Sports: Entertainment, not Life

As I sit here watching game 3 of the Stanley Cup, enjoying the Penguins up 2 games and basking in the afterglow of an incredible Game 7 win against Ottawa, something doesn’t feel quite right. Yes, it’s fun watching the Pens in the Cup, and game 7 against Ottawa was an amazing game. The Senators played incredible and pushed the Penguins to the limit. The game was highly entertaining, which I suppose is the point. I was entertained.

Growing up in Pittsburgh during the seventies, it was hard not to be a die-hard sports fan. The city practically came to a standstill on Sundays in the fall. There were the team nicknames like ‘The Steel Curtain’. Songs that defined teams like ‘We Are Family’. Individual plays that live on in time like the ‘The Immaculate Reception’. There were the sports personalities that were practically heroes like “Mean” Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, Jack Lambert, Willie Stargell, Franco Harris, Kent Tekulve, John Candelaria, Rocky Blier, Jack Hamm, and more. Everywhere you looked and went there were sports references. It was impossible to escape.

As I grew older and progressed through high school, I became captivated by Pitt basketball. I remember listening to radio broadcasts of the games with Billy Hillgrove and Dick Groat. Back then, following college basketball wasn’t the “in” thing to do. Very few college basketball games were on TV. The NBA dominated the basketball landscape with the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and the up-and-coming bad boys of Detroit. College basketball was a sideshow at best, which made it fun for me to follow.

When Pitt joined the Big East in 1982, following them became even more exciting. Those early days of the Big East were intense. Sure, college basketball can be fun today. But for those of us who remember those early days of the Big East, nothing will replace the intensity of the rivalries between Georgetown, St. Johns and Syracuse. I remember enjoying the privilege to watch many games at the old Fitzgerald Field House on the Pitt campus. Sure the place was a dump by today’s standards, but it reflected what college athletics was and what it should be about.

For years, I followed the Pitt basket ball team religiously. I went through all the ups and downs of the eighties and nineties. I suffered through every emotional loss with the promise of next season being better, which finally happened in 1999. An unknown coach from Northern Arizona, Ben Howland, took over the program and within a few years brought it to national prominence. His top assistant, Jamie Dixon, took over the team when Howland left and led the program through ten of the best years I can remember. There were Big East championships, number one seeds in the NCAA tourney, and opportunities to reach the Final Four. Each and every year seemed to end in some bitter disappointment, many of which I documented here.

For those who know me well, every Pitt loss, every Pitt exit from the tournament stung for days. I would immediately look forward to next season. I would follow recruiting intently. I would read the message boards religiously and follow those who were in “the know” with regards to the program. I would write a season-ending summary like I did here, here and here. It was a religious activity, bordering on cult-like.

While Pitt basketball was clearly my biggest vice, I would experience similar bouts of euphoria with Steelers wins and equally low spells of depression with losses. Wins and losses by the Pitt football team would have a similar effect on me. Mood swings with Penguins outcomes weren’t as severe, while the Pirates had very little, if any sting. Suffering through twenty losing seasons in a row makes it hard to care as much as one should.

For the most part, I would live and die based on how my favorite teams were doing, starting with Pitt basketball and progressing through the Steelers, Pitt football, Penguins and Pirates.

All of it changed over this past year. Maybe it’s me getting older, maybe it’s more experience. It may have been having more important things going on professionally or personally. These all could be factors, but I believe the biggest factor is that I realized sports was just entertainment. An entertainment event should not have this kind of power over my outlook on life.

I mean, let’s face it, what is sports? For the most part, it’s a 2-3 hour movie played out by highly paid actors. Is it really that much different than going to a movie, play or music concert? I don’t think that it is.

Each industry has those that are great at their craft. Every year, the best play for the top awards in their industry. For some it is the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, or an NCAA championship. For others it is an Academy, Emmy or Grammy Award. Either way, these people are paid to entertain us, and we allow what they do between the lines, on the screen, or on stage to control how we feel.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not saying that I refuse to or won’t watch sports. That is not what this essay (or rant if you will) is all about. It’s that I will watch it to be entertained. I refuse to let it continue to control how I feel or my outlook on life for the next week. I can say with confidence that the Senators could have won Game 7, and I would have felt no different than I do with the Penguins having won. It was a good game. I was entertained. And that’s what watching sports should do. It should entertain us.

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