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The Pull of Sports

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The narratives that keep me coming back

Kent State v Clemson Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

This week is different; this week is the same. Look at your television sets. Scroll through your social media feeds. The latest tragedy is omnipresent and here to stay for a fortnight, until the next occurs and the mourning begins again.

Sports are a poor escape from the furor. Sports do not expel the sadness. Sports do not stop bullets. Sports do not return the house of a hurricane victim.

Still, through moments mundane and tragic, I return to sports again and again. Perhaps they are an opiate. I grasp for the remote like an addict thrusts his hand toward the needle. I spend Friday nights and Saturday afternoons glued to the bleachers, transfixed and transformed in the mass of humanity. I spend my weekday mornings clicking, dead-eyed, through the latest trade rumors and transfer gossip. I consume and I dispose.

Maybe I’m not addicted, though. I can quit at any point, I tell myself. I’m just obsessed. Scratch that. I’m just interested.

I sometimes ask myself why I keep going back to the bleachers. The tragic events spin onward. Matters of great importance in my personal life loom ahead. I am at a crossroads. I graduate in May. I’ll stumble off the temporary stage in Littlejohn Coliseum with a diploma in hand — I know that much. The destination afterward is an unknown. Color me anxious. That particular circumstance doesn’t make me unique, but it throws my concern with the world of sports into stark relief. Athletic endeavors feel unimportant. They are, from a distance, a temporary distraction from more pressing matters, both personal and public.

Despite the implications, my eyes keep flitting to the field of play. It’s gorgeous out there, regardless of the familiarity. Lines of white paint seem to just skim across the green carpets. The hardwood floors shine, the nets ripple upon impact. Rough, strained voices cut through each other, filling the air with a collective buzz that sends goosebumps sliding down the neck. Occasionally one voice rises above the rest; I pick it apart, analyze it, then throw it back to the crowds that press against me.

The beauty doesn’t hold me, though. I know it is temporary, and I see the ugliness too. The low shouts. The collisions, the thrashing about. The twisted grimace of the injured athlete on the Jumbotron; or, worse, the dazed look of a player who has been told, or tells himself, that he must go on, despite the pounding in his head and the fact he can’t tell Saturday from Tuesday. These sounds and images sicken me, make me hang my head. Their impact doesn’t dull my interest, however. I take the beauty and the ugliness in stride, perhaps failing to fully reflect on either. My lack of reflection is my greatest flaw as a sports fan.

My recognition of this failure does not prevent my continued enjoyment of sports. In spite of everything — the surrounding turmoil, the personal challenges, the lack of reflection — I am drawn back to the world of sports.

Why?

I like the stories.

Like many others, I’ve interacted with dramatic narratives on some level since I was a child. Narratives permeate our culture, streaming in through the flickering blue light of a television at midnight, or through a joke whispered into the ear of a giggling sibling, or through the warbling chorus of a vindictive breakup song. The structure of those narratives always held my attention as a child. Play, for me, required a plot. Play required characters and an exotic setting.

For these requirements, I turned to sports.

I would act out entire games on my own. The empty lot beside my house was my stage. The grass was rather long — the property owner didn’t come around much — but I didn’t care. I could throw the football to myself there, without any disturbances. I’d toss the ball forward, careful to put some heavy arc in my throw, and come down with the catch; I was the quarterback and I was the receiver, and I didn’t care about the illegality of the play. I could play with the soccer ball by myself, turning my shoulder and ducking under imaginary defenders. Two rotting tree branches sticking out of the dirt made a workable goal.

I reenacted real games, too. The first Clemson football game I remember in any detail is the 2001 Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho. It was an unremarkable game in the grand scheme of things, but it carried its own share of narratives. It was quarterback Woody Dantzler’s last game. He got some Heisman buzz that year, though the team’s poor record torpedoed his campaign. I still remember the striking image of Dantzler, dressed in white, waltzing over the blue turf and the snow like some kind of sporting god. I wanted to be Woody more than anything, to finish strong just as he did. So I went out to the empty lot and reenacted my favorite parts, as if I were the quarterback, my idol. I finished with a win, just like Woody. Something felt complete.

As I grew older I moved beyond playing games by myself to playing games with others. The neighborhood kids came to know the empty lot as well as I did. In my mind, our games of pickup baseball held gargantuan stakes. They weren’t one-off games in an empty lot; they were part of an endless series of games, dating back from the beginning of baseball. I was a star, crafting a legacy in the sport. I carried this attitude into the more formal local leagues of suburban Mississippi, where I wore a knockoff Pittsburgh Pirates uniform and slid into first base every time. I carried a similar attitude into the game of soccer — every slide tackle meant something.

Throughout my childhood, the wide world of sports continued to produce engrossing narratives, and I couldn’t look away. I watched Kobe Bryant’s feud with Shaq, and I watched the two of them win a championship. I watched UConn establish a women’s basketball dynasty. I watched the Chicago Cubs embark on a magical playoff run that ended in heartbreak. I watched a young, exciting German team screech through the opening stages of the 2006 World Cup, only to fall to a squad of defense-minded, experienced Italians. I watched the U.S. Women’s National Team score goal after goal. I watched the freshman C.J. Spiller race down the sideline, past Georgia Tech defenders, and into the national spotlight. I watched Clemson lose games that should have been easy victories. I watched Dabo Swinney take the football program to another level.

As I grew older I began to realize, as many people do, that I would never get the chance to truly take part in these stories. In turn, I began to seek other forms of entertainment where narrative lurked, waiting to suck me in. Literature caught my attention, and I became a voracious reader. Film, which had always moved me, began to acquire new meanings as I attained a deeper understanding of the form. The study of history offered its own collection of stories. A few great teachers introduced me to this aspect of history, and I grew to love the subject. In late adolescence I began to write my own tales. I set my own narratives into motion.

Sports still held my attention as no other narrative form could. The twists and turns of any old game could keep me rooted for hours on end. Though the clash of athletic bodies at the highest levels of sports no longer represented my aspirations, I could still empathize through the act of spectating. I could peek at some small portion of an athlete’s personal experience by watching what happened on the field of play. I couldn’t see the whole picture, but I could at least see a single pixel. I understood my removal, my separation. I couldn’t hope to fully understand the motivations of any individual athlete or coach. I could, however, ponder their legacy, and how they might view their career. I could hang on their every word in the postgame press conferences, hoping to find a glimpse of the inner life among the cliches. I could watch their body language, how they stretched toward goal or pounded their chests. I could watch how they celebrated. I could, in my own way, celebrate with them.

Today I don’t really feel like celebrating. Sports don’t make the world’s problems go away. They are an escape, and an insufficient one at that. I won’t pretend that athletic contests provide a panacea.

I will, however, sit down for a story.

For one moment any story is good enough.