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Dec, 2023

The Transformative Power of Sports - Part I: What are Sports?

Exploring the motivations, values, and human necessity of athletic competition

What are Sports?  Sounds like a silly question.  We all know sports, right?  It is a simple, and almost “non” question.  But give it a minute.  Let it marinate.  What are sports REALLY?  As a subset of universal human activity, we know sports occupies vast emotional, physical, and monetary real estate in our society. We place a substantial priority on it, but do we give enough attention to examining the real values and influences of sports? This is a series to explore that silly yet cavernous, simple but far-reaching non-question, question. 

Part 1 - Caveman Baseball:  No disrespect to the inventor of baseball, Abner Doubleday, but at some point in history a caveman kid threw a rock at another kid who swung a mammoth bone at it and tried to send it over the glacier.  Ahh, kids those days, amIright?  Humans play games and compete—we probably always have.  When we compete in physical activities individually or as a team… where we often end up in the same place as we started… with weird-shaped balls and arbitrary and often complicated rules… with odd-looking implements… fancy uniforms and glorified attempts to surmount a random height or distance, earning a score from judges, putting points on the board, or achieving a time… Well, we call all that… sports.   But why do we do it and where does it all come from? Let’s go back a bit.

Sports are a relic of competition within human evolution.  Survival of a species requires the passing on of genes that will often promote a competitive advantage.  To do that, our ancestors needed to compete daily for finite resources by acquiring sustenance, shelter, and protection from dangers before they starved, froze, or became dinner.  We are the product of those survivors.  Survival has been a competitive process throughout humanity and those evolved mechanisms still occupy prime real estate in our brains. We are programmed to continue to regularly hone our survival skills and send them up the line to the next generation.  Our ability to collaborate with each other and plan ahead efficiently distributes the burden of the survival of the species across all members of the species.  If allowed to thrive, the unique skillsets of each individual in the species creates intellectual and physical advancements that others can build upon.  This allows the opportunity for each individual to survive much longer, compete, and contribute survival resources back to the species.  It’s a fun circle of life (cue Lion King, “baaaa-naway-yaaaa…”).

Think about the divine perfection of that:  we each want to survive and thrive—and we do that by contributing skills to the mix of humans around us, as they contribute their skills to us.  Such is with sports as well.

While most of us do work for money which, in turn, provides the sustenance, shelter, and security that we need, our daily habits are no longer based solely on acts of immediate survival. The societal adjustment of getting out of the food chain and no longer engaging in daily chores of direct survival has been slow to evolve but quick to change—evading predators, subsistence farming, and hunting/gathering has been the mainstay for all but the most recent moments of humanity (that we know of). For context, current estimates put homo sapiens on earth for around 300,000 years.   Viewing this from a global perspective, only in the last few hundred years has a majority of civilization shunned the subsistence lifestyle and embraced the fun balance of capitalism, socialism, a host of other “-isms,” and the benefits of the resulting surplus economies.  In case you need a data point, that’s roughly half of a percent of our existence, assuming 300,000 years is correct (and it may not be).  99.5%+ of our known existence has required homo sapiens to grow food, kill food, and outrun the bear.  It’s quite remarkable when you think about it.  Interestingly, this change is not without some rapid skill loss: like, most of us can’t gut a deer even though grandpa could, and a surprisingly large number of us will kill hearty house plants on the daily, much less cultivate anything at scale to prepare for winter.  Humans have created this resource-rich world which has curbed daily competition of pure survival down to near zero with substantial change coming in the last seven-ish generations (again, from a global perspective). With literally 10,000+ generations under our belt, there’s no way humans have evolved away from survival-based competitive tendencies in the short amount of time from the onset of our global civilization. Translation:  competition is an evolutionary process that is still a very necessary part of the human experience. 

But what does this all have to do with sports?  In sports, we place a value on a person’s ability to compete and achieve status because it demonstrates advancement—not just for the person doing the thing, but for all of us.  As mental and physical limits get tested and boundaries get pushed, we celebrate the achievement because it means that either we are improving individually, or that humans are improving as a species. 

We are discussing sports, but this applies to just about everything.  There are robust levels of competition in art, music, humanities, and pretty much every other human discipline. These disciplines measure the seemingly limitless possibilities of the human brain and the delicate connections between the brain and body in knowledge-based and skills-based activities – again, all to measure our human path and quantify our advancement in those disciplines.  Competition is simply a barometer of our readiness for survival.  When a human discovers a thing and wins a Nobel Prize, we all celebrate the achievement because it demonstrates the intellectual possibilities of humans. When a human wins a gold medal at the Olympics, we all celebrate that achievement because it demonstrates the physical possibilities of humans.  Ultimately, competition is a unifying process for humans and brings satisfaction that our species will continue to thrive beyond our own personal timelines.  Competition is our gift to the future. 

So, what are sports? Sports are physical performances that satisfy our evolutionary need to show human progress. 

So, when Grok swings and accidentally breaks the mammoth bone that dad was hoping to use to hold up the deer skin shelter, or Billy sends a baseball through your living room window, just remember… they are merely helping humanity SURVIVE.

Join me next week for Part 2, where we explore the delicate art of losing...

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