Addiction to sports: why I still tune in

By Mark Thomson

This Thanksgiving I went home. It was an extremely productive trip as I saw everyone I needed to see and ate some delicious food. Other than the usual shenanigans with my friends, nothing really stood out as particularly notable except for two exceptions. I was in the midst of a pretty heated sports discussion about whether or not Michael Vick deserved the NFL MVP with a good friend of mine when another friend of ours interrupted us. Without any context or provoking whatsoever, she commented (and I’m paraphrasing) “Oh you’re talking about that dog killer. What a terrible person. He should still be in jail.”

I immediately looked down at my feet. I had been arguing (rather vehemently I might add) that he was playing better football than anyone in the league and his comeback was a great story. My buddy agreed with both of these sentiments, but he believed that since Vick missed almost four whole games due to injury that he hadn’t played enough to warrant the award. The fact that he was a convicted dog killer didn’t even come up in our conversation. As a result, we quickly changed the subject. I wasn’t ready to get in a debate with a dog lover about Michael Vick.

Later that evening, I was talking sports again with my buddies (a fairly reoccurring theme with me) and the topic of Cam Newton came up. The conversation transitioned to Reggie Bush and then the entire NCAA system. We started talking about Newton during the start of the Auburn Alabama game and this conversation took us into the start of the second quarter, so you can figure how long this took.

Both of these incidents got me thinking on the plane ride home. Why do I watch sports? You read the news and almost invariably some player is getting suspended or some allegation is being made. Looking at the front page of espn.com right now, there are links to articles about James Harrison being fined for fourth time this year, Stephen Jackson being suspended for berating an official, Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan’s fight, rowdy fans, and a video of Derek Anderson yelling at a reporter.

In these times, it’s really easy to be cynical. I know that some of my friends have lost some faith in the integrity of these games. We live in an age where steroids have tarnished our national pastime and referees fix outcomes of games. Yet for whatever reason I continue to tune in. And I’ve been asking myself why.

Do I just choose to overlook whatever problems are happening in the sporting world? No, I’m as cognizant as ever as to what’s going on. It’s pretty hard to ignore all of these issues when they happen so often. Do I choose to excuse the actions of these athletes? I guess in certain cases this is true. For Vick, that’s definitely the case, although it may be primarily due to the fact that he served his time. But for guys like Donté Stallworth who run over people in their cars while legally drunk? Definitely not.

So why do I still choose to devote hours of my life watching games, reading sports news, or researching fantasy football? Why do I continue to patronize these professional sports teams by buying their merchandise or attending their games?

I thought about it for a while and came up with a pretty simple answer: entertainment. I derive greater satisfaction from being a sports fan than I would otherwise. As a prospective econ major, this made a lot of sense to me. My life would definitely be less full and enjoyable (but more productive) if it didn’t involve sports. So I tried an experiment. How long could I last without sports in any capacity?

It was about an hour. I was writing my econ paper when I read that Frank Gore was out for the rest of the season on the gmail Webclip news headline. I instantly started to panic (I have him on my fantasy team). Should I trade with one of the other teams in my league? Should I try to pick up Brian Westbrook off of waivers? Should I weather the storm and start Beanie Wells? Why do I even have Beanie Wells on my team? These thoughts just raced into my head.

I eventually resigned myself to the fact that I’m obsessed with sports. I take attacks on my teams personally. When I hear people belittle the Raiders (and believe me, I hear it a lot), it kind of feels like someone is belittling me. I remember being incredibly betrayed when the Warriors let Baron Davis leave after the 2007-08 season.

So when I read about an athlete in the news for all the wrong reasons, it hurts me a little inside. I don’t like Tiger Woods anymore, and he used to be one of my heroes. I think his scandal more than anything woke me up. I now accept the fact that these athletes aren’t perfect and I move on. I can still take great enjoyment from watching sports without deifying these athletes. It’s my love for the games as a whole that trumps my appreciation for any particular athlete. Because no athlete is perfect, and as it turns out, quite a few of them have problems just like the rest of us.

The trap that I used to fall into is that I viewed these figures as larger than life. I thought they could do no wrong, and that’s on me. We need to stop turning these athletes into heroes, and stop being so appalled when they turn out to be normal people.

There’s no need to be cynical about sports, when it’s merely a few individuals that tarnish the game. Reggie Bush’s indiscretions don’t mean that I no longer enjoy watching big punt returns. Barry Bonds’ steroid use doesn’t mean that I don’t still get an adrenaline rush from watching a home run. I just needed to get away from admiring the individual athletes and move my admiration towards sports as a whole. And that’s something that is bigger than any suspension, arrest, or scandal.