Hooked on Watching

Author: Joseph Epstein

I am freshly arisen from watching Maryland beat Duke in overtime in the ACC tournament finals. The outcome was pleasing to me, for I have an unexplained dislike for Duke basketball teams. I was watching with the sound turned off, for I have an easily explained dislike for the gushing Dick Vitale, who was doing the color for ESPN. I should note, too, that, at time-outs, of which there were many, I turned to the book on my lap, Roy Porter’s Flesh in The Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul. After I complete this paragraph, I plan to return to my chair to watch the second half of an Illinois-Wisconsin game. Watching so much sports on television cannot be doing the formation of my body much good, and I’m fairly certain it isn’t greatly benefiting my soul, either. But I have been watching sports on television for more than five decades, and perhaps it’s time I attempt to understand why.

Some of this might find justification if I had a team for which I rooted madly, but I don’t. I went to the University of Chicago, which killed its big-time sports program long before I arrived there. I’ve taught at Northwestern but, strangely, have found little to cheer about in its rather drab athletic program, with the exception of the year the team went to the Rose Bowl. (When people ask me if I still have any connection with Northwestern, I say, yes, I remain on the staff as coach of Jewish wide receivers, which leaves me plenty of time for my writing.) As a Chicagoan, I am a Cubs fan, but I have this disease in a mild form. Even now, when they have the most impressive pitching staff in baseball, I am wondering how the team will go about breaking the hearts of its fans this year. The Bears, for some reason, do not light my fire. I first acquired cable television to watch the divine cavorting of Michael Jordan, but I now realize that such a player comes around once in a lifetime and mine has come and gone.

Though I find myself pulling for one team or another in a given game or series, my compulsion for watching sports does not come by way of allegiance to any particular school or a franchise. My nuttiness about sports, in other words, is in some odd way disinterested, if not altogether dispassionate, which may make it seem all the goofier to people who think sports, at least spectator sports, a complete waste of time.

I’ve tried to kick the sports-watching habit a number of times, but never with any real success. Like most American boys, I grew up playing most of the games I now spend much of my days watching. I read somewhere that Notre Dame has among its student body more captains of high-school sports teams than any school in the country, so perhaps I ought to list here my own rather pathetic athletic bona fides. As an athlete, I seem to have peaked in grammar school, where I was a quarterback, a shortstop and a point guard. At my large Chicago public high school, the best I could do was play on the frosh-soph basketball and varsity tennis teams. Later in life I was a high-B racquetball player, until a hip injury caused me to drop the game.

Not, let us agree, exactly a dazzling sports career. Which leads me to my first tentative hypothesis for why I, and perhaps hundreds of thousands like me, watch so much sports. The hypothesis is that we have unfulfilled sports fantasies and wish to live these vicariously through the brilliant careers of genuinely superior athletes. On another occasion, I wrote about Michael Jordan that he could do in reality what I, as a 14-year-old shooting hoops in my backyard, didn’t even dare fantasize.

Years ago I justified all the time I spent watching sports by maintaining that, in a world increasingly dominated by the spirit of advertising and public relations—the spirit, that is, of cover-up and hyped claims, attempting to show what is not really there—sports was unfakeable and true. A team with the ball in the red zone, behind six points with less than a minute to play, cannot call in a public relations firm to get the ball over the goal. A batter standing in against Roger Clemens, with two outs and two men in scoring position in the ninth inning of a playoff game, cannot call in the help of a lawyer, agent or ad agency; he either comes through or he fails.

Yet sports, as a general enterprise, has not made it easy for us couch potatoes. My point about the unfakeability of sports has taken, I fear, a pretty good hit from the recent revelations about professional athletes using steroids. Building oneself up with chemicals is a serious kind of fakery, not to say a dangerous one, as we know from the vastly shortened life of the Los Angeles Raiders lineman Lyle Alzado. Suddenly it begins to look as if records that once seemed impressive turn out to have been set by men with artificially pumped up muscles. Balls may be flying out of ballparks, but asterisks are being thrown back on the field. The purity of baseball, football and track has been badly diluted by chemicals.

A friend who feels something of the same dubiety as I do about having watched so much sports writes that “talking sports has helped me get through life, long social and family gatherings, and quiet periods with my sons.” Sports do give men—perhaps increasingly women, too—a common subject, and a lingua franca with which to talk about it. I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I have always been grateful for sports as a subject that crosses educational and social class lines. My butchers knew that I was a university teacher, which didn’t always get me the best cuts of meat, but I felt I redeemed myself by making plain that I had strong views on the designated hitter, free agency and Mike Ditka.

But even sports as a helpful conversational bridge across social obstacles is beginning to crumble. Too much of sports talk, mirroring the chat that is carried in the press and on sports-talk radio, is about money: about deals, bonuses, insane salaries. Once dominated by discussions of performance on the field or court or ring, a lot of sports talk now is heavily laced with resentment against the fortunate athletes who earn such astonishing sums—sums which, not infrequently, as they say about large publishing advances, do not earn out. Because of this, I find myself talking less and less about sports with friends and (relative) strangers. I long ago decided that the young athletes who have been taken out of the financial wars by their multimillion-dollar contracts are merely lucky, the favorites of the gods, comparable to people who are naturally beautiful or brilliant or can eat at gluttony level without gaining weight, and there is nothing further to be said about their good luck.

