SQUEEZING THE JOY OUT OF SPORTS
I was watching the sports headlines on the ESPN Bottom Line a couple nights ago and as each story scrolled across the screen, I began feeling less hopeful.
The Phoenix Suns franchise is being investigated on charges of racism and misogyny. A student-athlete at the University of Georgia football is being accused of rape. Aaron Rodgers, Antonio Brown, and the NFL are playing truth or consequences over COVID-19 vaccinations.
Have you ever asked yourself: Why do I love sports? What is the driving force that makes you crave every move your team makes? Where does that burning desire to grab your phone every five seconds to consume every piece of media come from? It made me do some deep thinking about my own roots and passion for sports.
For me, it started as fun. I played football, baseball, and basketball. I loved how sports created an environment of community. Race, religion, status, and gender were never a part of the conversation. If they were, they were whispers between cliques off in the corner of the cold aluminum stands on a Friday night.
I graduated high school 5′ 5,” so I wasn’t much of an athlete on the field. But I competed and, often, watched the game from the bench or the stands. Give me a season and I will comfortably gravitate to the sport. Fall was always my favorite season because every sport was in play: hoops, football, and baseball.
As I grew up and matured, I became fascinated with the skill, the talent, the preparation, and the discipline required to play the game — any game, any sport — at the highest level.
I love the competition. I love “the game” itself. In fact, to this day, I don’t watch hours of pregame and postgame elements, even though I, too, am a professional reporter. I simply don’t find it all that interesting or necessary.
The game speaks for itself. An athlete’s performance is the story. I marvel at gifted athletes who can rise to the occasion. I love watching how athletes respond to game strategy.
Then, there is the much deeper motivation. My parents divorced when I was young, but just old enough to remember but not understand. I was also just old enough to feel the weight of the brokenness, loneliness, and fear.
One day my dad was there. The next day he was gone. My mom was fractured. I watched as she drowned herself in alcohol and intense anger. The stress eventually led to her first heart attack.
The divorce had a profound impact on my life. In the moment, I was confused and scared. In years after I struggled to trust people. I destroyed relationships with people I loved because I feared having my heart broken.
If I didn’t do something, my life legacy would be a carbon copy of past failures from learned behaviors of the generation before me – experiences that led to my own poor decisions.
I faced my failures. I asked for forgiveness, where I believed forgiveness was required. I live with the scars, but they are beautiful reminders that give me strength and hope today.
What do those confessions have to do with sports? Everything. My relationship with sports as a youth is not only memorable, but life-changing.
With my father absent, my mother working long hours to provide, and my brothers and sisters beginning their own lives, I found solace in the joy of sports.
I insulated myself year-round with baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. It was a joyous and pleasant distraction, but it was temporary. In hindsight, all I was doing was pushing the pain to a future due date.
I played and watched sports all the time. I holed up in my bedroom and read about sports, watched games, and played board games incessantly to shut out the chaos taking place around me.
Sports became my companion. My friend. My bulwark. My champion.
That is why (and how) I became a sports fan and led me to a career in sports media and communication.
I have been blessed to interview athletes at all levels, and what I have learned from the experience is regardless of talent and financial wealth, athletes are people too. Many athletes struggle with the same things we do. The one distinction is their failure to perform on the field is witnessed, dissected, and judged play after play, game after game and year after year.
When the headlines turn to the indiscretions, failures, and poor choices off-the-field my joy is sometimes replaced by disappointment, but it is a necessary reality check.
Some years back I read a book called, Start with Why by Simon Sinek. He is a thought leader, predominantly on the subject matter of leadership. He wrote: “Regardless of WHAT we do in our lives, our WHY—our driving purpose, cause or belief—never changes.”
His observations inspired me at a time when I needed direction and vision to accomplish a specific goal. The fruit from that book is that I still carry a 3 x 5 card that states WHY I do what I do. When the work landscape gets rugged and challenging, I pull out my three-sentence statement as a reminder, then press on with the task with renewed clarity.
I minimize those feelings by avoiding politics and social issues — unless they directly impact a player’s performance. In those circumstances, the athlete’s decision is directly altering the product I enjoy and that treads on the game itself.
I must protect my thoughts. As a professional, I am responsible for my words. I am obligated to listen, learn, ask questions, and educate myself first, then report.
The social media world has a way of revealing the true character and values of people. The intensity in which sports fans respond to each other makes me want to ask publicly, but instead wonder privately, is the joy is being squeezed out of sports?
Passion is a good thing – most of the time. But what is going on when someone “snaps” on social media? You’ve seen those replies, when you unintentionally hit a nerve and your “friend” or “follower” shows their teeth over a team or player or manager or owner that they have no relationship or experience with. It’s frightening to think how much mental energy is expended on events we have no control over.
If you are a sports fan, ask yourself why? Dig deep and trace your personal history and connection to teams and games. Let me know what you find.