Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Game-Changer: Why Sports-Writing Matters

   A few weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers lost a playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Green Bay is my favorite team, and I was pretty darn bummed out. Wearing my team jersey (with team t-shirt underneath), I trudged back to my dorm room. It sucked. I opened the door to find my roommate sprawled out on his bed. He is from California.
   Even though he is (self-admittedly) not the biggest football fan in the world, I congratulated him on the win. He gave a guilty chuckle as I went over to my side of the room and began to put away all of my team gear. “I’m sorry,” he said, “But hey, good thing sports don’t matter.”
   Sports don’t matter. Something resonated.
   In the journalism school here at Northwestern, a lot of professors seem to take the same approach. Sports are pointless. In the grand scheme of things, there are things people need to know, and things people just want to know. In other words, some topics covered by journalists double as downright services to the community. Covering sports, to the experts here at the Medill School of Journalism, is not a service. It never will be.
   I started a new class recently, with a new discussion leader, and to grab a sense of who each of us were as aspiring journalists, he asked us why we were studying the things we were. When someone brought up sports coverage, my professor looked him dead in the eye and had this to say, “Sports, cool. You know what your biggest struggle is going to be? Making me care about sports. I don’t give a shit about sports.”
   A few months ago, we had a guest speaker from the Texas Tribune. The open discussion-style forum somehow pivoted toward journalism as a public service (basically what was said above: by providing news, journalists are providing the average folks with a direct service that they need). The speaker began to rattle off some examples. Politics, people need to know that. International stories, people need to know them. Local conflicts, crime, health developments—people need to be informed of all those too. A kid raised his hand and asked about sports. The guy looked him dead in the eye and said something along the lines of, “Sports are absolutely not a public service. I have defended this point for years and years, and I will defend it until I die. Sports do not serve anybody. Sports don’t matter.
   Sports don’t matter.
   For four months, I have been told over and over that my desired profession—my dream job—is pointless. Sure, there is work to be done, jobs are there for the taking, and there is a market for sports writing, but ultimately, there are more important things than winning and losing.
   Medill is arguably the best journalism school in the world. There are kids in my class who are probably going to go off and cover the Middle Eastern conflicts for major outlets, or write for the Economist or Time about how to face the challenges America is up against today. People are going to go out and do “the important stuff.” They will be doing things that matter, and if what everyone is telling me is true, I will not be. My career could be big or small or anywhere in between. Either way, it does not matter, because if I go into sports, the things I will be writing about do not matter.
   All of this talk had me thinking—thinking about big things like the direction I wanted to take my writing and my blog and what I wanted to study and work on and expand on and explore. During the vast length of my short stint in journalism, I have been seeking to make a difference in the things I write. Sure, sometimes I joke about naked dudes in the locker room or mothers who show up to college parties, but this blog has always been about sharing opinions, thoughts, and stories on things that readers care about. That is what people read. People read things that they care about because it affects them, it relates to them, it stirs them, it moves them. Can sports do that?
   One of my favorite pieces on this blog went up almost 18 months ago. It was about 9/11. It was a reflective article on how sports helped America through its healing process. George Bush’s valiant first pitch in the World Series. Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run to lead the New York Mets to a win in their first game back in New York City.
   That day, sports mattered.
   I remember back in high school, our head football coach was diagnosed with cancer during my senior year. The following game, after the news was finally broken to the school, our team earned a come-from-behind win, on the road, with the assistant coach filling in on the sidelines. My small private catholic school came together as a community like it never had before.
   That day, sports mattered.
   On March 3, 1993, former North Carolina State head basketball coach Jim Valvano stood before the crowd at the first ESPY awards ceremony. He was in the midst of a year-long battle with bone cancer. Valvano announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research, complete with the timeless line, “Don’t give up . . . don’t ever give up.” He would die less than two months later. Imagine how many cancer patients, families of cancer patients, and friends of cancer patients have seen that speech. Imagine the impact. Imagine the hope. The gratitude goes to a basketball coach talking at an awards ceremony honoring the best in athletics.
   That day, sports mattered.
   Whether it is something as small as moving on past a tough loss, or something as big as finding the courage to continue cancer treatment, sports affect millions of people every day. True, oftentimes nothing special happens. Oftentimes a box score is all you really have at the end of the day, but as Bill Simmons, one of my biggest influences, says: 9,999 times out of 10,000 nothing out of the ordinary will happen, but the reason we keep watching—the reason we keep showing up and wearing our jerseys and maintaining our passion—is for that 1 in 10,000 chance that something special will take place. It could be a miraculous hockey game that brings all of the United States together in triumph, it could be a superstar who goes the extra step in making a difference within the community, or it could be a speech that inspires levels of courage, strength, and determination that we did not think were possible.
   There are more important things in the world than winning and losing, I realize that. Not everyone cares about the final score. The thing is, though, sometimes sports go beyond the numbers. Sometimes victories and on-field success can mean something greater. Suddenly, sports can have profound impact. Sports can bring emotion. Sports can make a difference.
   In my life, I owe a lot of memories to sports. I remember jumping up and down and hugging my father after hearing our beloved Diamondbacks win the 2001 World Series from my bedroom. I remember our high school football team running around on the field and crying after winning for our absent coach. I remember watching the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl in 2010 and wishing my grandfather, a longtime fan, was still around to be a part of the experience with my father and I. Even if all of the above examples could not sell you, take it from me. Sports have made a difference in my life, and they can make a difference in yours too, whether you work for the Texas Tribune or the New York Times or Al Jazeera.
   Just because something does not have a body count or a weather map or the attention of Anderson Cooper does not mean it is not important. Sports have none of these things, and yet, they still manage to fascinate us, move us, and inspire us. When something can reach down and affect us deep inside like that, it matters. Sports matter because they remind us of life’s ups, downs, highs, lows, twists, turns, and triumphs. Sports matter because every day we can turn on the radio or the television and see how hard work pays off. We can see how our dreams, our goals, and our own, more personal trophies are still within reach. Sports can lend motivation to the downtrodden, they can give victory to the hopeless, they can lift up those who may have fallen down.
   Simply put, sports show us the incredible power of the human spirit. Amid all of the chaos, tragedy, and sadness that we see on the evening news, our world still has room for people who show up to work every day and do their best and be successful. Our world needs that. Our world needs hope.
   Our world needs sports.

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