Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Give me an activity some consider a sport, but everyone else says it's not."

Obligatory apologies for the sporadic updates, but real life has been somewhat chaotic as of late, personally, professionally, and dare I say it at the risk of pretentiousness: artistically.
I do thank these casual readers who seem to find my Blog entertaining enough to continue clicking it and recommending it. Within the past month, even without much updating from me, the total views managed to hit 10,000 which is something certainly to be celebrated, if only because I've never gotten nearly that many people to witness anything I've ever done, and there's something quite remarkable in that. So, yay me, and thank YOU for all for reading.

In any case, my next few posts are going to be somewhat improv-related, but mostly have to do with that curious intersection between where we perform improv (art commenting on life) and why humans think the way we do (life patterns itself after art).

There's a game we play at NCT called 5 Things. More than an improv game, it's always an interesting insight into human psychology, both for its playing and even in the mundane routine of getting suggestions.
For those who may need the explanation: 5 Things involves a naive player who is sent out of the room while 5 activities are taken from the audience. They can be sports, board games, kids' games, chores, activities of any nature. Several necessary elements are then substituted with random things also garnered from the audience. So for instance, the example I always give is Football, but the ball is a cat, and the field is made of lava.
The naive player then returns to the room and through pantomime (think Charades) and gibberish (think the off-screen adult characters on Charlie Brown) a team of clue-givers gets this player to successfully guess these 5 activities plus their changes. These changes can also range from the mundane to the sublime: bananas, rocks, and bricks, all the way to Napoleon Bonaparte, tandem bicycles, and hippogriffs.

As a referee getting suggestions for said game, I constantly try to find new ways of provoking uncharted suggestions, or challenging us in new, unexpected ways. Sometimes, I also simply want to see the entertaining ways people respond to the questions I ask them. Two questions in particular that I use to get activities always garner the most interesting responses:
- "Give me an activity we used to do in the past but technology made it obsolete and we don't have to do it anymore." (I'll cover this one another time.)
- "Give me an activity that some people consider a sport, but everyone else says it's not."

First of all, the response is always immediate, and it tends to revolve around the same 5 or 6 answers.
Second of all, it's funny how fervent people get about their response, and how fervent people get about defending said activity.

The first thing I feel I must say about these things overall is this, and it stems the entire debate:
I don't fully understand why people are so insistent that specific activities be designated sports. What constitutes a sport, anyway? And why does it matter to people so badly that something be given the designation 'sport'?

My only theory for this subconscious adherence to hierarchy can only be explained by high school, where I learned quite absolutely that sports were to be taken seriously, and everything else was to be taken essentially as a joke.

Now I'll be the first to admit I am just slightly bitter that for whatever reason, I couldn't leave slightly early toward the end of the day for a dress rehearsal but the basketball team got to leave early to warm up for a home game. Sometimes, obscenely early.  Now look, this was a deeply personal experience, and I could be extremely biased, but I continually saw other students whose interests were other things, pushed aside in favor of easing the loads of the athletes.
Is it a huge stereotype that athletes got treated with favoritism, that sports were given leave and excused from certain rules while everyone else was made to suffer? Absolutely. Does it make it any less true? Not from my experience, no.

And for me, that explains a lot of why we don't let anything we do fall short of a sport. If people refuse to give it that distinction, then it is taken less seriously, it is treated with less dignity.
My question is why. Why can't something be a competent, healthy, admirable, respectable form of expression or even athletic prowess without having to belabor the label of what to call it?

I mean, what even constitutes a sport?
Athletic ability, certainly.
Training, practice, absolutely.
A point system needs to be applicable, for sure.

Look, in my mind, hockey, basketball, soccer, and the like, are true sports.
They're active and defense and offense can be active at any time.
That's something that diminishes both football and baseball for me: the defending side cannot equally score while offense has "possession."
Football and baseball require turnover strategies. Obviously, in our country, we don't consider these two sports any less than the others, and in fact they're bigger. Many would say it's because of that turnover strategy that these games fare better. They show off strategical thinking as well as athletic prowess.

So competitions where teams go head-to-head directly (or even solo sports where individuals go head-to-head directly, like tennis and the like) are easy to sort through, but even they have some grey areas.
Most of the Olympic games, winter and summer, are people showing off specific skills. Almost all of them are easy to discern a winner: fastest time wins, most points wins, etc.
But what makes darts more or less an athletic endeavor than golf? Archery seems to involve the strength most people seem to require of their sports, but darts requires the same amount of accuracy, as does golf, but using different equipment, taking different elements into account. Few would argue archery's place as a sport, but golf and darts are more tenuous. And why? Because archery requires just that much more strength?

What differentiates an athletic skill from any other spatial skill? Tennis requires strength but also accuracy. Badminton, table tennis, and the like require less strength, but no less accuracy. So accuracy, despite requiring constant training, and an essential element of something that is a sport, is not an athletic skill?

And what about things like NASCAR, or even equestrian competitions? Aren't those more to do with the performance ability of the car and the horse? (You can argue with me all you want, it's the horse doing all the work.)

Why would you want your activity considered part of a category that is so sprawling, it simultaneously allows something grueling like Greco-Roman wrestling, and something as straightforward as trampoline gymnastics?
Would you want to be part of a club that allowed anyone in?


