The Great Debate

Every high school in America encounters the same argument: “You play on that team? That’s not even a real sport!”

Most of the you-play-a-fake-sport insults are directed at cheerleaders, who more than likely have it coming. The catch, however, is that the people who poke fun at cheerleaders should be “real” athletes themselves, who are in a position to judge. You can’t come at somebody for playing a “fake” sport if you play one that is just as bad.

But what counts as a “real” sport?

I was reading the ESPN book “Those Guys Have All The Fun” this week when I decided it was time to settle the argument. I got to page 442, where Charlie Steiner says he doesn’t think golf is a sport. It got me thinking.

I dated a gymnast in high school, and her mother’s boyfriend and I gave her a hard time about the whole gymnastics-isn’t-a-sport thing over dinner one night. Just as the joke was dying out, he said something along the lines of, if you want to see a real athlete play a real sport, come to the driving range tomorrow and watch me hit a golf ball.

I almost lost it.

You can’t make fun of someone for being a fake athlete when you’re a golfer. Give me a break.

I wasn’t going to call him out at the dinner table, but started making a list in my head of where sport should rank. I finally put it down on paper, and after polling some people around me and a heated debate with my brother, the list looks ready to go.

***

I had to start with some criteria. A standardized rating was a must. Saying “this isn’t a real sport to me” is not a good way to go; my personal opinions toward a sport don’t make it any less challenging. Putting sports I don’t care for high on the list — admitting their validity — was not always the most fun but was something I had to deal with to preserve fairness.

There are four elements I decided on that make up a sport:

  • Substantial athleticism involved.
  • Having winners and losers.
  • Keeping score (not by judge).
  • Significant skill required.

Athleticism was a wide topic. A sport has to be somewhat physically demanding. Another way I thought of it was “could some fat guy off the street come do this?” Winners and losers is self-explanatory. Someone wins, right?

You know what you call it when you mix vodka with an Arnold Palmer? A John Daly. You have to be kidding me with golf.

Keeping score was important. I’ve never fully valued events that are scored solely by judges. That makes it a matter of opinion. A goal in hockey is always worth one point, whether it trickles into an empty net or you rip a slap shot bar-down. But five different judges may assign the same performance five different values. That’s a problem. Everyone should know who wins by the play on the field, not by having to wait for what a judge thinks. For racing events, times count as scores.

Significant skill was a little bit of a judgement call I awarded based on the difficulty of the game itself. I understand that anyone who plays a sport will say how difficult it is, but it’s a concept thing. If anyone can do it, that doesn’t count. I’m sure there are skills to be learned in dodgeball (dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge?), but really anyone can pick up a ball and play… it’s not that hard.

I threw out two other categories I was considering. One was Steiner’s reason for discrediting golf: there’s no defense. It’s an interesting point that I gave a lot of thought to, but when you think in terms of, say, a track race, one of the purest forms of sport, there is just no way to play defense (legally, at least). That was out.

The other I wanted to consider was what I called “relevance to society,” meaning how important the sport is in our culture. Rugby, for example, meets all of the qualifications, but doesn’t really matter in American society, sorry. Should it still be grouped with the best of the best? I decided it should. I threw out this element because I kept using it to try to demote sports I didn’t like by saying they aren’t important, when really that has no effect on how legitimate of an athletic event it is.

***

I grouped sports into three categories: Group 1A, which are absolutely sports, meeting all the criteria; Group 1B, which are sports, but not really, because they fail to meet one of the four elements; and Group X, which fail to meet two or more criteria and are not sports at all.

If you think I missed any sports (or wanna-be sports), let me know. After each list is a discussion of the points mentioned. Read ‘em and weep.

1A: The real sports

  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Hockey
  • Baseball/softball
  • Basketball
  • Track & field
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Lacrosse
  • Skiing
  • Water polo
  • Cricket
  • Rugby/Australian rules football
  • Field hockey
  • Boxing, wrestling, martial arts*

These are all pretty obvious. They are all bona fide competitive sports that require skill and athleticism. There are winners and losers, which we can tell by the score. I’m sure there are arguments to be made everywhere, but this category should have the fewest.

The last group gets an asterisk because of the involvement of judges. In a boxing match, for example, the judges all score the bout, and they can decide a winner, but that only happens when the fight goes the distance and a winner was not decided by knockout. Another thing my brother (who I’d totally link to on Twitter if he had one) and I talked about is the purpose of the judge. Much like an umpire who is only there to be the definitive voice of reality, judges (and referees in wrestling) award points based on what actually took place, not their opinion on it. Theoretically, you could train a robot to do the exact same thing. You can’t teach a robot artistic impression.

1B: Quasi sports

  • Golf
  • Cross country
  • Bowling
  • Curling
  • Synchronized swimming
  • NASCAR/auto racing
  • Kickball
  • Dodgeball
  • Ping-pong
  • Billiards
  • Cycling
  • Gymnastics
  • Yachting
  • Team handball
  • Polo
  • Rifle/archery
  • Crew
  • Squash/racquetball
  • Diving
  • Figure skating
  • Fencing
  • Extreme sports

The 1B group is littered with 1A snubs, which for sure makes it the most controversial. Plenty of discussion to have.

The two biggest debates my brother and I had were over team handball and squash. I argued that there isn’t enough skill in handball for it to be 1A. It’s basically just organized running and throwing, skills that are too basic to qualify it for the top tier. We watched some videos online just to make sure, but being cool doesn’t qualify you to move up… otherwise curling would make the jump too. I heard out his argument, but decided to keep it 1B.

