Sport? Not a Sport?

 

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About six years ago I started playing tennis again after roughly a 28-year hiatus.

My decision to pick up a racket after all those years away was not because I missed the game, but more out of a sad acceptance that I was never going to become a good golfer. Or even a passably bad golfer. Since the rest of my family was playing tennis, I figured it would be a good way to join them in a healthy, recreational activity. In other words, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s now a love-hate relationship I enjoy with tennis, based primarily on how well I played my last time out on the court (I’m currently deep in one of my “hate” phases).

I’ve come to terms (sort of) at this stage of my life in knowing that I’ll never recapture the level of skill I once possessed as a young person (in my case, my tennis career peaked around the age of 11). And while I feel a considerable amount of frustration when my body can’t execute on what my brain is telling it to do on the court, the exercise is good, there’s a social element I enjoy most of the time, and on those days where the mental ball bearings deep inside me slot into their correct corridors and I actually play well, I get a lot of satisfaction from touching a level of success I used to regularly enjoy as a kid.

Like a lot of guys my age, I suffer from that Catch 22 of knowing things like a job and other grownup life-responsibilities prevent me from having enough leisure time at my disposal to ever take my game to a higher level. I know full well that when the day comes that I do have that kind of time it’s likely my body will have deteriorated to a point where physically I’ll be unable to excel. It’s the classic “it is what it is” situation, and so I fumble and stumble around the court with inconsistency as my hallmark and painful exasperation always painted on my panting, sweating face.

The reality of “not enough time” comes up frequently these days, as several of my tennis friends have diverted their attention and recreational time to a “fad” activity that is a distant relative of tennis. A “sport” by the name of pickleball has, seemingly out of nowhere, reared its ugly head, and now threatens to leave me abandoned in my perpetual pursuit of a doubles foursome.

Pickleball is one of those “kissing cousin” games of tennis and the racket sport family, along with squash, racket ball, paddle tennis and to a lesser extent, ping pong and badminton. The “racket” of choice is more of a plastic/wood paddle/mallet, and the “court” is a bastardized, smallish version of a tennis court, with slightly different rules and regulations I have yet to master, but seem centered around whacking some sort of bizarro whiffle ball, as hard as you can, at your opponent on the other side of the net.

As of this writing I have no intention of taking up pickleball. For one, my sporting life at this stage of the game does not possess the bandwidth to add on another activity, without further compromising my inconsistent, barely competent tennis skills. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I’m a stubborn you-know-what, and I just don’t wanna.

That doesn’t discourage my friends from frequently cajoling me into joining in on the pickleball craze sweeping through my club, and apparently many other clubs like it up and down the great state of California (and maybe the rest of the country, too, at least so say these new fans of pickleball).

It’s gotten so problematic, that I’m developing a complex over my unwillingness to join in (always prone to succumbing to peer pressure, it’s taken on a bit of a morality play in my overactive mind). Recently, when asked for what felt like the umpteenth time if I wanted to start playing “pickle,” I exclaimed, “No, pickleball is barely even a sport for crying out loud.”

And that statement got me to thinking, is pickleball a sport? And more broadly, what does constitute a sport versus an activity, game or simply a distraction?

I’d heard this “sport/not a sport” argument a fair amount during the two-plus decades I spent trying to develop my golf game. Avid, accomplished golfers will absolutely take you to the mat arguing that golf is indeed a sport, and those who are good at it are elite athletes. If you aren’t a golfer, here’s guessing you question why anyone would partake in such a dreary activity, and conclude that those who do aren’t athletes at all, but more likely spoiled country clubbers seeking hours to spend away from their families on the weekend.

Okay, so let’s think about that for a second.

How do I define a sport? To me, for something to qualify as a sport there should be physical exertion/exercise involved, first and foremost. Then there should be some sort of scorekeeping, with a winner and loser clearly identified at it’s conclusion. Team approaches are encouraged, but not a must (like in singles tennis), if the other components are in place.

We could go really deep here, but this isn’t a PhD dissertation (or whatever real long written pieces that people going for PhD’s write), it’s a SportsAttic post being composed on a cross country flight. With that in mind, we’ll stick with the above parameters for now and see how a few “sports/activities” that come to mind fare, under the intense scrutiny of SportsAttic inspection and analysis.

Sport? No Sport?

