The Universal Notebook: It's how you play the game

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The great thing about sports is that, ultimately, they don’t matter. They are just games, entertainment, a diversion from the harsh realities of everyday life. That’s why they are so popular.

I grew up playing baseball and basketball, and watching football. My first newspaper job while still in high school was reporting on schoolboy sports in Westbrook. I say schoolboy, because in the 1960s there were few athletic opportunities for girls and the few that did exist were rarely reported.

The rules of sports, being arbitrary and capricious, change all the time. When I was in high school, female basketball players could only dribble twice before they had to pass the ball, and I seem to recall that some players couldn’t cross half-court. Sexist nonsense. As are the rules that have boys and girls playing two different games of lacrosse.

Just about everything in boys’ lacrosse that looks like it should be illegal (whacking your opponent repeatedly with a metal pole) is actually legal. In fact, I’m amazed that anything is illegal in boys’ lacrosse. Girls’ lacrosse, on the other hand, is a less violent game, though just as physical. Coaches and sports officials have thus far declined to issue girls helmets and pads and let them play by the same rules as the boys, but when that day finally does come, we will look back and think how silly it was to think we had to protect fast, strong, fit young women from hurting one another.

That said, this column was prompted by watching the Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones barrel into Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia at home plate in a recent game. Just about everywhere else on the field, if you run into an opposing player, it’s interference or obstruction. But for some unknown macho reason catchers are considered fair game for cheap shots. This isn’t hockey, boys. Catchers should not be allowed to block the plate and runners should be out if they don’t slide.

Baseball is my favorite sport, but there is a lot of silliness about America’s pastime. Why, for instance, do baseball managers wear uniforms? From the pros to the high schools, grown men who are never again going to play the game parade around the sidelines in stretch pants and stirrup socks.

Is there any other sport in which coaches or managers wear uniforms? Diving coaches in Speedos? Hoops coaches in tank tops and baggies? Football coaches wearing helmets? Heck, Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick shows up for games on nationwide television wearing old sweatshirts with the sleeves cut off. Lose the uniforms, gentlemen.

And speaking of losing uniforms, why in the world do women beach volleyball players put up with being asked to parade around in bikinis. Maybe because half the audience for the sport are male buttwatchers. But come on, ladies, don’t dignify ogling by pandering to the prurient. Unless you’re actually playing on a beach and plan to take a plunge as soon as the set is over, there’s no reason to be wearing a bathing suit.

I admit that I watched a lot of the London Olympics, or the NBC Jingoist Olympics, as I prefer to think of them. Did any country other than America win any medals? Did any other countries compete? But shameless nationalism was not the biggest problem with the Olympics. They just weren’t that interesting. No personalities emerged. No drama of athletic competition. Just a bunch of one-dimensional gym rats doing their thing.

The two resolves I took away from the Olympics were that gymnasts shouldn’t pretend to be dancing and Michael Phelps is even less interesting than Mark Spitz.

Watching the gymnasts on the beam and floor exercises, I was embarrassed for them as they flailed their arms around as though doing interpretive dance. Just do the flips and forget the fanfare, ladies and gentlemen.

As to Master Phelps, the constant speculation about whether, because he has won more medals than anyone else, he is the greatest Olympian of all time became tedious. The answer is no, he is not. Swimmers just have more opportunities to medal than other athletes. If there were a three-legged race and a sack race in the Olympics as well as dashes, relays and long jumps, Carl Lewis would have won those medals, too.

Athletics play a vital role in society, providing personal outlets for the few and shared amusement for the many. But winning and losing are far less important than what an athlete does with his or her success. Dolts like Phelps and Usain Bolt haven’t figured that out yet.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.