from Nick Suss
June 30, 2014, 11:54 p.m.
I’ve been watching ESPN religiously since I was five years old. When I was in kindergarten, I would always wake up an hour early for school to catch a full episode of SportsCenter. When I was in fifth grade, I memorized scores from the weekend and reported on them every Monday on the morning announcements. I’ve probably read more from the bottom line of ESPN alone than I ever have in books, and I used to read a lot of books. But there was only ever one time that ESPN ever enthralled me like a book would have. For about a month and a half, I made sure to turn on ESPN as often as hourly to monitor the progress of one segment, a segment so important to me that I even structured vacation time around it while I was at the beach. Needless to say, this segment defined my summer.
The year was 2007 and ESPN debuted a bracket entitled “Who’s Now.” The premise of the bracket was that viewers had the opportunity to decide which athlete was “now,” or in other words which athlete across all sports was the most dominant and significant at the moment. The bracket was dominated by Tiger Woods who defeated LeBron James in the championship, Peyton Manning in the semifinals, LaDanian Tomlinson in the quarterfinals, Dwyane Wade in the sweet 16 and Matt Leinart in the first round. (Don’t ask. I don’t know why Matt Leinart would have been “now” in 2007.) I logged onto ESPN’s Page 2 (R.I.P.) every day to vote and complained constantly about the lack of inclusion of either Joey Chestnut or Takeru Kobayashi. I discussed the bracket with family members and friends and I would’ve talked to complete strangers too if they wanted to listen. Needless to say, I was obsessed.
But there was a reason for this obsession that actually applies to tonight’s match between the United States and Belgium in the World Cup. What made “Who’s Now” so exciting was the implications of the bracket. The entire exercise was an examination of comparison, an outlet through which to compare sports that had nothing in common. In what other platform could you compare LeBron James to Kelly Slater or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to Chuck Lidell? How else could you compare the value of an aging Shaquille O’Neal to a yet-to-become-the-best-athlete-in-the-world Michael Phelps? Most importantly, how else could you imagine how good these athletes could be if they lined up against their non-immediate foes?
That’s something we all deal with in sports regularly. Every one of us wonders if LeBron really could play tight end for the Cleveland Browns. We love to talk about if Johnny Football could be Johnny Baseball. The “Could Shaq be an NHL goalie” argument still rages on in my head every time I watch a sniper go top shelf. It’s almost always nothing, just a harmless series of musings discussed in sports bars and in living rooms. But as always happens during World Cup season, these musings turn malicious. The World Cup is the greatest threat to American uniformity since the widespread calamity of the Team Edward versus Team Jacob debates. You either buy in or you don’t. While softcore fandom is possible, it isn’t accepted. One side wants to explain to you the sport’s beauty and the other side wants to sway you away from the game that bores them more than a History Channel documentary on History Channel documentaries. Now this isn’t a rant to take a side – that’s a rant for a different ranter – but I do want to warn you of the dangers of one tactic used by both the supporters of the beautiful game and the supporters of Big Four supremacy: I want to speak ill of The Same Game.
Yes, sometimes it is harmless to wonder what a two-ACL’d RGIII or a two-ACL’d Derrick Rose could do on the pitch. That’s fine. But do you know what isn’t? It isn’t fine to actively compare the merits of one sport against another. Soccer fans love to smear other sports by pointing out their shortcomings. Soccer oppositionists love to smear soccer by pointing out its flaws relative to the sports they love. One side will say that soccer provides nonstop action that American football simply cannot. Another side will say that kicking a ball isn’t nonstop action so much as it is a repetitive exchange in futility. One side will say that real sports don’t end in ties. Another side will say that if two teams play equally as well, they deserve the same amount of recognition. One side will say that soccer is a true test of athletic strategy and is like a game of chess played out on ground. The other side will say that soccer is entirely random, devoid of the strategy involved in pitch sequencing or play calling. These arguments are to me what my overuse of analogies is to you: destructive, futile, repetitive and, most of all, boring.
What does saying “At least football has a play clock” achieve? Nothing. What does muttering “I’d like to see an offensive lineman run for 90 minutes” prove? Nothing. What does tweeting “Basketball players flop just as often as soccer players do” actually say about the games? NOTHING! These arguments don’t make you sound edgy or opinionated, they make you sound ignorant. Liking one sports as much as another is possible. Believe it or not, there are other sports than soccer, American soccer fans. And like it or not, soccer is a sport that is here to stay, at least for another few weeks, American soccer haters. Your arguments don’t serve a purpose other than to widen the already too-big schism in opinion between sports fans. Because as different as our allegiances may be, we really aren’t that different in the end. Sports fans love sports.
Why do you think I’ve been watching ESPN for as long as I have?