To the best of my recollection, I have never attended a game wearing face paint in my team’s colors. I am certain that I have never sat in a stadium in December with a group of my pals, all of us shirtless in freezing weather. Right, I know what you’re thinking: “And you call yourself a sports fan?”
Well, yeah, I am a sports fan. As my wife once said about me, “he’d pay to watch two guys fish.” That’s probably not true, in part because I’m not sure fishing qualifies as a sport. Which raises a question occasionally debated by people who have had plenty to drink: What is a sport, and what isn’t?
It occurred to me that when Sports Illustrated published its first issue in August, 1954, they might have printed a sort of mission statement, saying (in effect), “We’ll be covering X, Y and Z. If you want stories and pictures about bean-bag tossing, look elsewhere.”
There was no definition of sports to be found in that first issue, but there was a lengthy article called “The Golden Age Is Now”, taking the view that interest in sports was at an all-time high in 1954. The magazine cited statistics like this: “Tens of thousands of pin boys are kept leaping by 20 million bowlers.” A chart of the leading U.S. spectator sports had softball first with 125 million admissions; football was fifth with 35 million.
So I put that inaugural Sports Illustrated back on the shelf and looked for help elsewhere, including several dictionaries. Their definitions of sports (or sport) varied slightly, but the general idea was that sports are a) physical activities that are b) competitive and are c) governed by rules and d) require skill.
By those standards, we can see that 110-meter hurdle racing is a sport, but jogging to Starbucks isn’t, since it lacks elements b, c and d.
My hesitation about classifying fishing as a sport is that it’s often solitary, not competitive, and when it does get competitive, it isn’t governed by rules.
Some people don’t consider golf a sport, usually on the grounds that it isn’t a physical activity. On the contrary: Golf often requires a lot of exertion, especially when playing shots from weeds or water. However, I’ll grant you that miniature golf is not a sport — not enough a or d. Also, amateur wrestling is a sport, but professional wrestling isn’t — it’s acting.
Here are a couple of other thoughts about what separates sports from other leisure activities…
1. Just because you can get hurt doing it doesn’t make it a sport. You and your neighbor are extremely competitive about stringing Christmas lights, but when you fall off the roof, that’s not a sports injury.
2. It’s not a sport if you can smoke while participating in it. That eliminates poker, billiards, chess, bridge, and maybe fishing.
There’s some irony in the no-smoking standard, since the back cover of that very first Sports Illustrated is an advertisement that shows a guy holding a tennis racket in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The caption reads, “You’re So Smart to Smoke Parliament.”