A ROMP IN THE HAY: Why We Watch (And Love) Our Sports

“You just don’t understand.”

Over the years, I’ve uttered this phrase—or a variation of it—countless times, to family members, friends and acquaintances. For me, there is no other way to answer the question.

Why do I care so much about sports?

You just don’t understand.

It is certainly a fair inquiry. Why do I—along with millions of other like me—devote such a large portion of my life to the athletic endeavors of individuals who I will likely never meet and have almost nothing in common with me? What leads us to spend hours on espn.com every day, agonize over proposed trades in our fantasy baseball league and shell out hundreds of dollars for tickets and merchandise?

I’ve spent a long time thinking about this question, and I’ve come up with an answer that works for me.

It’s about achieving greatness.

In this day and age, there are very few opportunities to be great. I’m not talking about being a hero. Heroes sacrifice their well-being and sometimes their lives for the benefit of others, and should be emulated. Athletes are rarely heroic. As Charles Barkley famously noted, he is not a role model. However, I do believe that he was great.

Greatness is compelling. Greatness is enviable. Greatness makes us watch and makes us care.

Greatness has many definitions, but the one that stands out for me is, “of outstanding significance or importance.” Athletes have the ability to impact the lives of millions of people. By contrast, regardless of what I end up doing with my life, the reality is that my sphere of influence will undoubtedly be small. The world will not be much different because of my existence—even if I do end up with that sweet Wall Street job someday.

But even if I do, you think I wouldn’t trade it for what T.J. Sorrentine felt on Friday night?

With just over one minute left in overtime and his Vermont team leading heavily-favored Syracuse by one point in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Sorrentine’s coach called in a play from the sideline. A screen-and-fade by a post-man.

Sorrentine shook his head. He decided that he wanted the ball in his hands. The shot was his to take. And with the clock winding down, he seized his chance at greatness. His arching shot from well behind the three-point line flew true, propelling the Catamounts to victory, sending the state of Vermont into chaos, and breaking the hearts of Syracuse fans everywhere—not to mention likely causing a rather significant amount of money to change hands, given the amount of betting that takes place during March Madness.

No matter what T.J. Sorrentine does with the rest of his life, he will always know that, for at least one night, he was great.

And that is why we obsess over sports. It’s why kids across the country spend hours in their driveways, pretending to be Larry Bird or Michael Jordan or LeBron James, counting down the clock and firing buzzer-beater after buzzer-beater until their mothers demand that they come in for dinner. Sports provide us something that we lack in most other realms of our lives—situations in which normal human beings have a chance to become immortal.

Without sports, Manny Ramirez is a nobody. His only marketable skill—the ability to hit a ball with a wooden stick with some regularity—doesn’t really lend itself to any profession besides the one that he finds himself currently employed in. Ramirez cannot be great without baseball.

But thanks to the miracle of sports, we have a generation of Manny Papi Sullivans and Johnny Pedro O’Learys popping up all over New England. Grown men wept during the 2005 Red Sox parade, and some people uttered the phrase, “now I can die in peace”, and actually meant it.

Through his actions, one man was able to affect the lives of millions of people. If that isn’t great, what is? (Note: Yankees and Cardinals fans, don’t answer that).

I was inspired to write this article after reading an article by ESPN’s Pat Forde about Eastern Kentucky guard Zach Ingles. Ten years ago, at the age of 12, Zach informed his mother that he was going to play in the NCAA tournament someday. That night, Cynthia Ingles was killed in a car accident.

Zach never forgot his words to his mother. Two weeks ago, Eastern Kentucky was battling with Austin Peay in the OVC championship game, with a NCAA tournament berth on the line. With 19 seconds remaining and Eastern Kentucky leading by a single point, Ingles found himself 26 feet from the basket, with the ball in his hands and the shot clock winding down.

He didn’t hesitate.

Ingles’ shot was good, sending the Colonels to the tournament for the first time in 26 years and—perhaps even more impressively—making Zach a man of his word.

And that, my friends, is greatness.

–Staff writer Jonathan P. Hay can be reached at hay@fas.harvard.edu.