Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Calling a sport a sport

I've been watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN off and on this week. Some of the games they play in the preliminary rounds are utterly foreign to me. All I know about poker is the traditional five-card draw and Texas hold'em, the latter of which I know entirely from television, because that's the game played in the final rounds of the WSOP. Last night they were playing something called Omaha, which looks like Texas hold'em only with more cards dealt to each player. Too complicated for me.

So let's settle this once and for all. Is poker a sport, just because it airs on ESPN?

Messrs. Merriam and Webster take the liberal view of the question, defining sport thus: "(1) Physical activity engaged in for pleasure; (2) a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in." With that broad a definition, one could include all manner of "activity" in the realm of sport, including some "activities" you usually see late at night on cable channels not named ESPN, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

In the SwanShadow Dictionary of Sensible English, sport is more narrowly -- and I believe more logically -- defined: "A competitive athletic activity, the outcome of which is decided directly, and almost entirely, by the actions of the participants."

Break down the elements of this definition with me, if you will. Competitive means there is a contested outcome; someone (or a team of someones) wins and someone (or, again, a team of someones) loses. Athletic means a measure of physical exertion is involved beyond the scope of routine daily activity, and the nature of that exertion is at least to some degree evident in the physical characteristics of those engaged. Decided directly, and almost entirely, by the actions of the participants means that who wins and who loses is not determined by parties who are not themselves participants -- judges, for example. I inserted the word "almost" because every sport requires officials to arbitrate the rules of the contest, and the decisions of those officials necessarily have some level of influence on the outcome. However, in true sport as defined here, it is not the responsibility of the officials to evaluate the relative merits of the competitors' efforts and make a subjective and binding judgment about who wins or loses. Clear enough?

Now let's test our definition against real-world examples. Is football a sport? Sure -- that's an easy one. It satisfies all three criteria: it's competitive, it requires a high level of athleticism, and the outcome is determined by the actions of the players. Basketball? Sport. Baseball? Sport -- granted, you occasionally see a less-than-chiseled specimen playing first base or filling in at designated hitter, and the players do spend a considerable amount of time between pitches standing around idle or sitting on the bench awaiting turns at bat. But those are minor quibbles -- baseball's a sport. By the same standard, we can get pretty much all the prominent team sports into the shopping cart: soccer, hockey (ice or field, and you can include hockey variants lacrosse and water polo in there too), rugby, team handball, and so on. All of these are indisputably sports.

The individual activities make for tougher calls. Tennis is an easy call, despite the impact a nearsighted line judge can have on a match -- it's a sport. The various events we lump into the category of track and field all qualify as sports. Boxing is a borderline call, because many -- perhaps most -- boxing matches are, in fact, decided by the ringside judges. But since the judges only intervene with scores when neither of the two competitors has completed his assigned duty of pummeling the other clown into the canvas, and since the scores are only quantitative counts of observed blows struck rather than qualitative analysis, boxing passes muster. It's a sport.

Now here's where it gets tricky. Ski racing? Sport. Ski jumping? Not a sport, because it's more about style points than who jumps the farthest. Swimming? Sport. Diving? Not a sport, again because it's based on a subjective evaluation of performance. Speed skating? Sport. Figure skating? Not a sport. That's not to say that ski jumpers, divers, and figure skaters aren't athletes -- they are. But they participate in athletic exhibitions, not in true sport as I've defined it here.

What about auto racing? Please -- it's not a sport, people: it's competitive and participant-driven, but it's not athletic. I drive a car every day too, and often on a much more congested track than any NASCAR race, but I'm no athlete. Horse racing is a sport, if we consider that the horses are the participants and not the jockeys. It's just track and field with different species playing.

That leaves us with golf, bowling, and the like -- including poker, which prompted this whole discussion in the first place. These are all great games -- just not sports. Any activity in which you can engage while wearing polyester slacks and wingtips, or while guzzling brewskis and smoking like a house afire, is not sufficiently athletic to meet our requirements. And since people can do all of these while playing poker...I don't care what ESPN says. Poker's a fascinating game, but it's not a sport.

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