Actually, I don't hear too much gripe from this corner.
But every once in a while you will hear someone argue for the validity of chess as a sport.
Your mind is engaged, and your body just isn't. No amount of scientific research into adrenaline changes the reality that you are just sitting there, moving pieces.
I mean, if it was that weird chess game from Star Wars**, at least I would argue that it's athletic competition for the pieces, because they're really fighting each other.
Look, there's no denying chess is an incredibly complex mind game, one of anticipation and planning.
It's just a little too far on the strategy side of the strategy/athleticism scale and is a little like when a high school hands out academic letters (in addition to athletic letters) to be inclusive: it's pathetic.

** It's called Holochess. I know this. I knew this before I wrote the sentence. Nerd alert.

This one's probably the worst in terms of putting up a fight.
And look, having been a dancer myself since I was a tiny child person, I get the argument.
But I also don't get it.
Does that make sense?
Look, one of the main distinctions of an athletic competition, a sport, for me, is the fact that there is an objective winner. An objective set of rules is agreed upon by all involved teams who work toward an objective scoring goal, after which a winner is declared because of most points accrued.
Having danced competitively I can tell you that the scoring system and awarding of "top dances" is either almost completely arbitrary, or is complete bullshit. It's based more on emotional reaction, on completely subjective elements. Yes, there is technique that can be observed, but if a choreographer is worth their weight in gold, then they know how to emphasize superior technique while hiding inferior technique.
Of course, if a dance is a complete mess then it's not going to win, but that's that.
If the top soccer team from Brazil meets the top soccer team from Germany, we can objectively see what's going to happen. (Though I'm sure no one expected the slaughter that occurred.) But if Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire meet each other and dance.... who wins? Half the people will tell you Kelly danced circles around the restrained Astaire, the other half will tell you Astaire proved why he's in a completely different league than Kelly.
They are both technically proficient. They are both fantastic at evoking specific emotions. They are dancers. Kelly I'd say is the more athletic but only in terms of how a lot of his dancing involved more acrobatics, more endurance exhibitions. Astaire was all grace and class.
But the point is: mastered technique doesn't mean anything if all the judges just liked a different dance better. Maybe they had more personality, maybe they had more intricate choreography, maybe they got a better reaction. Whatever it was, it wasn't objective.
We're grading what is essentially artistic expression, in the truest sense, and I hate that.
I can't stand that idea. So it actually makes me really mad when people insist dancing is a sport.
It's not something to be judged against others.
It's not something to be standardized and made to conform to templates that judges can easily grade upon.
That is what happened to ice skating and gymnastics in almost every form of competition and guess what? It got boring. Don't let that happen to dance.

I actually have a similar complaint for golf as I do baseball, and to some extent hockey, and for that matter any competition where external equipment is required.
It's that competitors are not all using the same equipment.
In football, pads are just uniform. That's whatever. Same goes for soccer.
And the ball itself is not an issue, everyone is fighting over the same ball.
But in hockey and baseball, and especially golf, you have equipment that is designed to be as effective as possible. Yes, professionals of course know how to use them better, but I feel like if the playing field were to be truly equaled in these sports, we'd have just one set of equipment everyone would have to use.
Yup. One set of clubs.
And every year there's a big ceremony for the retirement of the official PGA set of clubs.
Also, you save money on caddies.

Again, there's a lot being determined by non-human elements and independent equipment.
Plus, it's cruel to fish. Why is this allowed, yet we can't do dog fights? Or bear baiting?
And no, I'm not exaggerating. If we're going to allow fishing and hunting as legal activities, however controlled, then I see no reason to outlaw dog fights, cock fights, or just... any of those SyFy movies should be real things. Yeah, put a giant octopus and a giant shark in a SeaWorld killer whale tank and then poke them until they attack each other. Because again, why is that any more inhumane than what we do to fish?
You're literally wounding an animal for sport, whether or not they're thrown back. Except as an actual source of food, I hate that fishing exists as an activity.

I actually don't mind bowling as a sport. It's an athletic skill combined with accuracy. It's more along the lines of archery, or pool or that kind of thing. There's this nervewracking aspect of everyone having to do their thing individually, and you just don't know what the outcome is going to be until the very last second (you know, unless someone really blew it out loud). And I like that.
The excitement of watching bowling however, well, your mileage may vary. I can't begrudge you that.

Haha, I'm just kidding. No one considers this shit a sport.
It's fun as hell to watch, though.
Makes much better TV than most sports they waste TV time with, that's for sure.
Plus, Bill Nye, guys.

Professional Wrestling
Now, people who have come to this Blog recently know I have loved and will always love the world of professional wrestling. I think if I'd wanted to pursue it one percent more than I actually did, I might have.
But anyway, the sole argument for this not being a sport is its predetermined outcomes of matches. Again, I do think that argument is totally valid.
There's also some truth to the claim that it's faked. But some of that "faking" is akin to a batter kind of jogging to first base after a good hit. They still have to lift another 200 pound man, they still have to convincingly make you believe what they did was painful, and they still have to take a shot to the back with a chair (because you can't fake that).
Much like dance, it's a performance art. There's brutal physicality involved along with vigilant technicality. Sure, it's not true gladiators beating each other to a pulp, but now we have MMA to show us that.
But MMA didn't have Stone Cold Steve Austin.

And that's the bottom line.