I have been wrestling with this very question all my life. (I think my mom planted it in my head.) As a young sports reporter in the late ‘60’s, with Vietnam and civil rights and a hazy, flowery little revolution going on, I needed to write about The Real World.
In 1970, I took the giant leap and became a news reporter based in Appalachia, definitely part of the Real World. To my chagrin, while driving to the latest coal-mine disaster, I soon found myself listening to a young feller named Al Michaels broadcast Cincinnati Reds games.
Back in New York, covering shootouts and political chicanery and drug deaths of the seedy 70’s, I began going to Mets games with my kids. This told me I, too, was hooked on something I could not shake. By 1982, I was a sports columnist, working in stadiums packed with people wearing the same color (red being the most annoying), observing a lot of drinking and chanting and gaping.
I quickly became an abolitionist toward boxing (while liking most boxers), and I long ago concluded that football is bad for the brain — both of players and fans. Twelve minutes of action in three and a half hours? Are we really that far gone? I came to have no respect for large universities best known for big-time football and basketball. I got burned by writing too many columns about Lance Armstrong and the baseball cheats.
Still, I concluded we should not eliminate all sports because what else would people do with their time? People should not allow themselves to become “sports fans,” who watch anything that moves. That self-description suggests sheer psychological surrender. Let’s be discerning.
When I retired from The New York Times at the end of 2011, I stopped having to know anything, anything at all, about football. It was surprisingly easy. Next thing to ignore was basketball, mostly because of Carmelo Anthony. Once I no longer went to the raucous opening Thursday of March Madness — the bands, the upsets, the southern cheerleaders — the entire sport vanished. I haven’t seen a second of the NCAA tournament. Really, life goes on.
My current position is: Everybody should cut watching sports to a bare essential. (Playing, competing, exercising, is a totally different proposition.)
Make healthy choices. Forty-five minutes of a good soccer match, one half, are perfect for my slog on the treadmill at home. Baseball? I can watch anything Mets and almost nothing Yankees. Lagares, deGrom. Harvey. Wright. The bullpen. Give that up? You see what I mean?
I would ban all sports talk shows on radio and TV, all those yakkers in studios, preening and pontificating. Get a life. It’s the event itself that matters.
I wouldn’t say that sports build character. Maybe they do, but often by accident or individual free will. However, let me drop a few words on you — reality shows, global warming denial, the Stock Market, Congress, Big Pharma, Big Medicine. There is worse mischief going on out there.
Just be disciplined. Show some self-respect.