I follow the Philadelphia Eagles religiously. I obsess over each and every player drafted, signed or traded, believing him to be simultaneously the single piece needed for the team to reach the Super Bowl and the cursed player who will destroy the franchise forever.
As I watched them defeat the Chicago Bears during Monday Night Football, I pondered the reason for my obsession.
I have never really played football, except in my backyard with no offensive line and a five-Mississippi rush, so my fascination does not come from a place of understanding or personal experience. Rather, part of the pleasure I take in watching football is in seeing players execute complex schemes without thinking.
If you read a lot of sports analysis, you will learn that some people predict sports scores based solely on intuition, and others prefer to extensively analyze the mathematical model of sports to make their predictions.
The people who use intuition typically judge players on intangibles.
For example, no analyst can objectively quantify exactly how tough any given player is. But they can watch a quarterback face down a 300-pound defensive lineman just long enough to get a throw off before being crushed to the ground underneath his fellow players, and then get back up and do it all over again.
When I was reading pregame coverage, I found a quote from an Eagles player, in which he distinguished between playing for a teammate and playing for a brother. I was immediately confused because I didn’t think that Jordan Matthews had a brother who played football.
Then I realized that he wasn’t talking about his actual brother; he was talking about his quarterback, and that struck me.
Once again, I am not an athlete. I cannot tell you about the camaraderie and friendship brought about by spending hours together, building skills to make a single team stronger. But when I watch the game, I can tell you what intangibles are and why they matter.
The mathematical sports predictors will tell you that intangibles don’t matter, since they will all be represented in the statistics somehow. But I think there is something that this approach misses, and that is the fun of watching the game.
I don’t watch the Eagles just because I think they will win: In fact, I sometimes watch the Eagles because I know they will lose, and I need to be there for it.
I don’t know or think about whether an athlete has spent hours on and off the field, perfecting his craft. But I can see the results. I can see precision and attention to detail, which the athlete may not even have to think about as he makes his move. And that is why I watch sports.
Watching sports and playing sports are two very different activities. Watching sports is its own unique experience, with its own unique purpose.
I think this is particularly relevant on the campus of a small liberal arts college, where NCAA athletics are, in general, ignored. Notice, for example, how many of the students watching any given sporting event are themselves student-athletes. We tend to treat athletics as a separate entity, not really connected with the rest of our university.
But we don’t need to know the athletes, or be athletes ourselves in order to appreciate the sports we have on campus. And if there really is truth in experience, then maybe we should immerse ourselves in the unique experience of watching and appreciating our sports teams, both for the sake of our athletes and for our own sake.