When one of my more perceptive students walked into my office last semester to talk grades and life, she made a snarky comment that I still think about today. Upon seeing the sports-related memorabilia on my office walls and bookshelves, she scoffed and asked me, “Don’t you have better things to do with your time?”
I think I laughed and dodged the question with a dismissive wave of the hand, telling her something like, “And that is why you, not me, who will run the country someday.”
Now that I think about it, however, that comment did not necessarily reflect a mature observer of what matters in life beyond her years (although she is exceptionally wise about important stuff from whom I have learned so much) so much as it illuminated the worrisome cynicism of our day and age about what matters in life.
If we pay attention to the chatter around us and in the media, it feels like it is becoming hip to discount, and even disparage, the value of sports. To write them off as silly, as frivolous, as unhealthy, as back-breaking labor, as archaic, as a waste of time in an unjust world replete with grave problems.
And it is not just chatter. Youth participation in sports, game attendance and live sports viewership, and traditional fandom are falling like grass before the mower.
While the causes of these negative trends go beyond simple ideology, such as how playing and watching sports have become prohibitively expensive, ideas have consequences. While those critics have good intentions and are not wrong about problematic issues in amateur and professional athletics, fact remains that sports are more important than ever. Not in spite of, but precisely because of, our serious challenges in society today.
As a lifelong admirer of sports and as the Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) at Gallaudet, I am convinced that sports are essential to not only psychological well-being but also the social and political change that we seek.
At the individual level, sports teach our leaders of the future valuable skills that can hardly be taught as efficiently anywhere else. There are compelling reasons, for instance, why a survey of high-level female executives found that 90 percent of them had played sports. And why the graduation rates for women and people of color at colleges and universities are superior for student-athletes than their peers who do not play sports. Playing competitive sports teaches time management skills and the value of hard work. It nurtures inclusion and confidence.
My six-year-old daughter, who was sometimes painfully shy, is playing organized basketball now, and I see a sense of pluck today that was not always present. Whereas she could barely dribble a basketball more than twice with her dominant hand before joining the basketball team, she can dribble with both hands for nearly as long as she likes today. Not because of luck but because she has taken a liking to dribbling everywhere in the house, to my wife’s dismay.
When she reminds her three-year-old brother at the dinner table that she is better than him at basketball whenever he tells her that he is Superman, I secretly smile while telling them to cut it off.
At the sociological level, sports do not only combat the loneliness and polarization that wreak havoc in this day and age. They foster social trust, which is a prerequisite for systemic change. At the Willigan Tournament a couple of weeks ago, a national wrestling tournament for deaf schools, I was taken aback by the rabid extent to which students and adults of all stripes rooted for their respective schools.
No longer were they fiddling on their phones in their bedrooms, swiping left and right, up and down, in their own worlds. Instead, they were blissfully in the moment, stomping, chanting, jumping, and celebrating together, as if their lives depended on it.
School spirit is neither trivial nor primitive but a fundamental necessity for a sense of belonging and progress. As Jonathan Haidt points out, “the more we share common experiences and celebrate shared goals, the more we can have a community of greater solidarity within which more serious problems can be addressed.”
At the political level, athletes are the most effective kind of advocates. When I coached men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we played a game versus a school in upstate New York in a one stoplight town smack dab in the middle of nowhere. They have an excellent basketball program and had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament for three straight years at the time. When we came back from being down by 6 with a minute and a half to upset them on a buzzer-beater, their head coach and a random fan from that town e-mailed later that week to commend our players for playing so hard and never quitting. What was left unsaid but implied was a profound realization that Gallaudet’s student-athletes were just as capable as theirs.
That is, we can yell (assert?) that “deaf people can do anything except hear” on rooftops until our voices (hands?) turn hoarse (weary?). But as they say, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound (difference?)? It is only when we participate in the arena can we advance this truism.
As a former boxer, statesman, and explorer of unmapped lands said, it is not the critic who matters but our women and men, whose faces are marred by sweat and blood and toil, on our courts and fields.
This is why we should play and cherish sports. And celebrate our athletes. And root for our teams at deaf schools and at Gallaudet. Not as crude, silly tools for conquest and entertainment, but because they teach valuable skills and lessons, which can engender the very change in ourselves and the world that we wish to see.