October 15, 2021 | LIFE | By Emma McDermott | Illustration by Sydney Morris

Sports are something you can talk about for hours without really talking about anything at all. They’re an escape from reality, for many of us, and a gateway to another, much simpler world. 

It’s like what Haymitch says to Katniss in “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” about her responsibility to calm the masses: “Your job is to be a distraction. So people forget what the real problems are.” That’s what sports are, too, I think.

Sports are, at the same time, so stupid and so magnificent. Many of us are happily entertained by watching people shooting a ball into a little hoop or passing a small disc across an ice rink or hitting a tiny ball coming in at 100 mph with a wooden bat. 

When you really think about it, sports are pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things. But they matter so much.

Take my cousin, Bob, a die-hard White Sox fan (I know, not a great week for this rare species). He goes to at least 40 ballgames a season, has traveled all over the country for the “ballpark experiences,” and can rattle off the most obscure statistics about the boys of the Southside. He pretty much lives and breathes baseball. A game so simple and a team that leaves much to be desired (as a Sox fan, myself, I can say that), brings him so, so much joy.

I guess this is kind of my point: when you love a team like that, watching them play makes you so happy. And, if you’ve got a team in the postseason, there’s this anxious, excited energy you feel every game day. Especially in middle school, I was a huge Chicago hockey fan, and I was lucky enough to get to watch the Hawks have a lot of success (sucks to suck, Detroit). 

And to this day, I remember going to school having so much difficulty focusing because I couldn’t take my mind off the playoff game that night. 

I’d write out all the Hawks players, their numbers, positions, line mates, likely matchups against the other team, and hometowns (admittedly, I was a little obsessed) on scrap paper, completely unable to pay attention to my poor teachers who knew the prospect of “redirecting me to being on-task” was hopeless.

I even remember watching the Hawks go down 3–1 to the Red Wings in 2013, running into the backyard, throwing myself on the ground, and staring up at the blue Chicago sky as hot tears rolled down my cheeks for about 20 minutes. Dramatic, maybe, but it didn’t feel that way at the time, and I think it speaks to how sports have this unique power to prick your emotions. Or it’s possible I was just a fanatic.

And that’s just the experience as a fan. When you’re the one actually playing, it’s a whole different story, and I think my experience of playing sports as a kid and young adult was, singlehandedly, the best part of growing up.

When you’re a kid, sports teach you so much about life, just by their nature. You can play your heart out but you might not always win. You’ve got to work with your teammates to be successful. Sometimes the referee misses a call. Not to mention, exercise is important, and it can be fun and social. Always shake your opponent’s hand at the end. There’s a lot of hard work and a little luck involved, too. 

I’d get nervous before every soccer game –– as a kid and in high school –– and I was on a lot of losing teams growing up. But my dad would always tell me, “You’re just as good as them, if not better. Doesn’t matter who the other team is.” It took me a while to believe it (can you blame an 11-year-old for having low morale with a 0–2–8 record?) but when I finally took my dad’s advice to heart is when things started to click, and click in ways far beyond sports, too.

Athletics were, for me, the realm of so much personal growth that could not have been paralleled by anything else. I wasn’t always confident in myself, but when I leaned into sports, I started to believe in myself. I played soccer and basketball, and when I was playing it was like everything else in the world melted away; it was this sacred time when I could just give total focus to something I loved. 

Maybe it’s something about being bent over from exhaustion, sweat dripping off your temple, lungs burning, crowd going wild, that makes you feel like a badass. Maybe it’s your teammate’s parent screaming “You gotta believe!” Maybe it’s your coach telling you he’s proud of you. Whatever it is, sports awaken something uniquely human in us.

Sports transcend language. They’re something that, if you love them, connect you to people around the world. You can talk to someone you just met about sports for hours or travel to a part of the world in which spoken language is not a possible form of communication, but sports is.

It’s pretty spectacular that sports are, on the one hand, such childish games and, on the other, such a uniting, powerful, identity-forming force. I can think of nothing more rewarding, simple, challenging, or wonderful.

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