I’m going to admit something: I don’t know much about real loss. I count my blessings every day; all things considered, I’m a pretty fortunate guy. So when I heard the truly tragic story of Wes Leonard, I began to do a little thinking. Although Leonard’s story is not the subject of my article, the unfortunate events leading to his passing left me with one question. What is it about sports? Juxtaposed with such suddenly horrific circumstances, I began to wonder, what draws us so strongly to sports? It’s the subject of this article.
Your first question: are we actually fascinated by sports? I think so. I can throw some numbers out: the NFL generates 9 billion dollars in revenue, on average an American cable viewer can access between 5 and 9 dedicated sports channels, and every major American newspaper minus the Journal contains a sports section. Now I can’t point to these things as proof that every one of us has a sports team that they follow – that’s non-falsifiable at best and false at worst. Nevertheless I think – at minimum – the readers of this blog are drawn, in an almost inexorable fashion, to sports.
Your next question: what does Wes Leonard’s story have to do with anything? Fair question. I was moved to write this article when I thought about what happened. A proud father celebrates as his son hits the game winning shot, only to then experience the unimaginable and unthinkable – the inexperienceable (I know, not a word). Mr. Leonard came to cheer Wes on, and watch his son lead his team to victory; sports for Mr. Leonard and fans generally seems to be about three things: (1) community; (2) growth; (3) enjoyment.
I say community because cheering for a team – a professional team, your significant other’s team, or your son’s team – is about building a community of followers and enjoying your team’s success with them. When they fail, a community of followers joins you in making excuses and rationalizing the loss, but keeping the faith. A community of fans and followers get together at bars, homes, and dorm rooms to feel the pulse of a team. Mr. Leonard came to join the Fennville community in support and jubilation of a victory.
But then there’s nothing new in saying this, because it’s obvious that sports build a kinship of varying intensity amongst fans of a particular team. Maybe less obvious is the opportunity for growth. I say to you that sports in this country are a tool to help young people grow and mature: values such as sharing, team play, etc. At 16 years of age, Wes may have had some growing to do but it sounds like he was well on his way; friends and teammates describe him as an “amazing person,” possessing a personality that “makes his teammates better,” who had a “passion for everything he did.”
Maybe that was fairly obvious too. The last one is enjoyment. This may be the most obvious now that I think of it, and for that reason I’m really not going to get into it. I have to credit my buddy Joey for narrowing down a much larger list into these three general categories.
These three don’t get to the heart of the matter. I think something much deeper ties the three of these things together and gets really at how and we love sports so much. Sports, I argue, is familial in nature. It’s not just about being in a community, watching our friends/loved ones grow and learn, or having some fun; rather, I think our fascination with sports has more to do with family ties.
I’m a 49ers fan because my dad took me to games, taught me about the franchise’s history, and my family goes to games together. Bill Simmons – one of the most popular sports columnists – lets the world know every week that his love for Celtic green stems from his father’s love and tutelage. In his book, Simmons writes that his father held on to Celtics season tickets in the 1980s, in large part, to ensure that Bill Simmons could partake in a family tradition. Sports love is something that gets passed down from parent to child, and, in that sense, is almost like a value or tradition in a family. Let me give you one more example: I have two friends, one who graduated from Alabama and another who grew up in “Auburn Country.” They tell me that the rivalry is more Montague and Capulet than Apple and Verizon. And why? Because sports are passed down to family members and rivalries with them.
Now you’re probably thinking: this is dumb. I don’t bleed Alabama Crimson, 49er Red&Gold, or Laker Purple. I’m a casual fan and watch – at most – the playoffs of whatever sport I find exciting. If so, I want you to ask yourself two questions. First, what would you do if the team in your city or the city in which you grew up were in the playoffs? Better still, in the sport’s championship? I’m thinking here of the 2010 World Series Champs. Second, if you had to pick a team, who would it be? I imagine your answer is conditioned in some part by your brother/sister/father/mother/significant other’s choice in team. If I’m wrong, then please, please, please comment. I’d love to hear from you.
And it’s with that, I’d like to bring the conversation full circle back to Wes Leonard. My prayers and thoughts go out to the entire Fennville community. And in the wake of the horrible events of last week, I think we get a glimpse – in one life-changing moment – of exactly how and why sports are a familial matter. It is nothing if not a metaphorical condensation of all the reasons that sports fans can be so passionate and devoted to their teams. I realize I’ve been sloppy at times in my analysis by interweaving college sports, professional sports, and high school basketball to prove my point. Nevertheless, I think I’ve uncovered a truth about our love and fascination of sports.
Thoughts and Prayers with the students of Fennville, the Leonard family, and the people of Japan. Did you like this article? If so, like our Facebook page 25TwoFour Sports Blog and add us on Twitter at 25TwoFour!