(Warning: The following represents a subjective verdict rendered indisputable by the SportsAttic editorial board. There is no intention to hurt feelings or otherwise denigrate those whose opinions differ from ours, regardless of how misguided those opinions may be.) Here we go:

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Ping Pong: Okay, there’s scorekeeping, and a clearly defined winner and loser. Like tennis (clearly a sport, by the way), there can be teaming involved, which often makes it more fun, along with requiring a different approach, skillset and strategy. However the exercise part of the equation is sorely lacking (I know, you watch the pros and you could debate this point), even in doubles, when the exertion typically encompasses clumsily lurching out of the way of your lunging partner during the required alternation of shots in a correctly played doubles contest. There also needs to be a modicum of consideration given here to the whole “beer pong” sidecar. To me, you can’t be a sport if a high percentage of your participants are involved while inebriated, or in pursuit of intoxication (more on this later, when we get to golf). Verdict: Not a sport (it’s a game — see checkers and the following “games” section)

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Golf: Is golf an activity or a sport? Therein lies the debate. There is definitely a score being kept. However, there aren’t always clearly defined winners and losers (anyone who’s heard the old “you aren’t competing with the other players, you are only competing with yourself” line knows what I’m talking about), yet if you’ve ever seen a fight break out in a clubhouse over scorecard inconsistencies impacting who owes who seven dollars, then you know there are winners and losers every Saturday at a golf club near you. And while no self-respecting country club golfer would allow one to confuse golf with beer pong, alcohol is indisputably a part of the culture, and a participant’s game can sometimes improve, or crater, depending on the amount of alcohol intake over 18 holes (SportsAttic aside — during my time pretending to be a golfer I once shot a 71 — for you non-golfers, that’s a really bad score — on the front nine of a club out on Long Island, immediately followed by a 41 — acceptable score for most, great for me back in the day — on the back nine — the only change in my approach between the disastrous front and kick-ass back being the shot of Jack Daniels I gulped down on the turn — go figure). And what of the exercise piece of the sport/no sport puzzle? Non-golfers will swear all day long that golf can never be considered a sport because there is no physical exertion or athletic activity involved. But anyone who’s ever walked 18 hilly holes in the sun, swinging a stick 110 times or so along the way while carrying their own bag, will tell you that golf is, indeed, physically exhausting. We could go on at length here (and the golf debate may have to be revisited in more detail in a future post), but the Verdict is: Sport (barely)

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Horse Racing:Sorry, but when the primary combatant is an animal, it is hard to make a strong argument that horse racing is a sport. And with all due respect to the jockeys of the world, while we do have winners and losers, how many of us can easily conjure up the name of the guy who rode Secretariat to glory? Horse racing is also the first activity to take us down the slippery slope of gambling versus sport. Sorry, but would the “sport of kings” have nearly the following it enjoys today if we weren’t allowed to walk up to a little window before each race and throw away some of our hard earned paychecks, while mindlessly sucking on a rum and coke and eating cheese fries? Great way to spend an afternoon, right? Yes. Sport? Nope. Verdict: Not a Sport (gambling activity, like poker)

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Polo: Unlike horse racing, polo is a human participant driven activity. There are teams, winners and losers. And while I have never participated in the sport personally, I watched SportsDaughter2 ride her horse competitively often enough to know that there is a tremendous workout involved for anyone brave enough to climb on the back of one of those gorgeous beasts, let alone whack away at a little ball with a long stick at breakneck speeds while doing so. Verdict: Sport (we can also throw water polo into the “sport” category, while we are at it here)

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Games: There are too many in this subset to list out separately for our debate. So suffice it to say that if an activity falls under the category of “rainy day” diversion, it probably isn’t a sport. We’ve already mentioned checkers (game) and poker (gambling), as two of the more visible examples here. Others that fall in here would be card games in general (c’mon, Go Fish? Old Maid?), jigsaw puzzles (more of an activity than a game, but definite rainy day fodder), darts (yes, big alcohol/pub thing going on here, that, while unquestionably endearing, keeps it from making the “sport” cut), and croquet (hopefully no explanation needed for this one). Pool (even when dressed up under the more aesthetically pleasing moniker of “billiards”) is also a game, played mostly in dimly lit “halls” under a haze of tobacco smoke with an alcohol assist) and while enjoyed by many and frequently featuring teams, wins and losses, etc., will never be mistaken for a trip to the gym. Verdict: games are Not Sports (afraid I have to add in bowling here, too, folks, sorry…)

