For the Love of the Game
By Jonathan Gault, The Dartmouth Senior Staff
Published on Monday, February 18, 2013
As I hope you’ve figured out by this point, life isn’t fair. So it shouldn’t surprise you that sports aren’t fair, either.
My high school soccer coach had a saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” What’s left unspoken is that, presuming talent doesn’t stay up drinking all night before a game and actually has a desire to get better, talent will usually win. My high school soccer team could have worked from now until eternity and we’d still lose to Barcelona 100 times out of 100 attempts.
But I’m not writing this column to complain about something that was decided when you were born. I’m writing to complain about the inequalities that stem from that talent, or lack thereof.
One of the great things about sports is that even if you have no talent, you still have a chance to compete. Most high schools have teams that no one is cut from, like many track teams, providing even the worst athletes an opportunity to play.
An individual sport like track works particularly well for untalented athletes, because it is very easy to set tangible goals and measure improvement, whether it’s to run a few seconds faster or jump a few inches farther.
Even the slowest runner is not that far removed from the Olympic champion, since both are essentially chasing self-improvement. The problem I have with this, hence why sports are unfair, is that the amount others care about your achievements is directly linked to two things beyond your control: your talent level and your sport. Technically, you can control your sport, but a world-class table tennis player cannot simply decide to be a world-class football player; you’re stuck with what you’re good at.
For four years, I cared more than anything about winning the Ivy League cross country championship. My team never won, but if we had, it would have been incredibly meaningful to everyone associated with the program. You have probably stopped reading now because no one else cares about Ivy League cross country.
If I were a world-class runner and hoped to win an Olympic gold medal, a bunch of you would probably be pretty interested in that. But even if I won one, outside of Dartmouth and the running community, my achievement would probably be forgotten by the time the next Olympics roll around.
But if I were a world-class quarterback for the New England Patriots and dreamed of winning the Super Bowl, a ton of people would be interested. And if I managed to pull it off, the accompanying fame and glory would be enough to ensure that I’d never have to pay for a drink in New England for as long as I lived. What I’m getting at here is that it is not fair that one sport or one event matters more to the general public than another. Even if my goal were simpler, like winning a race in college, that does not mean that I care any less about it than that quarterback who wants to win the Super Bowl. It just means that you do.
I know that the staple response is to say, “Don’t worry about what others think,” but, to be frank, that’s very difficult for most people, myself included. If I accomplished my goal and won an Ivy League cross-country title, I would have been satisfied and proud of that accomplishment for as long as I lived. But most people, save for those intimately connected to the sport, would think “That’s a nice achievement” and move on. I guarantee you people would have a different reaction if I told them I was Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
And that, to me, is the most unfair thing about talent inequality. It is not that someone is more talented than I, it is that the events they compete in matter to more people and have a much bigger impact than the events I compete in.
Sadly, this isn’t a problem that can be fixed. That’s not the worst thing in the world, because I doubt that most people care enough about sports to think about something like this. But I do care enough about sports to think about it, and whenever I do, it makes me sad.