These days, my favorite professional sport is NHL hockey. The game is so fast. The passing is so precise. The teamwork so intricate. The checking, physical. The players, stoic. Taking a slap shot on a moving puck and putting it past a 6-foot-2-inch goalie into a 4-by-6 net has got to be one of the most difficult things in sport.
And they do it all on ice.
I love the handshake line at the end of each round of the playoffs. When opponents who were trying to crush each other minutes before – who are totally exhausted from at least 60 minutes of lugging 20 pounds of equipment around a rink – line up, pat each other on the shoulder, and wish each other well, whether they mean it or not.
Why do I love sports? Should I? Are they just a diversion from more serious concerns? A childish waste of time and effort? The unseemly exaltation of winning above all else? The mean-spirited sublimation of the fight for the survival of the fittest? A lamentable indulgence of our tribal instinct?
Sport is well defined as a competitive activity involving physical and mental skill that is done for enjoyment. People of all genders, races, creeds and colors, all over the world, have been playing sports for ages.
Sports’ appeal transcends physical and mental disabilities. You only have to assist the Special Olympics, watch a unified basketball game, or root for a wheelchair racer to see that those athletes experience the joys of victory and the agonies of defeat like any other.
Some of my earliest memories are of playing games with my brothers, friends, neighbors and cousins. Games like stickball, “flies up,” “cream the carrier,” “HORSE,” and “goal-line stand.”
Those games were pretty elemental. The objectives were to see who could hit a ball the farthest, who was the most elusive and who the best tackler, and who could catch the highest fly balls, or the longest or hardest passes. Their appeal was self-evident. We were testing ourselves and each other. We would play until we couldn’t see, always asking for a little more time before having to come in from the dark.
By playing sports, I met a lot of other people I would not have gotten to know otherwise. I got the chance to vent frustrations in a relatively positive way. I learned the value of hard work and discipline, the importance of maintaining a positive attitude, and the power of teamwork to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
In a few instances, I experienced the power and camaraderie of a well-working team, where each player does his job under the direction of a coach who understands the game and how to motivate its players. I felt admiration for a worthy opponent and a game well-played. I began to appreciate sportsmanship and the beauty of being magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat.
I also was exposed to grandstanding, showboating, cheating, dissension, favoritism, abusiveness, home-cooking, bad calls, cheap shots, stupidity and prejudice.
Even so, sports are one of the most perfect of human activities. They are not like business or politics, where the rules are less clear, the systems are larger, more complex and less transparent, where it is more difficult to assess the results and their value, and where there is more opportunity for mischief.
Sports are better. You have a game with relatively simple rules. There is an official close at hand to make calls on the spot. Competitors play in the open, where anyone can watch and judge for themselves who plays well and who does not, who follows the rules and who does not, who wins, who loses, and how they handle victory and defeat.
One other thing. Sports offers pretty persuasive evidence that, as imperfect as we are, and as much as we may doubt it at times, we make progress. We are stronger, run and swim and ski faster, throw farther, and generally play better than we used to. We should take encouragement from that.
If we can improve at sports, we can do better in other areas of life, too.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.