutiny.

However, by the end of the game, he's put up a great line and his team won. What I drew from the film is that failure is frequent, even among the very best. However, looking to the next play and executing as best you can, consistently can yield extraordinary results. Persistence, confidence, and diligence play a much larger role in success than most people are willing to realize. Our 24-hour news cycle and highlight reel culture ignore that truism.

Having played soccer through college, I think the most valuable lesson that I learned was that it's OK to fail and, in all reality, failure is inevitable. For that reason there is no reason not to try your best and continue to pick yourself up and start anew, even when you fall flat on your face.
-- William Lockwood

Professional athletes are otherwise ordinary people who have been placed in extraordinary situations.
-- D. Garnett

Sports are for creating heroes …
-- Rob F., San Diego

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.