Added to all this, it’s getting harder to like athletes. No need here to rattle on about the bad, let’s not speak of criminal, behavior of many college and professional athletes, which gets lots of press. More and more nowadays it seems that athletes are, essentially, in business for themselves, wanting to put up “good numbers,” as they call them, which can be cashed in for stratospheric salary numbers. Dismaying to realize, for example, that there are few professional baseball, football, basketball or hockey players whose loyalty to their team is greater than their loyalty to their agents’ natural greed. The same goes for coaches—offer them more money and, poof!, they are gone. Carmelo Anthony, who won the NCAA basketball tournament in 2003 for Syracuse, really won $30 million in endorsements for himself after turning professional at the end of his freshman year.

Doubtless genuinely superior athletes are too relentlessly pumped up—by recruiters, potential agents and everyone else who walks around with a lingering smell of money in his nostrils—to keep anything like a sense of balance about themselves. But I find that today I cannot think of many athletes, college or professional, with whom I’d care to go to lunch. At another time, I should have been delighted to go to lunch with Oscar Robertson, Bobby Lane, Archie Moore or Mike Schmidt.

Partly because they get less attention, I find female athletes much more winning. Perhaps this is the place to confess that I was for a while in love with Notre Dame center Ruth Riley, even though 40 years and nearly a foot in height separated us. Just now I have a thing for UConn’s Diana Taurasi, but, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not talk about it.

None of which explains why I still seem to be hooked on watching games played for the most part by people I don’t admire under economic arrangements that by and large work against loyalty, good character, integrity and the very nature of team spirit.

In Esquire last year a writer named Chuck Klosterman, attempting to justify his interest in sports, wrote:

"The reason I need sports in my life is that it’s the only aspect of my existence that I understand completely. I have no idea what we should do about North Korea. I really don’t understand the subtext of Moby Dick. . . Every element of my life seems beyond my realm of understanding . . . except for sports. . . And this is true for a lot of men; sport is the only idiom that millions of Americans comprehend—or at least think they comprehend—in profound detail. It is the only subject that allows us to see—or at least _feel_—truth.

I rather like that, but, unfortunately, I cannot adopt Klosterman’s justification for my own. I do understand the subtext of Moby Dick, though I prefer to pass on North Korea. I struggle daily to understand my life, and while I cannot claim to have figured it out, I do not wish to take myself, Klostermanically, as entirely clueless.

I once heard Wayne Gretzky, another athlete I shouldn’t mind lunching with, interviewed at midcareer by a man who, after reminding him that he had won all the awards that hockey provides, had made millions of dollars and was immensely famous, asked to what he still had to look forward. Gretzky, without pausing, answered: “Tonight’s game.” Without the awards, the millions or the fame, I, too, continue to look forward to tonight’s game, though I shall be playing it from a nicely stuffed green chair in front of my television set.

If “playing it” is an exaggeration, so, too, I have to report, is “watching it.” I find it difficult to watch a full game of almost any sort with full attention. Invariably, I keep reading matter on my lap while watching sports on television. Increasingly, I turn off the sound, for the jabber of almost all announcers —I make an exception for Joe Morgan and Jon Miller on ESPN-televised baseball games—does not add much to my knowledge of the event. (The silence also makes it possible for my wife—who must by now qualify as long-suffering—to sit in the room, usually reading, with me.) The magazine or book in my lap is thus in an entirely fair competition with the game on the television set—and fairly often, print defeats picture. I look up when the action gets close. (Thank you, inventor of the replay camera.) Runners in scoring position, a team in the red zone, a basketball game won with a three-point shot in the last second, these do get my attention.

I also have a friend with whom I have made perhaps 300 $2 and $3 bets on various basketball and tennis matches. He gloats when he wins, which gets my own competitive juices flowing. I find I sleep better when I do not lose one of these small bets to him.

Several years ago I was asked to write an essay about Bob Love, the great forward of the 1970s Chicago Bulls. I had heard that he stuttered badly (a stutter that, through great discipline, he has since conquered) but didn’t realize how badly until I stood under an otherwise elegant man of 6-foot-8 struggling to get out answers to my questions. I soon called a halt to these difficult proceedings and decided not to write about Bob Love’s personality but instead do my best to write about what gave his game its high-efficiency and elegant polish.

To enjoy sports nowadays, I suspect that this is what we must all do: forget personalities, money, bad behavior and the rest of it. Like good players, we must keep our eye on the ball, which is to say, on the game itself.

Without a team to cheer for—I am, I suppose, the sports equivalent of the man without a country—I inevitably find myself pulling for the underdog, or even the favorite if it is far enough behind. The little dramas that present themselves in most games, though in the end they are of no great moment in my life, can still excite me. I like to see an old sports record (legitimately) broken; it speaks to the progress of the species, if only in the physical realm. For better and worse, I remain hooked on sports.

My only justification for watching so much of it is, finally, that I still enjoy witnessing athletes do supremely well what I as a boy longed to do. I continue to take genuine pleasure in athletic brilliance. A quarterback taking his team 80 yards for a winning score in the last two minutes of a game; a kid who can pop in two free throws, with a couple of million people watching him on television and opposing-team fans screaming at him to miss, to send a game into overtime; a bit of really intelligent base running, or a great play afield—the prospect of athletes coming through under pressure can still evoke the old thrill in me.

Like Wayne Gretzky, but with the advantage of not having to dress for it, I look forward to tonight’s game.

Joseph Epstein is the author of two recently released books: Fabulous Small Jews, A Collection of Stories, and Envy.