Hello readers. In light of the Superbowl last Sunday, I thought it would be fun to write a post that has been stewing in my mind for years, a post about how much I despise our culture’s obsession with sports, especially football. I really wanted to publish this on Superbowl Sunday, as a symbolic, light-heartedly spiteful gesture, but I couldn’t get my thoughts composed in time. But maybe it’s just as well because on Superbowl Sunday, everyone likely would have been too busy watching the superbowl to read it, so perhaps it will have more impact now.
The first seeds of contempt for sports were planted in elementary school. During the school day, I was required to play games like kickball and baseball for gym class. I had an aide with me at that time, and I would have to hold her arm and run to the next base, serenaded by a cacophony of shouting from other classmates, and occasionally the aide herself, “GO, Go, Go!” I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, not only from the physical exertion of running, but also the adrenaline being produced by all the shouting, especially when the aide pressured me to run faster or I wouldn’t make it to the base in time. Even at that age, I remember thinking “why is everyone getting so worked up over this stupid game? This kind of stress should only be exerted if I ever need to run out of a burning building or something.” Then after school, almost every weekend, and even sometimes on week nights, I had to sit in the bleachers of school gyms where my brother and sister played volleyball and basketball. The obnoxious cacophony of buzzers and whistles just about gave me a headache, and although Mom and Dad tried to be vigilant about watching for balls, I would occasionally get hit by one. And then it was just painfully boring! My parents were so intently watching the game they didn’t think to describe to me what was going on. A couple times when I asked and they did give a play-by-play, I found it wasn’t long before I still lost interest. I tried bringing braille books to pass the time in the bleachers but given the noise I mentioned above, I couldn’t concentrate on a book. I especially dreaded tournaments, which lasted the entire weekend. I hated them so much that before one of my brother’s tournaments–I think I was in first grade–when I figured out that his team would be eliminated Saturday if they lost, but play another game on Sunday if they won, I actually told my brother outright, “I hope you lose,” a comment that was followed by gasps of shock from the whole family. In fifth grade, to my extreme delight, my parents decided I was old enough to stay home alone while they went to my siblings’ games. But then when I was in middle school, my sister started college at UW-Madison, and Dad decided to invest in two Wisconsin Badgers season tickets. To be fair, he isn’t a die-hard football fan and sold most of his tickets to a friend, but he wanted to go to a couple of these football games each year, and wasn’t comfortable leaving me home alone when he was an hour and a half away. Mom worked weekends in a hospital at the time. My older brother was in high school and still lived at home, so I forget why he wasn’t available to look after me. So guess who was dragged to these games to sit on hard bleachers in the beating sun, without even the consolation that I was doing it to support a sibling! In eighth grade, my grandma moved from Indiana to a condominium ten minutes from us, and Dad was comfortable leaving me home alone if she called or stopped by to check in on me. I was free from attending sports games at last! But the psychological damage of such saturation with sports on a girl who much prefers books and music was done.
My parents empathized with my situation, so when I was old enough to pursue my passion, singing in choir, a passion my siblings found just as boring as I found sports to be, Mom and Dad insisted they attend my choir performances. But by that time, my older brother was a freshman in high school, and my sister a junior, so it wasn’t long before they were off to college, and thus off the hook for attending my concerts. But the school choir only performed two concerts a year, and when I joined the Milwaukee Children’s choir in seventh grade, that choir performed three concerts a year. So my sister attended four concerts before heading off to college, and my brother maybe attended a dozen concerts, whereas I conservatively estimate that I attended thirty sports games a year from K-4 through fourth grade for a total of 180 games. My siblings could return home and attend all of my concerts for the rest of my life, and they probably still wouldn’t have attended as many concerts as I attended sports games!
In all seriousness though, I accept that life is not fair, and I don’t harbor resentment toward my siblings. They went to a Catholic school where sports was really the only extra-curricular option available, and the culture of the school was such that if they didn’t participate, they would have been singled out. Moreover, even my parents, while they enjoyed watching these games more than I did, have expressed regret for how much sports took over our lives, with practice schedules that often conflicted with dinner hour, and games almost every weekend, leaving little time for anything else. But I don’t even harbor bitterness toward the school, because now that I am older, it has occurred to me that the school is just one example of a whole culture that I think puts too much emphasis on sports.