Squash, he said, is basically indoor tennis and the two should be grouped together; either in A or B, but together. I said that tennis is much more skilled than squash, which basically just requires hitting the ball back off the wall. There’s more to it than just that, as a trip to YouTube confirmed, but I still didn’t think it had enough to move up and tennis was too good to move down.

Golf is a 1B sport simply because there isn’t enough athleticism involved. People of all shapes and sizes can (and do) play. You hit the ball, get in the cart, drive to the ball, and hit it again. Not cutting it.

Cross country is relegated to 1B due to the lack of skill needed to perform it. Sprinting is very technical and there are skills to be learned in every field event. Distance running, on the other hand, is just one repetitive motion. No handoffs, no starting blocks, no skills to perfect. You just run. Everyone can run; they just do it longer and quicker than you can. Not to take anything away from the sport, it is very challenging, but there’s no skill you work on to get better, it’s just repetition.

No figure skating, no Kenny Wu.

There is similar reasoning for crew (rowing). Both are very athletic and hard to do, but not very skillful. Getting in rhythm takes practice and there is some skill in maneuvering the oar, but not enough to be a 1A sport. It’s all repetition. Cycling too. Everyone can ride a bike, they just do it faster.

NASCAR may get TV ratings like a 1A sport, but can’t match up in this comparison. You’re driving a car. There’s nothing athletic to it. Yes, I know it is difficult and you sweat a lot and there is significant downforce thrusting you back into your seat. Great. You’re pressing a foot pedal and turning your hands a few inches. Operating a vehicle at 200 mph takes some skill, but NASCAR isn’t cutting it. Polo is similar; it might be hard, but you’re on a horse. That’s athletic for the horses you bring, but not enough for you to qualify.

I’m going to take some heat for synchronized swimming, figure skating and gymnastics, especially since Canisius College has one of only four Division 1 synchro teams in the country, but these just aren’t sports. In every 1A sport, the goal is to be the best — the fastest, the longest, or the highest-scoring. Never is the goal to be artistic, which all three of these have events that are scored by that measure. It’s a judges opinion what you did or didn’t do and how it made them feel. They give point values to different moves, but how do they decide what a Lutz is worth compared to a Salchow or an Axel? They’re subjective, which means they aren’t real sports. Besides, anyone who knows anything about synchro knows how biased the scoring system is. The NFL may not like small markets, but the Bills’ touchdowns are always worth the same as the Cowboys’.

Skateboarding? Surfing? Athletic and skilled, but scored by judges. Still love you, Tony Hawk.

X: Not sports, not even a little bit

  • Darts
  • Fishing
  • Hunting
  • Cheerleading
  • Card games
  • Spelling bee
  • Equestrian/horse racing
  • Dog show
  • Falconry
  • Video games (yes, even Wii)
  • Weight lifting/bodybuilding
  • Yoga
  • Mountain climbing
  • Tetherball
  • Lawn games (Kan Jam, boccie, horseshoes, croquet, etc.)
  • Competitive eating
  • Chess, checkers and other board games
  • Beer pong
  • Dancing
  • Cup stacking
  • Laser tag, paintball

I’m sorry cheerleaders, but you don’t play a sport. Actually, I’m not sorry. Stop kidding yourselves.

When you show up to participate at someone else’s sporting event, that really does a number on your credibility. When you’re leaving a football game, no one says, “Wait, which cheerleading team won??” No one cares. Cheerleading exists solely to serve other sports and wouldn’t exist had they not been invented. The only score they keep is in the amount of pushups they have to do after a touchdown. I’ll give the ladies a pass on athleticism and talent, but there’s serious debate that can be held there too. Zamboni driving goes on during another sporting event and is arguably as entertaining as cheerleading, yet no one has ever considered it to be a sport.

Now just a second, you say, there are cheerleading competitions that they compete in and keep score and everything! (Note the unnecessary exclamation point a cheerleader would use for something mundane.) I’ll be honest with you, aside from dating a few cheerleaders and seeing the movie “Fired Up” with a some guys on my hockey team as a joke in high school, I really don’t know much about cheer competitions. But I can tell you this: when you have to specify “in competition,” you ruin any shot you have.

I don't see a scoreboard there, ladies. But then again, who's looking for one?

Is fishing a sport? No. The essence of fishing is trying to catch food. You can fish in a competition (e.g. Bass Pro), but that is taking an aspect of life and trying to make it competitive. That doesn’t count, that’s not what sports are about.

Even if cheer competitions were what cheerleading was for and basketball games were just something on the side, they’d still be going for style points and be scored by judges. It isn’t a sport either way. Sorry ladies… at least you look good doing it. Usually.

The same thing goes for weight lifting. Everyone does it, but it isn’t a competition until you make it one. Bodybuilding is an aesthetics thing. Read that as: not a sport.

The only other thing left to explain is horse racing. Let’s get something clear. Riding on top of something else does not make you an athlete. It’s like NASCAR, only with less required athleticism. It’s still hard to do, but nothing with a maximum weight of — what, 130 pounds? — is adequately athletic. No amount of effort or skill can make your horse win the race, not alone at least. Some jockeys are better than others, but most of their success comes from the horse.

Horse racing is about the animals. Horses get famous, jockeys get mentioned. That’s why Secretariat is immortal and Ron Turcotte is a trivia question. The horse puts in the work, not the one riding it.

***

That’s all she wrote, folks. I wonder who she was. I listed as many sports as I could, but I know there are more out there. Doing this for Olympic events would be tough. Speed skating is basically sprinting on ice and it would meet all the qualifications, but can that be a 1A sport? What about biathlon, which mixes a 1A and a 1B? There are endless questions that can be asked, but for now, I’m done arguing. If you think of a mainstream sport I missed, let me know. I’ll add it on.

Disagree with me? Great. It wouldn’t be a debate without it.