Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The meaning of sports

Last week Salt Lake City hosted a tennis tournament that was a bit unusual; instead of the young power players who traipse the world doing Virginia Slims tournaments (where did I get that?) they had….John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier.   I’m not a big tennis fan  - in fact, not a fan at all – but this sounded mildly interesting; I mean, who doesn’t know at least McEnroe and Sampras?   It was a “fun” tournament, but it was clear from the articles that these guys took it somewhat seriously and played to win.  McEnroe said something to the effect of “If I’m breathing, I’m competitive” which probably surprises no one. 
At 55 he beat the 42 y/o Sampras
Gordon Monson, the primary Salt Lake Tribune sports columnist, used the match as the topic of one of his daily columns last week.  And in it, he said this about McEnroe:  “aside from the broadcast booth, he’s playing in mostly meaningless exhibitions like the one at ESA on Tuesday night.”   This took me aback for a second.  “Meaningless”?  Using that term assumes that other tennis tournaments are actually “Meaningful?”  As if the definition of an “meaningful” activity is that the participants need to be young, powerful, fast, and – perhaps more importantly - that there’s a lot of money at stake?  What was weird about the column is that his main point was that men’s tennis in the US is very weak.  Some no-name guy is ranked 13th and the 2nd American is 56th, so Monson was moaning about the sorry state of tennis in this country as compared to the glory days of Conners, McEnroe, Sampras, et al.  But apparently the low-ranked guys are playing in “meaningful” tournaments?  I think that if you asked any of the thousands of spectators who showed up at the McEnroe/Sampras “tournament” if they found any “meaning” in it…..I think they did! 

Which brings up the question of what is indeed meaningful, and to whom, and for what reason? This weekend is the Skimo North American Championships; is that really meaningful?  For about 25 people….yes, it has a lot of meaning.  For 300 million other Americans and 35 million Canadians, it has less than zero “meaning”.  Our good buddy Geoff Lane was telling us about an interview with the Dutch speed skating coach who was derisive of American sports, saying that they were “stupid”, to which the American interviewer said something to the effect of “like going around in circles on an ice rink is NOT stupid?” 

Lest we forget, all these activities are contrived: skating in circles, hitting a ball back and forth over a 3-foot high net into a white painted box, pedaling a bicycle quickly, pole vaulting, putting a ball through a hoop, sliding on snow, etc.  And the only meaning that we put on them is the meaning that we as a society put on them, either as competitors or spectators.  And if winning the sport 35 clydesdale mountain bike division at a local mountain bike race is what provides some small bit of “meaning” in your life, so be it!  Or – if as John McEnroe said - perhaps inspiring some kids to pick up a tennis racket instead of an Xbox is what provides some meaning to your existence……indeed, so be it.  And if the vision of a 55 year old former pro smashing a forehand surprisingly hard provides the impetus for a middle-aged, 20-pound overweight, formerly-good tennis player to pick up his racket again and start playing to regain the joy of competition and the benefits of renewed fitness…..that’s meaning. 

But what literal armchair quarterbacks deem as “meaningful” or “meaningless” based on the relative worth of those activities…..pipe down dude, and try to find some meaning in your own patheticism. 

For what it’s worth, here’s the link to the column:

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