Growing up, I didn’t really mind having football blaring on the television every Sunday afternoon because in the comfort of home, I could come and go as I pleased, retreating to my room if there was too much yelling from the family. Again, why the adrenaline surge over a stupid game? Sometimes, I would sit on the couch and pretend to watch the game, not because I was really interested in the game but because it was a socially acceptable excuse to put off facing Math homework. I even got a tiny bit excited when the Packers made it to the Superbowl in 2011. That year in the final playoff game, the Packers beat the Bears, and one of my friends whom I ate lunch with regularly was from Chicago and still a Bears fan, so I couldn’t resist teasing her a little. My only complaint as a child regarding professional football was that games were also broadcast on the radio, and occasionally when a choir concert conflicted with a Packer game, my dad would immediately flip to the Packer game in the car on the way home from the concert. I would have preferred to bask in the afterglow of the beautiful music I just sang for a few more minutes before returning to the obnoxious noise of football.
My senior year of high school, I took a Creative Writing class which included a unit on writing satire. For one of the assignments, the teacher gave us an article to read, and encouraged us to use it as a model for writing our own satire. The article was called Body Rituals of the Nacirema. On the surface, the article reads like an anthropological analysis of a strange ancient tribe. The article included other strange words too like Latipsoh. But when you read the article more closely, you realize that Nacirema is American spelled backwards, and Latipsoh is hospital spelled backwards. The article is an example of satire highlighting our culture’s obsession with the health and appearance of our bodies. I had a lot of fun writing a fake newspaper article called New Religious Trends Among the Nacirema, about how football, or llabtoof is treated as a religion. I included quotes from priests who lamented that church attendance is down at 11am services, especially when the Packers play at noon, and how they try to relate to Llabtoof followers by mentioning it in sermons, and scholars from the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, who point out that this religion promotes family bonding. The teacher loved it too, and even read it to the class, singling it out as an example of satire well-done! At a time when Math was discouraging, this was a huge self-esteem boost. (Unfortunately, I didn’t think to save an electronic copy of it or I would have shared it here, but it was published in a literary magazine which I think Mom saved somewhere.)
But one Sunday in 2014, an incident occurred which made me so mad that I decided I wanted to live counter-culturally and abstain as much as possible from our culture’s obsession with even televised sports.
In the grand scheme of things, I can see why some readers would call me petty for being upset, but I think this incident was just the final straw of my disgust with sports culture that had been growing since childhood. One Sunday in September 2014, my mom and I had just returned home from church where a new senior pastor had been formally commissioned. For this ceremony, the senior pastor invited a pastor from Nairobi, Kenya whom he worked closely with for a few years doing mission work there. I absolutely love when pastors from Africa. Perhaps because of the adversity they have witnessed, if not personally experienced, they preach with a unique passion, authenticity and conviction that is less common in Western churches. You have to concentrate a little more because English often is not their first language and thus they accent words differently, but the extra effort is always so worth it!
I forget the exact details of the story, and unfortunately, the recording of this message is no longer available, so I forget if he was referring to an orphanage his parents operated, or if he was relaying someone else’s experience. But the story he relayed was of an orphanage in a country plagued by poverty and violence that struggled to meet the basic needs of all the children they received. One morning, there was absolutely no food left, so the missionaries gathered the children around the table to pray, and before they had even finished praying, someone arrived with enough food for everyone! I am not telling it as well as he did of course, but you get the gist. It is the kind of story that gives Christians chills and highlights the blessings that can take place when we pray and trust in God.
“How was church?” either my brother who was living with us at the time, or my dad asked. They were watching the Packer game which had already started when Mom and I walked in, so for my part, I should have known the men really weren’t interested in our church experience, just asking to be polite, so like I do with the coworker who asks “How are you?” I should have just said “It was nice,” and left it at that. But I was so fired up about the excellent message we had just heard that I launched into retelling the orphanage story. And when I was done, the reaction was a few seconds silence, then yelling about a touchdown or something. They weren’t even listening to the story! When I wrote my satire about the Nacirema, I was in a light-hearted mood, but that day when I witnessed this lackluster response to testimony about a real God, all light-heartedness was long gone. Sports really is treated like a religion, and it’s not funny. It’s ridiculous.
