Should We Ban Sports?

I have an internet addiction, and it’s not to porn: I constantly check ESPN.COM for breaking sports news. You know, earth-shattering stuff like the weekly “power ranking” of my dear Atlanta Hawks (fourth in the NBA and slipping, according to pro basketball guru Marc Stein), the latest on Deflategate (“I know that there is no smoking gun,” the New England Patriots’ owner recently said, unconvincingly) and the amount of money the long-awaited Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao boxing match will generate in May (likely beyond $400 million, thanks in part to some six thousand tickets priced, absurdly, at over five grand each).

One result of this addiction is that I’ve come to wonder: what would happen if sports didn’t exist? If we channeled the kinetic and psychic energy of a roaring Arrowhead Stadium into things that really matter to all of us, like combatting climate change? If we put all that Mayweather and Pacquiao blood money into social programs? If, more personally, I read the newspaper more often than NBA blogs?

This week, in an attempt to measure the severity of my problem, I made a hash mark the size of a severed Jose Canseco finger in a notebook beside my computer each time I logged onto ESPN.COM and a sad little em dash when I checked NYTIMES.COM — the biggest names in sports news and real news, respectively. Even with the leveling effect of the notebook exercise, the results were pretty much what I predicted: way more severed fingers. I checked ESPN more than five times as often as all the news that’s fit to print: 21 to four, on average, each day. (The ratio was even larger on days when the Hawks were playing.) And I spent more time actually reading the sports stories, too.

I’m not alone, of course: an estimated one in two Americans watched the most recent Super Bowl on a device, somewhere. But when it came to the Benghazi hearings, a major news event last year, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults admitted to “not too closely” following along. (Unfortunately, I’m in the “not too closely” camp.) And, to be fair, it’s not just sports that are a distraction: there was more interest in Hurricane Sandy than the 2012 Presidential Elections.

But sports are clearly one of the major contributing factors when it comes to national news apathy: 59.5 million unique Americans visited NYTIMES.COM in February of this year, while just a few months earlier more than 91 million unique viewers logged onto ESPN.COM for their jollies. Obviously, plenty of people read both publications thoroughly. But when time is tight, we too often choose the light.

Sports and the super humans who play them are a diversion from the complex, frustrating, painful drudgery and work that make up some necessary portion of life. We need games — or religion, if you’re that sort — to help keep us sane when the planes crash into peaks and the politicians let us down and the police fail to protect us and our bosses float another TPS report across our desks. But we do not need sports to replace the reality we must live in, struggle with, and, ultimately, attempt to change for the better. What if we learned the names and habits of our senators, our mayors, and our neighbors instead of the athletes we stare at like lotus-eaters?

Civic engagement is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. And, much as I’d hate to see sports go, banning sports would undoubtedly lead to a more informed and active electorate. To the extent that sports train us to be warriors — that was the original goal of our organized athletic games, after all — we might even have less war! But I’ll settle for an awakened populace, beginning with me. I pledge to read the New York Times and other papers more often moving forward, and ESPN and its sweaty brethren less. (I’ll still get plenty of Johnny Football updates on Twitter, and I’ll just go watch the Hawks live.) So I challenge you: Pull yourself away from that Rockets-Pelicans recap, #bansports from (most of) your life, and instead #readthedamnnews.

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