Talkin' Sports

I purposely choose to continue to watch the game, not as a way to distract myself from this horrible story I’m being told, but because I care more about the game than Derek’s dead friend.

Talkin’ Sports (short version)
by Matt Wasowski


It was the first Sunday of the 2005 NFL season, when some time during the middle of the third quarter of the Browns’ home opener against the Bengals, my roommate Derek walks into our living room and says, “I just got some strange news this morning” and proceeds to tell me that a friend of his – one with whom I’d hung out several times – was just found dead. I don’t say much as he explains the details, only occasionally nodding my head to indicate that I share his disbelief and sorrow – but I still continue to watch the game. I don’t mute the TV, I don’t hit the ‘Pause’ button on my TiVo remote control, nor do I look away from the TV for more than a few seconds; all the while Derek continues to grow more upset the more he talks about his friend. It never occurs to me that I’m not supposed to be mourning Derek’s friend, but that I’m supposed to be helping Derek – one of my best friends – cope with this unexpected tragedy.
I purposely choose to continue to watch the game, not as a way to distract myself from this horrible story I’m being told, but because I care more about the game than Derek’s dead friend whom I didn’t really know that well. Although I’m certainly dismayed by the news, feeling a sick pit in my stomach that probably wasn’t caused by the bag of barbeque chips I just ate in 20 minutes, I believe that because I can’t do anything to make the situation better, or to bring his friend back to life, that I might as well continue with the life that is mine. And in my life, watching the Browns each and every fall Sunday comes first. After all, I grew up with the Browns. They’ve been an integral part of my life since birth. And Derek’s friend, well, I don’t even remember his name. Sure I tell Derek that I’m sorry and I constantly ask him for updates as he finds out more details throughout the afternoon, but never once do I take my attention away from my Browns.
Since I can’t think of anything comforting to say, I change the subject to tell Derek that his beloved Redskins are still beating the Bears. That’s right, I talk about football.
Though I thought changing the subject to something more lighthearted would help calm Derek, I was nonetheless completely ashamed. Just how cold am I? I didn’t take Derek’s sorrow that seriously because he didn’t even know his friend very well – they had only hung out a few times with a mutual friend – and therefore thought he couldn’t feel particularly upset. Plus, I never had a close friend die so was unable to recall any of my own past feelings of grief. But God, how would I feel if my friend died and Derek didn’t turn off the TV? I’d probably never forgive him. Yet I never turned my attention from the game, not because it was a coping mechanism or a distraction, but because it was something I cared more about. If it had been another game I might have turned it off, but this was the Browns’ first game of the season! And since I was also following the Redskins’ first game of the season, I thought Derek would appreciate an update on the score. After all, I’d rather talk about sports than anything else, particularly when anything else is something as awful as a friend’s untimely passing, so I assumed he would be more than happy to hear about how his favorite team was doing. When I told him that the Redskins were winning, he didn’t react whatsoever. He didn’t even acknowledge the fact that I had said anything. Football was clearly the furthest thing from his mind.
I find watching or talking about an important game – or almost any game for that matter – to be more palatable than reflecting on a dead friend’s life. In fact, I find talking about sports to be more palatable than discussing just about anything, even the details of my closest friends’ lives, which is a shame, seeing that my friends’ lives are so interesting, so enriching, that I could learn so much more from them than I have.
For instance, do you know that the indigo bird, native to the grasslands of Cameroon, is one of only a handful of remaining parasitic bird species left in the world? My friend Chris does.
For instance, do you know that bodegas in impoverished New York City neighborhoods often charge three times as much for vegetables than large chain grocery stores because that’s where more than 75% of poor people shop for their groceries? My friend J.C. does.
For instance, do you know that neuroscientists only need to isolate two genes in a chicken to make a Cyclops chicken? My friend Liz does.
It’s never been a conscious decision, but I’ve always surrounded myself with friends who can elevate me in one form or another. From neuroscientists, to city planners, to economists, to renewable energy pioneers, I’ve accidentally assembled an arsenal of brilliant friends who are already leading experts in an array of diverse fields. In fact, if I ever became president I’d instantaneously have one kick-ass cabinet at my disposal. Unfortunately, I rarely take advantage of my resources, my smart friends. Although I often ask them to share the finer points of their professions, I rarely engage them in heady conversations outside of their specialties, and this is a tragedy because my life would clearly be enriched if I knew more of what they know.
As an example, in late September 2005, Chris – the aforementioned knower about the indigo bird – and I had a lengthy conversation, but we didn’t discuss science, philosophy, or politics, instead we debated whether it’s better to have four #2-starter quality pitchers on a baseball team’s roster or if it’s better to have a #1, #2, #3, and #4 starter. We spent the better part of an hour analyzing the merits of having a true staff ace with the usual supporting cast versus having a roster full of solid, but not star, pitchers. This conversation went on and on and we never considered changing the subject to something that most people would deem as being loftier. After all, this is what Chris and I do when we’re together. We talk about sports. We create ridiculous scenarios about baseball, basketball, football, whatever, and debate them to death. We act like normal guys.
Then I wonder if he and I really are as normal as I’ve just described us to be. As much as I’d like to consider myself otherwise, I probably am, but Chris is not normal. Hardly.
