I used to watch sports on television in the same episodic and grudging manner I would tune in to C-SPAN. The proceedings mattered little, but I picked up useful information. It made me better at water cooler conversation—I got passing references to Monday night’s game.
Then something changed. It happened during the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, and it’s been converting me into a fan of televised sports—admittedly, a fan with an asterisk.
Before we get to
that experience, though, some history. I grew up playing sports and loving it. Whether running track alone or playing on a soccer team, I was at it almost every day, from elementa0ry school through high school. Sure, I slowed down in college and graduate school, and now that I’m starting to see soft middle age on the horizon, a hint of duty has crept into my jogging. I’ve even started lifting weights with my health in mind. But once I’m back from a run or a trip to the gym, I still feel some of the old exhilaration.
Through it all, there’s been that constant: Much as I love athletic activities, I find watching them on TV a gross waste of time.
I realize I’m in a minority on this. Unless there were multitudes of viewers, how could the channels get away with televising, year round, night and day, 162 baseball games, 82 basketball games, 82 hockey games, and—most popular in all the land—16 football games—per team, not even counting the playoffs! If, like most serious sports fans, you augment your sports-watching hours with hours’ more expert analysis provided by writers and talking heads, you might almost be forgiven for forgetting to vote, pray, and tuck your children in at night.
Not only do I find the time commitment unimaginable, but I’m puzzled by the mood swings—the deep lows my buddies sink to after the inevitable Redskins letdown and the ecstatic highs that accompany a rare playoff berth. How can mere games—games and teams so forgettable that we remember them about as well as we do last term’s Congress—provoke so much passion?
But then something happened as I watched the big fight. I found myself listening, truly listening, to what my friends were saying as Floyd danced out of Manny’s reach. They were talking not so much about technique as about people, as if what was unfolding on the screen were less an athletic competition than a human drama.
My wife, for instance, backed Pacquiao-the-Pious against Money Mayweather because of Floyd’s nasty history of domestic abuse. Opposite her sat a friend who strongly supported Mayweather. The decision, he said, was easy. Mayweather is an American, and as an American, he deserved the support of his countrymen. Both wife and friend, swept up in the larger theater of the fight, revealed something of themselves in their reactions.
Hearing them, I thought of past sporting events I’d watched with family or friends that had made deep impressions on me. I was just 12 years old when Kerri Strug limped slowly to the runway during the 1996 Olympics for the vault that secured coveted gymnastics gold for the United States. The scene is seared in my memory for the guts and determination she showed despite her injury. Mike Tyson, desperate for a comeback, slowly picked apart at the hands of the giant Lennox Lewis still strikes a tragic note. And, most recently, Usain Bolt’s world-record-breaking 100-meter dash, forever (or at least until the next speedster comes along) serves as a reminder that sometimes the line between good and great is razor thin—in his case, 0.11 seconds. Though I hadn’t understood it before, watching these events on TV and hearing others’ live reactions had enhanced my appreciation of each.
And so, as the night and the fight of the century drew to an end, I felt the gang had grown closer. The beer and the food made for a comfortable setting, but mainly we’d been learning about one another through our spontaneous give and take over many hours, prompted by what we were watching on TV.
It’s true, my newfound taste for televised sports deserves, as I said, an asterisk. It’s not the athletic event itself that draws me—you still won’t catch me watching baseball or tennis or any other sport alone. But you might find me, even this very weekend, at the home of a good friend, clustered with others around a glowing box, more alert than I’ve ever been before to the satisfactions of wonderful company.