Wednesday, June 18, 2008

If It Has Cheerleaders, That's Just A Bonus

The Celtics' beatdown of the Lakers last night to clinch their 17th NBA Championship has been all but drowned out in the sports media by the continued dumbfounded amazement over Tiger Woods' U.S. Open victory on Monday. I even got in on the act of singing his praises, which is sort of the blogging equivalent of pouring a bottle of water into the Pacific Ocean.

Tiger's accomplishment seems all the more remarkable now that's its been revealed that he was playing with two stress factures in his left shin and is going to miss the rest of the season to have reconstructive surgery on his left knee. My buddy Derek Thomas actually got to see Friday and Saturday's rounds in person as his Father's Day present and could only come up with the world "unbelievable" to describe what Tiger did. Until we invent a better word I guess that will have to do, but it certainly seems woefully inadequate.

As an aside, I got a bike pack and a kitchen garbage can for Father's Day. But Danelle astutely pointed out that it's not like I wanted to go to the U.S. Open anyway. And it is a really nice garbage can.

Something else that's been brought up a few times in the wake of Tiger's triumph is the always lively debate about whether or not golf is a sport. There's no denying Tiger is an athlete, but if you can do something for five days on one leg (or with the benefit of a cart), is it really a sport?

I'm always amazed at how fans of almost every competitive endeavor seem to desperately crave being acknowledged as a sport, like it somehow makes the activity more important or worthwhile. At the same time, people who think something SHOULDN'T be considered a sport are often just as passionate about their stances. As if its going to personally cost them something to let another pursuit into the exclusive "sport" club.

I had a boss once who had been a competitive figure skater, and we had a number of spirited debates about its inclusion in the "sports" category. Thanks to her, I was able to graduate beyond the compelling assertion that "it just doesn't seem like a sport" to something a little more concrete -- a set of criteria for making this important determination.

Without further ado, here's how to definitively determine whether a particular diversion or pastime qualifies as a sport. Well, as definitive as most things on the interwebz.

1. The outcome has to be determined significantly more by objective factors than subjective ones. Granted, there's a level of subjectivity in everything -- Was that holding? Is the ump's strike zone a little wide today? Block or charge? But at the end of the day, the outcome of something like a football, baseball or basketball game is decided by who has the most points (or runs). A completely objective measurement.

But things like figure skating and gymnastics have judges who employ fairly subjective criteria to make their evaluations. How "artistic" was that performance? Basketball teams don't win games if one of their players has the prettiest jumpest shot, nor does a baseball team if its player has the sweetest swing. So my boss' activity was knocked out of the debate right out of the gate.

Note that professional boxing also fails this test. How "well" did someone box? What the heck does that mean? Amateur boxing, however, gets it right. You land a punch -- which is well-defined -- you get a point. You have the most points, you win the match. How well judges adhere to the established criteria is another debate entirely.

2. The amount of energy expended has to exceed a certain threshold. I don't know exactly what that threshold is. But I've decided in my own head that bowling and golf don't make the cut, let alone things like chess and tiddly winks. They can be competitions, contests, even battles. But not sports. I'm willing to bet that if anyone who feels differently about golf ever saw specimens like John Daly or Phil Mickelson naked (not that I ever have, but I'm just saying), they'd be forced to agree that there's no WAY these people can be said to play a sport for a living.

So take the case of an outfielder who's pitcher throws a no-hitter, never allowing a ball out of the infield. Said outfielder comes to bat three times in the game and strikes out looking all three times. His physical activity consisted of jogging from the dugout to his position and back nine times, and walking from the dugout to home plate and back three more. Sorry, John Kruk. No sport for you today.

3. The human involved has to do most of the work in order for it to be a sport for the human. I'll buy the argument that race car drivers have to be in good physical condition to do what they do. But other than Fred Flintstone, nobody propels a car by his or her own power. The internal combustion engine is doing a lot more work. Ditto for horse racing and the horses, but bicycle racing meets this requirement.

4. There has to be the intention of having a winner and a loser when the activity begins. So a hockey or soccer game (or even a baseball all-star game) that ends in a tie works, because someone was supposed to win going in. But hiking, mountain biking, swimming and so on miss the mark, unless there's a race involved. If it's just you, it's not a sport. However physically exhausting, the lack of competition takes you out of the sports discussion.

I actually went for years with just these four benchmarks, until my friend Bobby Mestas pointed out that a barroom brawl fit the bill. Since he was right and I didn't feel that a barroom brawl should qualify, a new standard had to be added.

5. There has to be a governing body or mutually agreed upon set of rules. The rules don't even have to be explicit, they can be understood. Three-Mississippi rush. No tag backs. Ghost men advance one base on a single. Whatever they are, everyone involved has to agree upon them for the most part. The guy who brings a gun to a knife fight (to paraphrase Sean Connery in The Untouchables) may win, but he wasn't exactly sporting about it.

So there you have it. Yes, I've clearly spent far too much time thinking about this topic in my life. But at least it's made for some fun debates.

Wonderful exercise, debating. See item #2 above for why it's not a sport, though.


Rob Dauster said...

I think there is one very simple rule to determine what is a sport and what isn't - if it is a sport, you have to be able to play defense. Enough said.

Mr. Held Over said...

To follow up on Rob's comment...and THAT's why boxing is a sport.

Yeah, the judging makes it subjective, but there's supposed to be a winner going in. And, if you got a fighter who knows how to knock guys out (see: Pavlik, Kelly) then all the judges scorecards in the world won't matter.

I'd also like to throw Poker in the 'not a sport' category.

GPP said...

According to your baseball argument football is not a sport either. All the kicker does is jog on the field and kick the ball. Just because one person on the team doesn't work that hard doesn't mean it is not a sport. I agree golf is iffy, but baseball should qualify in my opinion. Just because a person is fat (John Kruck, Phil, Daly) doesn't mean they cannot participate.


The outfielder argument doesn't wash with me because that's just an example of someone playing a sport badly.

I agree with Rob--the main ingredient of a sport is defense. I've always said that for something to be a sport you have to a) simultaneously play with an opponent and b) be able to redirect/change your opponent's play.

So, to me that means golf and gymnastics (because no matter what you do you do not directly affect an opponents offense--you're basically competing to see who can play the course/perform a routine better) are not sports, while boxing, football, baseball and basketball are. Unfortunately, those two rules allow racing and poker in there, but throw in the stipulation about humans doing most of the work and NASCAR gets knocked out.

I'd like to hear some arguments against poker though.

SteveHarbula said...

Great comments. Let me see if I can rectify them with my original thinking.

I don't think something is necessarily a sport every time for everyone involved. In the boxing example, I'll grant you that a fight ending in a knockout was a sport for both participants. If it goes to the judges, it becomes something else.

With my baseball outfielder example, to me it wasn't a sport that day for that player. For everyone else it most likely was, though I believe that the ball is only actually in play for something like seven minutes in an average nine-inning game so I could be convinced otherwise.

I love the whole concept of playing defense being a factor. But let's consider this past U.S. Open for a second. Tiger had to go for birdie on the 18th hole on Sunday and again on Monday because he was one shot down. If he'd been a stroke up he would have played those holes differently, so his play was changed by his opponent's play. I'll grant you that the effect was indirect, but no more so than in poker.

galsinsuite100 said...

For the record, the gals own season tickets to every bar room brawl in town.

SteveHarbula said...

Frankly, my view of the gals would be irreparably damaged if they DIDN'T enoy bar room brawls.