Chris is one of my multiple brilliant friends, and that’s not just a subjective description. He’s a Ph.D. evolutionary biologist who works in one of the world’s leading research facilities at Harvard. His credentials are impeccable and he can tell you anything about rare birds you’d ever want to know; from mating calls, to DNA composition, to skeletal system construction, and so forth. But he doesn’t talk about these topics unless prompted just like he rarely talks much about traditional intellectual subjects such as philosophy, physics, or what the definition of truth is. However, he’ll willingly carry on about anything to do with baseball, the NFL, or college basketball. Though more than capable of having what most people would consider to be ‘intellectual conversations,’ he just doesn’t like to. And neither do I.
I too used to be smart, or at least my friends always thought so. In fact, when I ran my weekly pub trivia game for several years, some of my friends even considered me the unofficial leader of our group. But I also don’t like to talk about philosophy, physics, or what the definition of truth is. Like Chris, I’d rather debate about whether or not the shortcomings of the modern NBA are based on the fact that its players possess significantly more athletic ability than ever before while also being less skilled than their predecessors. I mean, if you take someone as quick as Allen Iverson and make him guard someone who can only score by driving to the basket because he can’t hit an open jumper, that offensive player is going to have a very difficult time scoring because he’ll never get past Iverson. But anyway, that’s for another essay, I’d rather concentrate here on my preference to not have deep conversations.
During my adolescence in Cleveland, I possessed one of the most sincere, and almost stereotypically romantic views of what college on the East Coast must be like. I actually pictured ivy, colorful autumnal foliage, and people wearing tweed blazers with elbow patches. And when I finally made it there, the first day at Penn perfectly fulfilled these valiant visions of academia. But it wasn’t just these ideal visual images that I had previously imagined so many times which I found immediately upon my arrival, it was the cerebral pursuits of thought, conversation, and discourse which I quickly discovered.
I spent the bulk of my first night of college sobering up in a greasy cheesesteak shop discussing the meaning of truth with my roommate and two girls we were trying to hit on. My wide eyes were filled with wonder knowing that I could talk with my peers about such serious academic subjects at all hours of the night. It was the epitome of what I envisioned before I got to Penn. We devoured several cheesesteaks, several orders of fries, and large Cokes until our heated debate ended and we went home. So this really is what an East Coast college is all about, I thought to myself as we got up from our booth along 40th Street. Little did I know that would be the deepest conversation I’d have throughout college. After all, there soon would be relationships, friends, concerts, work-study jobs, and intramural sports to discuss. Just when exactly would I have time to talk about Nietzsche, Voltaire, or Levi Strauss?
Although I pay attention to many different aspects of our world, I do so with the understanding that I find myself caring less and less about many subjects that are commonly perceived as having intellectual merit. I feel that one man’s thoughts about the state of the world, famine, or the meaning of life aren’t really important to anyone but that particular person, and the last thing I want to do is bore anyone with my thoughts on these subjects. I’d rather socially analyze my latest fantasy baseball draft or consider why the Cavs won’t be good for a decade than discuss why Congress earmarked $37 million in the 2005 highways bill to widen and extend the street in Bentonville, Arkansas that provides the main access to the headquarters of Wal-Mart. To me, discussing the latter just sounds whiny and pretentious, and therefore having a conversation about such a subject can only turn out to be a combative experience with whomever you’re talking, and that just doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend one’s time. Therefore, I rarely discuss meaningful things with my friends because I might sound preachy, even though I know my friends and I usually think alike. And if that’s the case, I’d just be preaching to the choir, and what’s the point of that? Or maybe I just don’t like confrontation.
“I talk a lot to J.C. about what’s going on in the world,” my friend Sarah recently told me as we were listening to talk radio during a long drive on the 4th-of-July. I paused for a moment, feeling defensive and obligated to explain why I so rarely talk to her about current events or social injustices. “I talk to him about that stuff sometimes,” I responded quickly, “but find that I get frustrated too easily and end up wanting to talk about something else.” But what I didn’t mention to Sarah was that “something else” was code for “sports.” Somewhere over the last few years I figured out that there are several people – chosen completely arbitrarily as far as I can tell – whose opinions matter to me significantly more than anyone else. Sarah is that person for me. Although I’m not particularly concerned if she doesn’t think I’m funny, compassionate, or witty, I do want to her to think that I’m intelligent. Therefore, when I find myself counting in my head the number of times I’ve tried to engage her in an intelligent conversation and realize the answer is ‘not too often,’ I feel extremely inadequate. And now that Sarah was bringing up the point that she talks about social issues and politics with J.C., I took as her saying, “I’d like to talk about what’s going on in the world with you too, but you aren’t able to keep up with me.”
In my head, she had made an official proclamation that I’m an unworthy adversary; someone to whom she could never turn when in need of stimulating discourse. So what did I do? Did I go on the offensive and begin explaining my theories of regional climate change or my predication of an imminent recession? Nope. I simply changed the subject altogether as I tried to make her quickly forget how disappointed she is in my inability to converse deeply with her. And then, of course, my mind turned to sports. There was an Indians game starting soon and I was hoping the sparse holiday traffic would hold up and enable me to get home in time for the first pitch. That was seriously what was atop my mind. However, I soon resumed the conversation by talking about how hot and humid New York City can be on Independence Day and then Sarah and I solidified our plans for watching fireworks later that evening.
When it comes down to it, I have deep conversations about sports simply because I enjoy sports more than I enjoy politics, philosophy, art, whatever. Most political conversations I have – which are rarely longer than 10 minutes and occur only a few times each month – usually end up with someone being mopey or depressed, whereas conversations about sports usually end up with someone excited

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