Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sports

I have a fairly narrow view of what constitutes a sport. I have several hard and fast criteria that an activity must adhere to before I'll call it a sport. Much of what is displayed on ESPN does not, in my opinion, qualify as a sport. None of my criteria are meant as a means to denigrate the athleticism and skill demonstrated by those who participate in such activities. However, I think the distinction is important. Our society is one where words are rapidly loosing their meaning and such distinctions are necessary.

First, a sport must have an objective means by which the winner of a competition is determined. Sorry ladies, figure skating is not a sport, nor is gymnastics. Interpretive judgments made by people based on the artistic impression of the competitor does not make for an objective determination. As I said earlier, this is not to denigrate what figure skaters can do. I am genuinely impressed by someone who can launch themselves into the air, spin four times around their long axis and land on a blade of metal an eighth of an inch wide without doing permanent damage to the bones and joints of their lower legs. If figure skating were to adopt a tick sheet whereby the competitors are judged on the technical requirements of their routine in a binary manner (either they did it or not) thus making a perfect performance evaluate to a perfect score, then I might be convinced that such an activity is worthy of being called a sport.

"Art" has no place in sports. This is not to be confused with grace and the ability to move one's body without looking like a person with advanced Parkinson's disease. Art cannot be judged objectively (it wouldn't be art otherwise).

Second, one must break a sweat sufficient to require a shower after participation in a competition. Sorry Tiger Woods, golf is not a sport, and neither is bowling or poker. Sports must be able to differentiate between winners and losers by intense physical activity. "Leaving everything on the playing field" is more than just a clever cliche'. It is essential that competitors in a sport push themselves to their physical maximums in order to determine a winner.

Third, a sport requires that when more than three teams compete that a champion is declared through a process of trimming lesser competitors out. In modern terms, this is called a playoff. If a playoff is too large to accommodate all teams, then an objective means of determining which teams are worthy of competing for the championship. For college football fans, this effectively eliminates the BCS. When coaches and reporters are part of determining who plays a one game playoff, you don't have a sport anymore. Individual college football games are a sport, but not the way the NCAA chooses to declare a champion. Thus the "champion" of college football is a hollow victory devoid of meaning.

Why does any of this matter? Sports are important. They allow us to gauge ourselves against others and objectively determine where we stand. Such objective viewpoints are sorely needed in this world of self-esteem and "attitude over substance" mentalities where feeling good is more important than actually being good. Businesses compete fiercely and the public is better off for it. Yet, as individuals, we need that constant reminder so that we continually strive to improve ourselves. The use of the word sport as a synonym for competition strips the former term of its intrinsic value. While academic competitions like quiz bowl are also important, they too are not sports. A sport should test individuals and teams both mentally and physically a good sport will do both.

All that to say this, around the first of the year college football fans across the world gather to cheer on their teams. I will admit that I am a Michigan fan and I do feel robbed of a shot at a national title this year. Ohio State deserves to win it all, but OSU vs. U of M would have been a better game than OSU vs. Florida and the fans deserve a good game. What really bothers me though is that every single year, the college football season ends with controversy. The kind of controversy that never clouds the winners of pro football, college basketball, pro basketball, or pro hockey. There was no controversy over the Detroit Tigers going to the World Series this year when they finished in second place in their division. They won the wild card slot and so they went to compete.

College football could go a long way towards gaining some credibility in terms of crowning a champion if they took even an abbreviated post-season playoff to determine the champion. Eight teams could be handled in three weeks, and sixteen teams could be handled in four weeks. We can even keep the current ranking system in place just like college Basketball does. If the players and coaches complain about it, I'd just ask them how much they enjoy the second guessing generated by the controversy surrounding their victories. You can even match up teams for the other bowl games from who looses in the playoffs and rotate the bowl games like is done now. A small adjustment is all that is needed.

If I were Loyd Carr or Jim Tressel, to demonstrate just how badly the BCS needs to be scrapped, I'd run up the score and leave my starting line up in the game no matter how badly we're beating the other team. I'd make the game so one sided that viewers turn off the game to find something better to watch. Then again, one should never underestimate Michigan's ability to blow it in the Rose Bowl. If Ohio State wins by more than three points, Florida had no business being in the championship game. Making thinly veiled threats about the BCS imploding like Florida's coach did in the week prior to the final rankings demonstrates just how subjective the BCS is. Apparently, if we are to go by Florida's coach, the championship game should always be between the winner of the SEC and whatever team is ranked first. Remember, such a person gets to vote on who plays for the national championship. This year, everyone agreed that Ohio State should go and their opponent should be anyone but Michigan. Doesn't matter if Michigan came close than any of Ohio State's opponent to beating them and that Florida seemed to struggle every week to beat their opponents. It's what the coaches and reporters want. When opinion is what rules the day, you have a broken system not worthy of being called a sport.

The fans of college football deserve better.

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