Open Mic: What Is a Sport?

Casey McLainSenior Analyst IJuly 2, 2008

For years, sports fans have tried to define the term "sports". In the past half-decade, not coincidentally around the same time televised poker rose to prominence on the “sports landscape,” fans have become more vocal and passionate about their own personal definitions.

I myself have pondered this. I’m a huge baseball, football, and basketball fan, but I also find joy in poker, auto racing, horse racing, and many other debatable “sports.”

So, using a conventional method, I traveled the path of least resistance to find the definition of sport.

This is Merriam-Webster’s definition of sport:

(a): a source of diversion; recreation (b): sexual play (c) (1): physical activity engaged in for pleasure (2): a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in

That definition is incomplete to say the least. By that definition, a valid argument could be made that pornography is a sport.

While I certainly respect the online dictionary’s definition of most things, the umbrella of things that could fall into the category of sport, per that definition, make the distinction between sport and non-sport even more confusing.

The other day, I was throwing the pigskin with a few of my neighbors, and my neighbor’s wife came out. I asked her where her husband was and she explained that he was on a business trip in Oklahoma.

Being a Sonics fan, I told her to tell him to give the Sonics fans down there my regards, tongue in cheek. She responded by explaining this about her husband, pardon her language.

“He’s not really into sports like that. Basically, if it doesn’t have tits or tires, he’s not interested.”

I responded jokingly, “If it doesn’t have balls or a stick, I’m not interested.”

But are sticks, balls, pucks, or pads really what define a sport?

I set forth creating some definite criteria. It’s a bit of a muddy process though, as it’s hard to find a lot of parallels between baseball and curling.

What really defines a sport? Does one have to be extremely athletic to play a sport? I’ve seen Shaun Rogers. I’m not impressed.

Why is Shaun Rogers considered an athlete, but Joey Chestnut, Takeru Kobayashi, and competitive eating are water-cooler jokes?

Perhaps, in some twisted sports universe, Rogers is the equivalent to a distance-runner in the world of competitive eating.

I’m getting sidetracked now, so I’ll digress.

Here are the criteria I came up with.

A sport must contain three of these five elements: hand-eye coordination, physical/athletic superiority plays a factor, athletes must be clearly defined, an object of attention “ball, puck, etc,” and winners should be defined by an objective process.

I’ll use baseball as an example.

Hitting, fielding, and throwing all require hand-eye coordination. Players who are faster and stronger have an advantage. The athletes are on the field, using self-propelled tools for success (bats, balls, gloves). There is a baseball which factors oddly enough into everything involved with the sport of baseball. The winner is the team that scores the most runs.

By contrast, NASCAR, while requiring hand-eye coordination and having an objective winner, does not have an object of attention (no ball, puck), has a murky man/machine aspect which clouds the perception of a quality performance, and quite frankly, the only physical challenge is being able to sit in a car for 500 miles. My dad can do that, and he’s got two bad knees, a bad back, foot, and ankle, and he’s old.

However, my dad couldn’t eat 50+ hotdogs in a day, let alone less than a quarter hour. Hot-dog eating is a sport, as is bowling, darts, ping-pong, badminton, pickleball, and kickball.

Though they may not be the testosterone-filled, bloodstained representations of masculinity we are used to, they are sports.     

Horse racing, which I love, has as much legitimacy as a sport as the wheelbarrow race I won in elementary school during field day. Figure skating, auto racing, poker, dominos, strong-man competitions, and fishing are also non-sports.

They are events, competitions, and games. There is no shame in that and no lesser standing in the pseudo-society of “sports”. They simply don’t fit the bill.

However, what’s even more interesting than the actual distinction between what is and isn’t a sport, is the mentality that drives the need for it. What really drives it is a need to be superior.

I’ll be honest. If I had the choice of being the 25th man on baseball team, toting around my teammates’ luggage, touching my cleats to grass twice a month, making $300,000 a year, and being a superior athlete to every NASCAR driver, or being Dario Franchitti, who is barely a NASCAR driver, I’d be Franchitti.

He’s rich, he’s a champion, he has a hot, kleptomaniac of a wife, and he drives a car for a living. I could handle that.