What do Sports Mean to the World?
“Some things are bigger than sports.” Those of us who have spent their lives watching and playing sports, have heard this saying a nauseating amount. While true, sayings like these seem to attempt to devalue the importance and the impact sports have had on a large scale across the globe. Like most things, the current pandemic has pushed sports from the forefront of our minds, which makes now the perfect time to call into question what sports really mean to us around the world.
So, what does sports mean to the world? It means unity, it means normalcy, but most of all it means we are human. What else can drive people with fundamental differences to hug one another like family? The list is all but empty. Sports have a way of bringing everyone together and they provide us new avenues to talk and learn about one another. When people show up to work on Monday and are desperate to be a part of the water cooler conversation, sports have always been the go-to. They bring a sense of community and many consider themselves a part of the fabric of a team. Teams represent cities and in some places around the world, social classes and ways of life. Oftentimes the ideals of the organization can be seen in the actual product themselves (The Hollywood-like persona that surrounds the Lakers and the blue collar grit that surrounds the Philadelphia Flyers). This can fester fierce and loyal followers and here in America, we see this each April for the NFL Draft. The season has been over for months, and the players are months from seeing their first action on the field; however, hundreds of thousands of people gather each year (millions more on television) to watch early 20-something year olds get drafted into their makeshift families.
There are times we see seemingly inconsequential and funny displays of sport fandom, such as the final request of an old man requesting six athletes on his favorite team to be his pallbearers so that they can “let him down” one final time. There are people all over the world who elect to be buried in a favorite team’s jersey or surrounded by the team’s memorabilia and colors. People are named after athletes and mascots so they are always reminded of one of their favorite things in life. It may seem strange to many, but to the people who do these intense acts of fandom, they find it strange that more people don’t follow their lead. Sports are more than a hobby to many people and the result of their team’s game on any given day has a direct influence on their happiness in the short-term future. We instill it into our children at a young age as we put kids in sports and watch as they soon call themselves their favorite player’s names before shooting a paper ball into a trash can, or kick their dog's chew toy into their basket.
Sports have been interwoven into cultures and daily lives around the world for hundreds and thousands of years, sometimes hidden in plain sight. We have seen people throughout history of all classes ranging all over the world display interest and love for sports. The infamous King Henry the VIII was nearly mortally wounded in a jousting accident in 1536 in front of thousands of English and Frenchmen. Gladiators risked their own lives for the glory of being awarded champions in their hometowns and for the love of the spectators. Children at recess play two-hand touch football before going back to class for the second half of their school day. What do all of these people and situations have in common? Sports. While they may change and vary, competitiveness and the desire to be the best has remained a constant.
We have seen sports give voices to the voiceless. From Jesse Owens taking a stand against Hitler in 1936, to Lebron James growing up in the impoverished city of Akron, Ohio, athletes have provided millions of people around the world role models they could look up to and aspire to be like. Then in times of trial and turbulence, we often look to sports to remind us that everything is going to be okay. We’ve seen this all over the world, after national tragedies we sometimes may feel stuck and unsure of how to move forward and sports have provided us with that power to face what is coming head-on. There are two obvious and recognizable examples of this: one being the baseball games in New York following the terrorist attacks on 9/11; the other being New Orleans once the SuperDome finally reopened for the Saints following Hurricane Katrina. While the circumstances were very different, the teams playing those evenings provided a much needed distraction and glimmer of hope to a country and cities that desperately needed a boost. We are even starting to see sports open around the world and the hope and excitement that have been brought with them.
Sports are often a microcosm of what is going on outside the world of sports. Today you can see the impacts of sport and competition trickled down even in places that we would least likely think of. Shows like Project Runway, Top Chef, and Ink Master are just a few examples of hobbies and careers that we would often think of and characterize as non-competitive, but they have been incentivized and mass produced for the viewing pleasures of millions. Why do we do this and why do people seem to never get enough? Because we crave to be a part of something bigger than what we are. Because we want an escape from the battles and the frustrations we often face daily. Because we want to have something to hope for, to root for. It’s why we want to see David from New Zealand cook the best steak and Charlotte from the Bronx to draw the best tattoos. We love to see people achieve their dreams because it shows us that we too can achieve our own dreams.
The year 2020 has been unlike any year that those living have ever experienced. We’ve all had different experiences during this pandemic but when we do eventually look back on COVID-19, I believe we will have many similarly mixed emotions. We will remember the isolation and the loneliness that came with it. We will remember how fragile life can be and that no day or person should be taken for granted. We will remember the time where our lives and passions had to be paused to ensure the safety of ourselves and others. It’s because of these memories we are going to be on the edge of our seats with excitement and anticipation for what is next in store for us. And when we see things like athletes crying with joy as their medals are placed around their necks and their national anthems play, we will be hopeful. Sure, “some things are bigger than sports”, but sports are pretty damn big.