The Subtle Influences of Sport

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“Some of us are athletes… and some of us just kinda aren’t. And I guess that’s okay too.”

In the wrong setting, these words might have been viewed as arrogant, even contemptuous. Said with an Australian accent and a disarming smile at Mather Senior Dinner, they caused the room to erupt in laughter.

Thinking back on the joke later, the words carried special significance for me. At a school that prides itself on being accepting, the athlete/non-athlete binary looms large. Sometimes it is explicit—this publication, after all, has a persistent habit of questioning the purpose of varsity athletics. Other times it is implicit: it’s no secret that being in a single-sex organization across the River helps you get into the single-sex organizations on Mount Auburn.

The culture of the school reflects this disconnect. With more varsity sports than any other school in the country, nearly a fifth of Harvard students are varsity athletes; throw in club sports and that number rises to about a quarter. Yet, for such an athlete-heavy student population, athletics is a small part of Harvard’s culture. Sure, school pride takes off during The Game but attendance at non-Yale football games is pitiful. When BC and UMass come to Lavietes, I’ve watched Harvard play road games in its own arena.

The nasty byproduct of this is a perception of athletics as “the other.” The sentiment could not be more misplaced: whether we play sports or not, sports have a profound effect on the way we live our lives.

Let’s start with the way we speak, which has been shaped over time by athletic anachronisms. In all walks of life, we talk about success and failure in the language given to us by sports: to come up with nothing is to “strike out,” to have a massive success “a home run.” Dealing with a setback in stride is “to take it on the chin,” to do well on an assignment is to “ace” it. A tough interviewer might be seen as playing “hardball”—if they relent, they likely tossed you a “softball” question.

It’s not just the language that permeates our daily lives. Anyone paying attention to the 2016 presidential primaries might have noticed the preponderance of sports terms in political coverage—it takes little for a “bounce back” primary win to become “momentum,” a statistically farcical idea in sports that has been ubiquitously adopted by the political media cognoscenti. It’s easy to see the influence of sports in these narratives, which use primaries as consistent updates to the “score.” Those who bemoan the media’s focus on polls instead of issues have sports to thank.

Sometimes, the influences are even more subtle. To me, being a sports fan is fundamentally about arguing as much as it is about watching games; derived from this is an obsession with rankings. Is LeBron better than Tim Duncan? Can Phil Rivers be a top-40 all-time quarterback without winning a ring? This has extended far beyond sports—out culture has become obsessed with the ideas of “underrated” and “overrated.” In addition to ranking the obvious (films, singers, etc.), we have an obsession with ranking the esoteric; put these terms into Google and the algorithm will suggest searching for “overrated lyrics” and “underrated clothing.”

To be sure, athletics can have more explicit impacts on our lives. I have my own version of the classic Parting Shot story: told in the months leading up to freshman year I’d have a chance to walk onto a varsity sport, I was devastated when the coach told me he’d decided to take a smaller team (read: no walk-ons) that year. Like many a disaffected former athlete, I found my way to the Crimson Sports Board, a source for unforgettable memories, college-defining friendships, and irreplaceable personal growth.

Dwelling on my personal story would take away, however, from the way that I see sports. In my eyes, sports are inescapably communal. To be a sports fan is to take part in a series of communal rituals; while rooting for the Cubs is the ultimate exercise in personal masochism, every fan can relate to the experience of watching their team fall short. Watching a game from the student section is as much about the people around you as the events on the field. Many of the values society aspires to instill in its children (diligence, teamwork, cooperation, sacrifice, etc.) are best communicated through sports.

It’s perhaps for these reasons that the quote has stayed with me. We may not all be athletes, but whether we play sports, write about them, or simply ignore them, their imprint on our society—in how we talk, in how we think, and in what we value—is indelible.

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