ESPN Should Show Sports, Right?

To the people who run programming for ESPN:

I regret to inform you that your network has been involved in a most egregious form of false advertising – I thought this was a sports network. And yet, I am unconvinced that many of the programs you feature are in any way sports. So, let’s break it down. Let’s sift through the mass of sponsors and advertising repre­sentatives to lay down a good general rule for what constitutes a sport. When discussing this question, I often ask myself this: what would Buffy do – no, wait, that’s not it – is this “sport” more or less physically demanding than chess? Seriously, you would be surprised.

Poker is not a sport. Sorry guys, but just because some particularly talented individu­als are capable of developing wrist injuries due to the extreme physical toll of holding play­ing cards in your hands does not give you le­gitimacy. Until the Olympics include speed typing (carpal tunnel is a real problem), you can all take your sponsor promotions off your casts and deal. Let’s consider our model ques­tion: both poker and chess require a great deal of strategizing, math, luck and pretending to know what you’re doing. But in chess, there is no pretense of sporting legitimacy. Chess play­ers are intense – some of them make Benedic­tine monks look like frat stars – and they don’t need to be called athletes to know that they are wildly more talented at their game than anyone else.

This leads me to another crucial question: can a computer beat you at your “sport” (note: Jeopardy! will now be removed from the mas­ter list). Also note that when I say computer, I mean of the desktop, immobile variety that we currently have on earth. I personally don’t want to play rugby against a Terminator. The point of these questions is that if you don’t need to en­gage in specialized, challenging physical move­ments in order to perform your sport, it doesn’t count. That is the essential distinction which makes poker (chair-sitting abilities aside) not a sport and, though it pains me to admit this, billiards a viable one.

Of course, this opens up a host of other po­tential sports to be considered. What about The Challenge Rivals: The Jungle (the newest incar­nation of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge which, yes, is on MTV not ESPN)? Although the contestants are clearly involved in physically demanding tasks which have a clear winner and loser and a set of rules, I am reluctant to call this a sport because of its exclusivity. I have never heard of a pick-up game of The Challenge, and am fairly sure that they don’t sell jerseys. Not that I am saying that fan base or public attention necessarily makes something a sport (just look at tennikoit. I know, I want to see the Sportscen­ter guys pronounce that one too), but a sport should be universal. Although variations exist in strategy or even house rules, there is only one way to play tennis. Games, or game shows, make up their unique set of rules for one, highly spe­cific situation and it is these rules that govern the game. Conversely, in sports, the skills needed to play the game are ubiquitous – there is only one way to approach the problem of hitting a base­ball (hit with stick). From this, the rules have been formed to streamline the methods used in approaching that basic challenge (so, no steroids or cork, just great hand-eye coordination). Chal­lenge before skills, skills before rules – that’s the tagline, folks.

So now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s make this clear: surfing – yes; fishing – eh, I’ll give you that one; bull riding – oh yes, and a great one at that (also, see mutton busting). But we get into problems when we talk about car or motor cycle racing. Driving is a universal (physically centered) skill in response to a prob­lem that can be governed by certain rules allow­ing some to excel at it to a greater degree than others leading to our traditional structure of closed competitions and prizes. Let’s face it, I can drive to Price Chopper any day of the week but that doesn’t make me NASCAR-worthy. Great – we’re all good on that checklist. But, where does the distinction lie between the skills of the mechanic and engineer who make the car (are they athletes too?) and the person who drives it.

Which skill is the response to the challenge that shows the most disparity of talent and thus confers the title of athlete? And, furthermore, how can we reconcile this with our technology issue? I realize that this seems insignificant, since we all have grown up accepting that the drivers are the athletes (and we have Sports Illustrated to confirm our choice), but I bring it up because it establishes another distinction, this time in the relationship between athlete and sport. I suppose the mechanic never really had a chance – though there is a certain tactile skill required in putting together the machine, the competi­tion to produce the best car is still dependent upon the driver.

Following this logic, this is why both jockeys and racehorses are distinct athletes, but horse trainers are not. They are all acting physically in response to a challenge, but only the ones that are actively engaged in physical contest during the course of competition (of course, pit crews are a whole separate argument) get the distinc­tion of athlete. This is relevant to our discussion because it hints at the source of my problem with the way programming is chosen: sports are greater and more extensive than just the athletes that participate in them. Show us sports, not games centered on colorful characters.

To conclude this exhausting analy­sis, next time you’re sitting around, trying to plan your television programming for a night, ask yourself this question: does this program, this sport, put its emphasis on the athlete and their physical response to a challenge, or is it really just poker?