I don’t begrudge people who enjoy watching or playing sports. I recognize that God intentionally created us all to be unique and have different interests. A diversity of interests definitely adds richness to life. For children, sports is a fun way to get exercise and learn valuable life skills like teamwork. I don’t even begrudge the existence of professional sports leagues. I just would like to see reform of our culture that puts sports in its proper place, something that is enjoyed but not idolized.
Let’s start with schools. I have come to realize over the years that the school my siblings attended was not unique in scheduling so many sporting events that sports takes over your life. If athletes at the professional level don’t mind playing a game every week, that’s fine. By that time, they are adults living independently from their family, with the maturity to determine for themselves that they enjoy a sport enough to make it their career. But schools ought to be cognizant of the fact that children live in family units where not every child enjoys sports, and where maybe the parents see the value of sports but would also like to have some weekends free to take their children on a hike through a state park, or some other variety of activity. So for school purposes, practice should only be held one night a week, and just like with choir, there should be no more than two or three games a year. I have also heard of schools cutting music and arts programs but keeping sports because it generates revenue for the school. I understand budgets are tight for schools, but in fulfilling their mission of creating well-rounded citizens, they need to think about more than just money. There is educational value to sports, but there is equal educational value, not to mention emotional and spiritual health that comes from music and art programs. So if schools honestly cannot afford to sustain their music and art programs, I understand, but if you are really that financially strapped, you should cut your sports programs as well. I am not a finance expert, but with a little creativity, I think schools should be able to sustain both arts and sports programs by appealing to the community to donate equipment, or see if there is someone like a retiree with music or coaching experience who could volunteer their time at schools. When I hear of schools keeping sports programs but cutting the arts, I cannot help wondering if they have really exhausted all options to keep these programs, or if the people in charge just don’t value the arts.
Especially at the high school and college levels, schools should also hold star athletes to the same academic standards as everyone else. I once saw a Saturday Night Live skit about a college class where most students presented projects that they put a lot of time and effort into, but a star athlete in the class presented a banana glued to a piece of wood, and the professor said, good job! Unfortunately, there is an element of truth to this skit. While scandals as blatant as the “paper classes” at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill may be an extreme, isolated incident, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is all sorts of little stuff that goes on but just doesn’t make the news. After all, was I the only college student who wondered, while buried in reading and projects, barely aware that March Madness had started, how the athletes playing in those tournaments find the time to do so? They have to be getting some kind of break from their professors. At all levels, the law should be applied equally to athletes as well.
I hate the idea of corporate welfare for any large corporation that has plenty of their own money, but I especially hate when it is given to sports teams. A couple years ago, my state’s NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks were told by the league that they need to build a new, modern arena, despite the fact that the old arena, a gift to the community by a wealthy family, wasn’t that old. Despite the fact that all teams like that are swimming in money, enough to pay coaches and star athletes millions, they lobbied the state for taxpayer money to build the arena, and if I remember correctly, threatened to relocate the team if they did not receive it. They ultimately received $250 million in taxpayer money, supporters arguing the new arena would be good for the local economy. I understand this argument, but still, I’m sure they had the money to build it themselves. So in the unlikely event a professional sports team owner finds this blog, I don’t foresee myself getting involved in state government. It’s not really something that calls me. But you know the saying never say never, and if I am elected to state government, I would not give a professional sports team one dime of taxpayer money. If that means they leave, they leave. I think the money Wisconsin spent on the arena could have gone a long way toward improving schools, repairing roads or providing for the poor. If I were governor and the standard of living for everyone in my state was great and there was money left over, I would rather invest in art and music programs, many of which barely scrape by relying on tiresome fundraisers. And while we are on the subject of money, I think at least at taxpayer funded colleges, athletic programs should be scaled back or eliminated because it is a misconception that they generate revenue for the colleges. Universities with athletic programs, especially Division I programs actually lose money, and all students pay for this with higher tuition and student fees.
