July 26, 2009

What's In A Game?

As a writer for ESPN.com I’m often asked my opinion on sports, especially once people find out what it is I do for a living. Now, I can wax poetic on many topics: from the 1986 Mets to the Kellen Winlsow playoff game to Chris Webber’s timeout. From the “Miracle on Ice” to Brandy Chastain’s celebration, whatever the topic, I can understand why people would want to ask someone touting themselves as a “fantasy sports analyst” about sports.

However, one question always manages to come up in conversation year after year: “Is golf a sport?” The recent run of Tom Watson in the British Open once again brought that simple query to the forefront of my mind. After all, one might argue, if a nearly 60-year-old man can come within one missed putt of a major golf championship, how much athleticism is truly required to play golf. And if the answer is “apparently not much,” then how can it be a sport?

After plenty of spirited debate with my friends and colleagues over both many years and many beers, I’ve pretty much come up with my personal answer to that question. All athletic endeavors fall into one of the following four categories: A race, a game, a sport, or a judged exhibition.

Races pretty much take care of themselves. They are any event, be it a marathon or a sprint – on foot, underwater or on horseback – where the winner is determined by the clock. Whoever achieves a goal in the quickest amount of time is declared the victor.

A game is an event where there is a highest-possible score a participant can reach. In bowling, no matter how good you are, the best you can get is a 300. In golf, although it’s not very likely to actually occur, you can never finish a round in fewer than 18 strokes. At Wimbledon, 6-0 is as big a differential as you’ll ever see on the scoreboard; hence, tennis is a game.

Sports, on the other hand, are athletic competitions in which “perfection” cannot be achieved. There is no true ceiling for a highest possible score in basketball, football, soccer or hockey, even given the constraints of a running clock.

In baseball, it is true that a pitcher like Mark Buehrle can throw a “perfect game” but even that “perfection” can be improved upon… Getting 27 outs on 27 pitches might be considered to be even “more perfect” as would 27 strikeouts, which would require a minimum of 81 pitches. Plus, this perfection only refers to an individual position. The offensive lineup of a team playing the sport of baseball can win a perfect game, 1-0, 5-0 or even 500-0. There is no upper-limit or ceiling on their performance.

Because of this definition of “sport” I would argue for the inclusion of many track and field events, such as the pole vault or the javelin throw, where the “ultimate effort” will never be reached. However, when it comes to much of the Olympics, the fourth category comes into play.

A judged exhibition is where I classify events such as figure skating and gymnastics, or even a X-games mogul ski race where outside opinion on the level of skill plays a huge part, if not the whole enchilada of who is declared to be the “best.” Can you imagine if the Orlando Magic beat the Los Angeles Lakers, not because they scored more points, but because some official watching from half-court thought Dwight Howard’s form looked better than Kobe Bryant’s when they took their jump-shots? Of course not. When there’s that much subjectivity involved, it cannot possibly be a sport.

So as it turns out, my life has been nothing but a string of games… from being a comedic improviser, where the best one could possible hope for is that everyone leaves the theater with a smile on their face – to my time as a dealer in the casinos, where you simply can’t do better than getting “21” – to now, where I attempt to give daily advice about the games of fantasy baseball and football.

Hopefully, this blog will be a place where I can continue to sort through the ups and downs of the ultimate game – the game of life, which, if you’ve been paying attention to anything I’ve said so far isn’t actually a game at all… it’s a sport.

After all, the last time I checked, the “perfect life” cannot be achieved… but hey, there’s no harm in trying.

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