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Play Your Heart Out

Following Part One, this essay is the second of a three part series. 

Part Two.

Fortunately, today’s sporting world isn’t completely analog. In the digital realm of computer gaming, it doesn’t matter if you can run a mile.

I can barely hike a mile, but on the computer I’ve run, rolled, sailed, flown and teleported vast distances. When the limits of reality no longer apply, far more is possible, like a disabled boy being a valued part of a sports team. Going back to the first time I put on a uniform, when I played kindergarten baseball, I remember feeling accepted. I felt acceptance because baseball is a sport that society validates. If I were to don the green and purple colors of my current, digital sports team, few would accord it similar respect, and that fact stings. It stings because no matter how much physical therapy I put myself through, nothing is going to make me a valued, playing member of even a pick-up team at work. So where can I, and other sports-inclined disabled adults, find our acceptance now? Convincing today’s sporting world to accept the digital realm may be a challenging task. It may make some insecure, uncomfortable or even upset. Change is scary. Fear not, grab your frozen yogurt and keep your mind open.

Let’s begin by looking at what makes us see a game as a sport.

The last time I played Monopoly with my Grandma she got annoyed with me over the issue of whether or not a player gets $500 when they land on Free Parking. I was mortified by her insistence a player did not collect $500 for landing on Free Parking because I had been taught that a player totally deserved $500 for landing on Free Parking. I looked up the rules recently and discovered to my ever present horror that she was right. Sorry, Grandma you totally deserved to bankrupt your grandson and put his aspiring hotel chain out of business. Too bad I landed on Free Parking.

From this conflict, we can gather a sport must be a game with unwavering regulations so one side can’t invent rules halfway through, like Free Parking. Of course by that definition alone, the lottery becomes a sport. It is a regulated contest after all, but besides buying massive amounts of tickets, there’s no proven strategy to win, unless it’s illegally rigged. Clearly our definition needs another level. A sport requires both regulation and robust strategy. But what else is missing that separates a validated sport like high school football from one like tournament Monopoly?

In the parlance of infatuated college announcers, it’s the physicality.

Having the physicality to run, jump, kick, tackle, dip, duck, dive, and dodge are just some of the requirements for what we might consider traditional sports. But as we’re already discovering, with inquiries like the concussion controversy in the NFL, the whole athletic portion of sports may not be such a good thing. Besides keeping people like me out of sports, it also poses significant dangers to your health. Sports medicine is an actual field of study. Think about that. There’s no prose medicine. People go to college to learn how to treat injuries sustained during a sport, an optional activity. As someone who has his share of health issues from mere existence, let alone optional activities, it can be baffling why anyone would subject themselves to such risks. Of course, one must consider the love for the game, but when you’re shortening your lifespan by repeated blows to the head, one wonders when that love becomes abuse. I mean, it’s your life, do what you want, but at some point we as a society have to start taking responsibility for enabling the situation.

Or, maybe we accept that sport involves an amount of sacrifice. Ancient sports sometimes involved actual human sacrifices. In that context, it’s easy to see why one would risk life and limb to score the game-winning point, but how many players have to die from sports before we stop caring if deities are appeased by our antics? A recent beer commercial pokes fun at the justification of sport superstitions with the tagline “It’s not weird if it works”. Do you suppose that slogan ever went through an Aztec priest’s mind when he was cutting the heart out of his latest ball player sacrifice? The winners of those Super Bowls never made it to Disneyland.

Love of the game, indeed.

The other, less bloody reason the athletic requirement of sport might be something we should rethink is that its presence denies a whole class of individuals the chance to play. There aren’t many athletic sports open to people like me. Yes, there’s the Paralympics but why should anyone have to do an Olympic amount of training to play for fun? If you’re thinking of the Special Olympics, that’s for individuals with mental disabilities, which is a whole other set of challenges that I have no experience in nor wish to speak for. Without a local team or athletic sport where I can play as a valued member or respected rival,  and not just as the guy they let play because it makes everyone feel good, I’m left with little to no options for teamwork in a recreational environment. But if you consider the digital realm as a legitimate arena for sports, suddenly the field is wide open. And not just for people like me. For everyone.

Understandably, you may still not agree with designating certain digital games as sports, but don’t feel too bad. I’ll assume it’s because of your concussion and not your wish to promote inequality. There, have I snarked on enough guilt yet?

Concussed or not, please understand this. I’m not calling for the destruction of current, athletic sports nor am I suggesting we make allowances for lack of skill, talent, or capability. Sports are built on everyone playing by the same rules, right? What I’m advocating is that, in our hearts, we revise the definition of sports to one that includes any regulated competition with a robust strategy element regardless of athletic component. By updating the way we think and talk about sports we not only take a step closer to a more inclusive society, we also give a measure of acceptance to the competitive spirits of people who can’t play the athletic games we idolize. Doesn’t mean you have to take these new sports seriously, all I’m asking is that you give digital games the space to earn your respect.

Still not satisfied? Me either, because sports, like pornography, defy a plain definition.

You know it when you see it.

There’s an intangible, almost mystic quality to the experience of sports, whether playing or watching, that can’t be contained in a dry statement. It’s possible what we’re missing is the most important part of what makes sports something we hold dear. Ignore the mechanics, the money or the integrity of the game. What’s left? The stories. The myths. The legends. Few fans can recite all the changes to baseball over the years, but everyone knows Babe Ruth pointed to the stands and knocked the next pitch out of the park. We celebrate victory, defeat, close calls, and unbelievable plays by retelling them over and over. Maybe what makes something a sport isn’t any of our prerequisites. Perhaps what we need to gain acceptance isn’t a revision of the definition as much as it is the presentation of a narrative. A story is a powerful thing.

Pack your parka, we’re headed North to Icecrown stadium. The Frost Bowl awaits.

The concluding Part Three can be found here.


Published inNon-fiction

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