I used to resent the fact that it is possible to have a very lucrative career playing football, but not singing in choir. With maturity, I realize choir does not lend itself to a lucrative career the way professional sports do, and that’s actually good. Choral music is a sacred pursuit that for both the audience member and the singer, brings heaven a little closer to earth, so commercializing choir would corrupt its beauty. Interrupting choral performances for commercials, or giving endorsements for say, shoes that support the feet and make standing on risers more comfortable, or a beverage that soothes the throat would just be weird and inappropriate in the choir context. Even if there existed a National Choir League, even I admit choir competitions would not be fun for the average person not trained in the technicalities of choral singing to watch, and even if choir competitions were appealing enough to fill stadiums, it just would not be possible to have a choral competition every week. I competed in two choir competitions when I was in high school, and for each, it took months to really get our pieces polished. So at most, each choir in a choir league could compete twice a year, which would make the kind of revenue that sports can generate by playing once a week impossible. Furthermore, if I wanted to, I could have trained and auditioned to be an opera singer, tried for a record label to become a successful artist like Adelle, or studied theater in college and auditioned for professional theater roles. But I chose not to go these routes for fear that the intensive training and demanding rehearsal schedules would burn me out and I would no longer enjoy it. And the reality is that professional sports is really no different from professional theater in the sense that competition in both arenas is fierce. You hear about the athletes and actresses that made it, but most people who dreamed of being an actress or athlete will ultimately have to find day jobs, and enjoy playing on a community recreational sports team or acting in a civic theater production in the evenings.
Finally, while there is nothing wrong with enjoying professional sports, professional athletes should be recognized as human like the rest of us rather than worshipped, and the sports schedule should not run people’s lives. I hate the commercials that air where I live that show Aaron Rogers visiting a hospital or some place like that, and the people are screaming like fools because they got to meet him. And I know this will be controversial, but as tragic and unexpected as Kobe Bryant’s death was, I don’t think it should have been the lead story on the news for almost a whole week, when wonderful, ordinary people die under tragic circumstances all the time but will never be mentioned in the news.
To be fair, my dad recognizes that professional sports is above all a business. The players on our home teams have no real sense of loyalty. They were recruited from all over the country, and would switch to a different team in an instant if offered a higher contract. In addition, my dad’s favorite part of the movie A Bronx Tale is when nine-year-old Calogero is telling Sonny, the mob boss he befriended how upset he is because someone made his favorite baseball player Mickey Mantle cry. “That’s what you’re upset about?” Sonny says, and then tells him that Mickey Mantle doesn’t care about him, wouldn’t do a thing to help if his father couldn’t pay the rent, so he shouldn’t care so much about Mickey Mantle. I am also happy to say my dad values the arts. He doesn’t like super high-brow stuff like Handel’s Messiah, but he discovered he loves small, intimate theater settings, and for the past two years now, he has gotten season tickets to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater where we have seen some fabulous shows. But even Dad cannot help getting swept up a little by our culture’s sports hysteria. One Sunday back in September when the afternoons are often still sunny and warm, he commented, “I wish Packer games were in the evenings, so we can be outside in the afternoon,” as if watching the game live is a moral obligation or legal requirement. I wanted to ask, are there Packer police that patrol park trails and streets, and arrest anyone they see out for a walk or working in the yard when they should be watching the game? If you want to be outside, tape the game as you would any other show and watch it in the evening. Even if a neighbor spoils things by telling you who won before you get the chance to watch it, I think you could still enjoy watching the plays that led to the win or loss.
I am not Scrooge in the truest sense. I hate sports, but don’t mind if others enjoy it. I just would like to see some cultural reforms that put sports where I think they belong, a recreational activity people enjoy playing and/or watching, but not something that is worshipped above so many other wonderful things like the arts, quiet family time, sometimes even God Himself. Until then though, I do take delight in little things like not clapping when a guest speaker comes to church and assures the congregation that he is a Packer fan. One Packer game when Mom was out of town, I wanted to watch The Sound of Music on my phone, but Julie Andrews’ wonderful singing kept getting interrupted by dings as someone in my family started a group text about the game. I took delight in affirming my anti-sports reputation by asking to be taken off this group text. I take delight in responding with a neutral “Okay,” when Dad will tell me the score of the Packer game “just so you’re informed when you go to work tomorrow.”
So what did I do during the Superbowl last week? I ate dinner in my usual spot at the dining room table, which is basically in the same room as the television. Even I recognize that taking a plate of food up to my room so I would not have to listen to the game would be taking things too far. But I wasn’t paying any attention to the game, and after dinner, I went up to my room, wrote a little bit of this post but spent most of the evening reading with Family Radio playing beautiful hymns in the background. Put another way, I was doing exactly what I would have been doing even if the Packers were playing.