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Business & Work ● November 2016

Why sports matter to some of us

This past Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians in a thrilling extra-inning game to clinch their first World Series title in over a century. Earlier this year, Cleveland’s professional basketball team, the Cavaliers, won their city’s first major professional sports championship since 1964. Across the ocean, Leicester City won the Premier League in May after oddsmakers put them at 5000-to-1 to do so at the beginning of the season. What a unique sports year it’s been.

But, why do these team accomplishments mean so much to the people that root for them? Is the feeling only bred in a certain type of person—someone so disillusioned with what actually matters in life that their well-being lies in the hands of a team of similarly-dressed players hitting, swinging, throwing, shooting, kicking, and running at things? At the surface, getting emotional over sports is, well, ridiculous.

Why did the Cubs winning the World Series make me as happy as the players themselves?

I have several friends and immediate family members that—at most—place a casual eye on their local sports teams if they happen to become a national headline. But, otherwise, sporting events are just another pop culture data point in a backlog of movie releases, album debuts, celebrity breakups, and viral online videos. I get it. A baseball victory does nothing for my career. I don’t get a bonus. It doesn’t grant me an extra year of life. It doesn’t make me more popular. It is ostensibly meaningless stuff. Yet, still, I am one of these deeply afflicted people.

I’ve asked myself why I care so much about sports a thousand times—particularly after witnessing a difficult defeat. When your sports allegiances primarily lie with Chicago’s professional teams and Northwestern University’s football team, let’s just say you have thousands of times to ask yourself this question. And, a thousand times I haven’t quite come up with an answer other than, “I care because I care.”

I write this post for all those who observe sports rationally. I entirely sympathize with you. I observe most everything else in my life—my company, my career, the code base I am currently working on, even my personal life goals—rationally. Yet, when it comes to rooting for a bunch of men in blue, I throw rationality to the wind.

For most of the afflicted, sports is deeply rooted in childhood. Little league games, family trips to the ballpark, catch with Dad. By circumstances outside my control (my parents knew nothing about American sports upon their arrival to the US in the mid-1970s) I did none of these things. But, I did have access to television. And, the daily reality show of my childhood was the Chicago Cubs. They were on WGN all summer long—a soap opera in 162 episodes.

With gym class and the occasional after-school gathering of classmates at the local park, I learned how to play baseball, basketball, and football. When I went home and turned on the TV, there it was. Adults playing the game on proper fields with proper uniforms. If you’re a kid and you see grown ups do something you do, suddenly that thing feels very important. It feels big.

The captivating bit about sports for me wasn’t the hitting or running or blocking or shooting. It was about the emotions around success and failure. There are few things in life that breed these emotions consistently—especially in our formative years. But, each year, you know a season will start, a season will end, there will be but one winner and many losers and you hope like hell your team wins.

When you’re a kid, you don’t think to yourself how utterly unimportant wins and losses in a baseball game are in the grand scheme of life. You’re a kid. You believe lots of silly things.

At some point, however, we outgrow most childish things—sucking our thumbs, eating ice cream for dinner, or playing with toys. But, I never outgrew feeling the thrill of winning and the agony of defeat. Sports provided me the original conduit for those emotions, And, perhaps because year after year those events remain a constant, the feelings around your childhood sports team remains just as strong. You never get a chance to outgrow them.

Maybe that’s why so many of us, still, irrationally care. That’s why I feel you Jimmy.

Originally published Nov 8, 2016 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Business & Work, “Finding comfort in the uncomfortable”.