Understanding Sports (or Things I Never Learned on ESPN)

The first rule of understanding sports in America is that there is football and then there are all the other sports. Only by understanding the true importance of football can you understand why some people think the main problem with our society is that there isn’t enough football.

This is why the newest TV channel to debut is the NFL Network, where you can watch discussions of games played once a week or, in some cases, games played 25 years ago. And you can watch them 24 hours a day.

Because the football season only stretches from August to the end of January, there is a crying need for football the other six months of the year. That’s why there is such a thing as the Arena Football League. This is the league that became famous because it made a former supermarket clerk (Kurt Warner) into a rich jerk with a complaining spouse, who never has to shop in the supermarket again. Arena football is so named because it is played in an arena (football’s importance far outstrips its creativity). Arena football is coming to Philadelphia.

Normally the fact that arena football has decided to place a team here would be found on the last sports page, in between the ads for Hummers and adult videos. But Jon Bon Jovi will be the principal owner of the new team, the perfect marriage of celebrity and sports. This is why Philadelphia magazine chose Bon Jovi as one of the 21 people likely to change your life next year. (Either the magazine has run out of pretentious rich attorneys and young CEOs, or arena football is more important than even I imagined.)

Sports are so important that it has developed its own punishments for those who transgress the rules of society. For instance, if a player beats his wife or girlfriend, he is suspended for three games. If a player kills his wife, girlfriend or business associate, or someone arguing in a bar, he is found not guilty and inducted into the hall of fame.

Sports are so important that if a team wins any kind of national championship, it immediately gets a phone call and an invitation to the White House. If you run an agency that helps the poor and you can’t afford a good lobbyist, you might want to consider playing basketball for the Lakers if you want to see the President.

If you want to get an idea of how important sports really are, consider that Billy Donovan, the basketball coach at the University of Florida, is getting paid $1.7 million, and compare that with the salary of the chairman of the science department at any university. If your home gets destroyed by a wildfire in California, not even your insurance company wants to talk with you. However, if your professional sports stadium is more than 30 years old, you’ll find the state and local government more than happy to help build you another one with all the amenities.

If you graduate high school and can dunk a basketball, you will get a few more offers for a free college education than if your skill is playing the violin, even if some folks compare you to a young Heifetz. If you graduate high school and you are really, really good with a basketball, you can get a million-dollar sneaker contract. If your only skill is that you get straight A’s in physics, you can buy your own sneakers for $75 a pair.

If you are a great athlete, the media will hang on your every word, even if no one can figure out what the hell it is that you are trying to say. Your political opinions will suddenly have great weight (and you might even become governor of California) even if you can’t remember the last time you voted.

Beautiful women will cling to you and perhaps visit your hotel room to chat and see your trophy if you are a professional athlete (actually, they’ll visit your dorm if you are just a college athlete). If you were an accountant, these same women would not only refuse your offer of a drink, they’d throw it in your face.

Sports are important enough that people will pay for your autograph after standing in line for an hour, even if you are only the third-string quarterback. People will ignore you at the Thanksgiving table if there’s a game on. They will pay for something called a personal seat license for the right to buy an outrageously priced seat. Their personal happiness often depends on whether their football team won that weekend.

The one thing that outrages older sports fans is if they find out their kids look to their favorite athlete as a role model. Now where do you suppose they got that from?