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Why I’m Trying Not to Watch Sports

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Let me first begin by saying that I grew up watching sports, and even more, I love playing many of them on ball fields, parking lots and any other place you can play a neighborhood pickup game.

What I’m about to tell you is also related to the fact that I played college baseball with hopes of playing in the majors some day. And since those dreams are long over and my life has gone down a much different path, I’ve channeled my competitive spirit into running 5ks and joining the occasional community recreation league.

I tell you this at the start because I’ve been wrestling with a bit of a dilemma. A few weeks ago, I was having a wonderful day outside playing catch in the warm spring sun with my family when my mom asked me what I thought about the Cubs so far this season. I paused and told her that I hadn’t watched any games this season and I didn’t really feel like watching them at all to be honest.

But I must confess that my struggle goes back a bit further than that delightful spring day.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been making my way through a fantastic book called The Hidden Spiritually of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine by Matthew Fox. It’s an enlightening, provocative, and controversial book; it has surprised and challenged me to go deeper into my own spirituality and emotional awareness. And especially, it has forced me to think more about why I spend time watching and playing sports.

There’s a particular moment in the book that has struck me on a profound level. In this fascinating passage, Fox talks about the “shadow side” to modern sports:

“Of course, there is a shadow side to modern sports, as there is to every human invention and activity. The first is when our ‘participation’ in sports becomes solely as a spectator. Sometimes we invest more time and money watching sports than playing them. Our culture’s obsession with sports combined with modern media makes this all too easy. Is there a minute in a twenty-four-hour day when there is not some sport—basketball or football or baseball golf or ping pong—showing on TV? Of course not. If we get caught up watching, constantly and obsessively (and sports addictions are real), then we become passive. We become vicarious athletes.

“When this happens, sports do not improve our physical and mental health, sports do not serve our family and community. Just the opposite happens. Our physical health may suffer, we may neglect our actual jobs, we may neglect our family. In the extreme, though we seem ‘in the moment’ watching sports, we are really cheering our lost youth, our once-athletic selves. We wallow in nostalgia and get caught up living in the past. And even in this past may be a kind of dream or fiction of accomplishments and success that never quite were.”

This passage hits home on many levels. It makes me question why I watch sports when I probably should be doing something else. It makes me think of the way I feel when I watch sports, when I know I should just turn the damn TV off and go write or read a book. I love reading, writing, and doing many other things besides watching sports, but why do I find myself just watching sports like a highlight-reel entranced zombie when I really could care less about the game or give a hoot about the over-exalted sports star they’re talking about?

Cutting me to the heart, that Fox passage has forced me to ask myself: have I been conditioned by culture and tricked by my own emotions into watching sports just because that’s what I think most guys do, or that’s what I should do? Do I fear that if I don’t watch sports I will not be able to relate to my fellow man? I sure hope not.

That said, through all this wondering, reading, and trying to explain to my mom why I haven’t really watched the Cubs this year, I’ve come to a crossroads. And I’ve begun to ask other guys about this topic. I’ve begun to openly ask whether not watching sports would have a negative impact on the male relationships in my life. Would I feel disconnected from my fellow man because I’m not watching the Cubs, Bears, Bulls or any other teams, or The Big Game on TV? By deciding to not watch any sports would I actively be choosing to disengage with my fellow man on a culturally fundamental and spiritual level?

It’s a strange thing to wonder, but I can’t deny my curiosity. And I’ll also tell you that those guys I’ve asked about this have perked their ears up and affirmed to me that I’m not alone in wondering about this.

So over the last few weeks, I’ve begun to do some preliminary testing of my theory. First, I toyed with the idea of not watching any sports for a whole year. But that went by the boards when the Bulls went into the playoffs. (Again, was that just because I grew up watching the Jordan-era Bulls and I’m just addicted to reconnecting with the good feelings and addictive nostalgia?)

Then I crumbled and watched a few innings of the Cubs and I watched the first round of the Blackhawks playoff game. I won’t even get into why I watch the Cubs. It will take far too many words to explain those emotions. And the Blackhawks? Well, let’s just say we don’t have championship teams in Chicago that often, so I guess that’s why I gave in and tuned in like a vicarious championship-starved Cubs fan.

Or did I tune in for some other reason? Was I trying to escape from something by watching the game? Was I trying to avoid a fear or difficult emotion by tuning out on the couch and watching grown men slide back and forth on ice for 60 minutes? I know I didn’t come to any great emotional revelation once the game was over and I had to face reality again. But, I wonder, would my life and emotional health be better off if I just clicked off and faced what it was that I was running from? And would that choice to turn off the TV and not watch sports at all push me further away emotionally and socially from other men in my life?

To Fox’s point of “playing versus watching” sports and mixing in communal activities, I have fought to keep up my regular physical, creative and mental exercise routine that includes a mix of running, weight-lifting, reading, writing, and hanging out with friends and family to just chill via a game of catch or pick-up basketball, etc. But this experiment has added a new dimension to those activities.

For example, it’s been particularly hard when I’m at the gym and all that’s on are ESPN highlights and eight other screens with sports games on. Does that count if I watch those games, I’ve wondered? Is it possible to run with my eyes closed on the treadmill? Not sure. And I don’t think I’m going to try that anytime soon. What I do know, at this point, is that I’m going to try hard to not watch sports just to see where it takes me, and how it truly impacts the male relationships in my life.

What will I ultimately discover with this non-watching sports and male relational experiment? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m definitely on to something. I’ve also been learning a lot about myself and how my love for sports—playing and watching—impacts the male relationships in my life. It’s also been interesting to see how this experiment has impacted my writing and creativity. Yes, we all know that writers tend to get more done with the TV off. But I’ve begun to see even further beyond that truth during this experiment.

I’ve started to see the bigger emotional and sociological impact watching sports has on all our relationships, with others and ourselves. And by beginning to write about it, I’ve found a creative way to use my love for writing to flip the script on our cultural obsession with sports.

It certainly has been fun sharing the initial stages of my experiment with you as I begin to document and put my thoughts into words. And I’ve especially enjoyed letting you inside my brain. I hope you’ve enjoyed it too. And should you feel inspired, I invite you to join with me, if you’re up for the challenge.

My next step? I’m not messing around and I plan to not watch the Bulls or the Hawks for the rest of the playoffs. And then I plan to have regular conversations, as usual, with guys I know and see how those interactions and relationships are impacted.

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About Chris Catania