Yes, we should #bansports. But that doesn’t mean we should get rid of them.
Individually, every sport has its vices. There’s more than enough corruption, greed, violence, doping, exploitation, cheating, arrogance, and discrimination to go around. Some of these problems have simple solutions. College athletes deserve to be paid; pros deserve the same rights as any other group of unionized workers. Others are not so straightforward. You’ll tie your brain in knots trying to imagine football minus brutality or soccer without vagary.
We should never turn a blind eye to what’s wrong with football, basketball, hockey, soccer, cricket, cycling, or any other organized sport. But some sports have more issues than others, and as mentioned above, some of these are more easily addressed (or stomached). If we don’t draw these distinctions, we’re standing in the way of real conversation or solutions.
I fully get that some people just don’t care for organized athletics. It’s a leap, though, to go from general dislike to outright condemnation. There’s a common — if faulty — assumption that the ills of one sport automatically implicate every other one.
I’ve never heard anyone suggest that basketball causes head trauma or that figure skaters are overpaid. But there’s a prevailing sense that at some point, all sports bleed into each other. And it’s not just critics who are guilty of this lazy rhetorical move. Anyone celebrating the glory of sports can easily fall into the trap. It’s the way we’re used to talking about sports. And it’s not doing them or us any favors.
I think I know why this generalizing about sports happens: There are sports and then there’s SPORTS, a cultural monolith jam-packed with moralized clichés. It reinforces all sorts of unsavory socio-cultural practices. It’s the worst kind of influence on impressionable minds, and a sinister way of justifying or excusing bad behavior. We use sports metaphors in daily life not because we love sports that much but as shorthand for the attitudes we project onto them. We’re encouraged to lump all sports by this overarching power that’s been assigned to them.
For every person who rails against SPORTS, there’s someone who embraces it. “I like sports” makes about as much sense as “I like music.” It’s a bit of polite conversation that’s forgotten as soon as it’s uttered. There’s a common thread that runs through all athletic pursuits, in the same way that artists, novelists, and musicians share some traits. But if we fail to appreciate every sport on its own terms we run the risk of lazy, top-down thinking. It’s the difference between falling in love and falling in love with love. One is real, the other imagined. One is an experience, the other a self-serving fantasy.
Whether you love or hate SPORTS, propping it up does more harm than good. It’s at once a straw man and a false idol. We can #bansports without saying there’s everything (or nothing) wrong with them. SPORTS isn’t a sickness, it’s a symptom. At the same, as an ideal it ultimately dissolves into thin air or distracts us from what’s right under our noses. If both are dead ends, we owe it to ourselves to learn how to change course.