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Badminton: There’s a large delta here between the badminton of the black and white movie era, featuring women in long dresses and parasols, versus watching two-on-two matchups between people who really know how to play. Lightning fast, competitive and requiring coordination, quickness and endurance, badminton may get the “unsung hero” award of the sporting world. Not to mention, badminton also brings to us the term “shuttlecock,” which in and of itself makes it way cool. Verdict: Sport (we’ll throw in a few of the other racket sports at this juncture, too — squash, racket ball, paddle tennis — all sports — with one notable exception, wink)

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Boxing: Can an activity that somehow, inexplicably picked up the nickname “the sweet science” along the way really be called a sport? Barbaric, declining in TV ratings, participants and rabid fans (especially in the much coveted 18-49 demographic) — can two guys in satin short pants, wearing mittens and trying to inflict bodily harm upon one another, truly be called a sport? Just seeing who’s paying attention here, folks. Of course it is a sport! Case closed. Verdict: Sport (and yes, we’ll add UFC, MMA and all the other cage match contests — except the WWE variety — in here, as well)

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Health and Wellness Activities: Incredibly popular and good for the mind, body, and soul, how do we categorize all of the activities we choose to engage in our effort to stave off Father Time and remain healthy and fit? Yes, we are talking everything from the plain old gym workout to yoga, pilates and spin class here. Now literally part of the fabric of life in 2018, not unlike how cigarettes and driving without a seatbelt were back in the ’60’s, I’m afraid that all of these admirable physical fitness regimens are simply that — activities. Verdict: Not Sport (not that there’s anything wrong with them!)

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Martial Arts: I was tempted to lump this broad, centuries old category (karate, jiu jitsu, kung fu, etc.) into the above activity segment of health and wellness, but while containing all of the positive attributes of mind/body/soul, we also can plug in the whole scorekeeping/win/loss aspect here, pushing martial arts over the line past activity and into the world of… Verdict: Sports

And how about a few of the others?

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Jai Alai: To me, Jai Alai (despite possessing one of the cooler names you can think of for a sport/activity, and being a friend to those smart people who compose crossword puzzles for a living), is the gateway drug of the world of sports. It’s always been one of those activities that, when I run across it, I find intriguing for a short period of time, but ultimately move on from, since it’s just impossible to take seriously. And with apologies to all you handball players and tetherball enthusiasts out there, it’s just not real. To lend credibility to jai alai would be to open the door to roller derby, dog racing and the WWE (NCAA wrestling and Greco-Roman style, however, are most definitely sports). Verdict: Not Sport

Swimming: While not a gateway activity like jai alai, swimming is more of a crossover. The old guy doing endless laps in the hotel pool at five in the morning? Not a sport. Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz at the Olympics? Yes, definitely a sport. Also a proud member of the whole health and wellness universe, this one gets over the top courtesy of  all those gold medals. Verdict: Sport (we can add skiing as the winter step-sibling of swimming here, as well)

Fencing: I put this one in a similar category to badminton. If we associate fencing with Gomez Adams going at it against an unamused Lurch on the old Addams Family sitcom, fencing is hard to take seriously. But check out a top fencer at a high school cool enough to include fencing among it’s winter sport offerings, and you see skill, endurance and competition, with a clear winner and loser. Verdict: Sport 

Car Racing: Okay, let’s soup up an engine to an extreme level and put it in a car, then take that car and put it on a track with a bunch of other cars all containing similarly  souped up engines, and bunch them tightly together before driving them (as fast as we can) in a circle, hundreds of times. And oh yeah, there’s a high possibility of hospitalization and/or fatalities. Verdict: Not a Sport (and yes, I know there have been deaths in the boxing ring, too, but to the best of my knowledge, there’s yet to be a spectator at a boxing match who died when a mouthpiece or glove flew into the crowd and decapitated them)

Okay, so that’s a pretty long tangent to go off on because too many of my tennis partners are abandoning me in pursuit of something called pickleball. Maybe that’s why we here at SportsAttic prefer to stick to our old reliables in the world of football, baseball and basketball.

But what of this whole pickleball phenomenon? Sport or No Sport? Well there is a score being kept, teams involved, physical exertion (marginal, but some perspiration is expected), and it is a close relative of tennis, racket ball, squash and the like, all of which qualified under the “Sport” category.

Nah, forget it, I’m going with fad here. Come back to tennis, guys. I don’t have the time to work hard in an effort to achieve mediocrity at yet another “sport.”

Enjoy your weekend activities, everyone!

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