King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Sports likes and dislikes: Why I love the sports I love, hate the sports I hate, and make exceptions all the time.


Salon Staff
July 8, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

It's that time of year again. They're having that bike race in France, and as a courtesy to fans of that race and that sport, I'm not writing about it. I worry about their blood pressure, you see.

But that race, the Euro 2004 soccer tournament and a letter from reader Daniel Flemming have all got me thinking lately about why it is that I'm a fan of certain sports and not others. I wonder the same thing about you too, but I can't speak for you.

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Flemming was confused by an offhand mention I made recently that I love curling. He actually understood that, since I also love baseball. "These sports line up nicely. Ponderous, slow," he wrote. "And yet, you seem to also really like basketball and hockey. Either you're the Dream Sports Columnist, and you like all sports, even hurling, volleyball and water polo, or there's something there that confuses me."

Let's just say I'm not the Dream Sports Columnist.

I grew up watching the "big four" American sports and boxing, and the effect that had on my likes and dislikes can't be underestimated. But there are other sports I saw as a kid that I don't care about, and sports I saw little of that I like, so what I grew up with doesn't explain everything.

I wrote back to Flemming trying to explain why it is that I like curling, which was about 750 words' worth of saying, "I dunno, it's just cool." For the record, I love hurling and get little from volleyball and water polo. And as readers looking for Euro 2004 coverage in this space have been reminded, soccer bores me silly.

Any sport where man, beast or machine is racing other men, beasts or machines is not for me, with the sometime exception of horse racing, though in that case what I like is the culture around the track, not the sport itself. If I'm present at an auto race, I'm awed by watching cars go 200-plus miles per hour, which doesn't come across on TV, and I really like drag racing, for the same "wow!" reason. But the sporting part of it, who wins, doesn't interest me in the least.

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I just don't care who can get from Point A to Point B faster, ever, unless I am one of the people trying to get from Point A to Point B, and even then only if there's something really worth having once I get there first. I also don't care, when people are doing the same exact thing in sequence -- jumping off of a ski-jump ramp or throwing a javelin, for example -- who does it better. Junk sports, newly invented, X Games-type sports, invariably follow this format.

So what do I look for? Athleticism, for one thing, which rules out golf and bowling. Yes, I know these are physical activities. So is playing the piano. They're not athletic activities. There's no running, jumping or exerting of maximum muscle strength.

Defense. I don't mean defense in the sense of using strategy to try to make it impossible for your opponent to do what he or she wants, as in racing of any kind. I mean one person literally facing another and trying to stop that person. Football, basketball, hockey, baseball, boxing and wrestling, among other sports, have that kind of defense. Racing, field sports, gymnastics, figure skating and curling don't.

And curling's not athletic either, by the way. But curling's cool.

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I agree with George Foreman, who supposedly said, "Boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire." It is one-on-one competition, stripped raw. No teammates, no equipment other than gloves, no funny bounces. As a sport, it's perfect. As an actual human activity, of course, it's terminally corrupt and rightly unable to attract talented athletes. I'm a former boxing fan and a former boxing reporter. No relationship I've ever had has been as complicated as my relationship with boxing.

I would have replaced boxing in my life with Greco-Roman wrestling, which has the same one-on-one quality, if only I could -- Why did that guy just get a point?! -- understand what was going on.

There are a number of sports I don't go for because -- I think this is why -- they are versions of hockey, but they aren't hockey. Water polo, lacrosse, soccer and field hockey all have the same basic premise: There's a goal at one end with a goalie in front of it and the object is to get the ball or ball-like object into that goal, by way of continuous action, which is restricted by various offside-like rules. It's a fine premise. It's just that hockey does it at 100 mph, so all the others seem slow.

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Hurling operates on a similar premise, but hurling is, I dunno, cool.

Tennis and volleyball are kind of a special case here, because they are athletic and the players do face each other. But I find them too limited. The field of play is too small, too simple. The number of possible outcomes on a given play is too small.

We baseball fans like to say that if you watch baseball every day for your whole life, you'll see something you've never seen before maybe once a month. The last time I saw something in a tennis match that I'd never seen before, I was still thinking about it when the Flip Wilson show came on that night.

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All of the other net sports suffer from being like tennis, but less so.

Tennis and volleyball also bring up the wild card in all this: the stakes. There's almost no sport so boring to me that it can't be exciting if the stakes are high enough. I woke up early and sat in a bar before breakfast -- the kind of thing I'd long since sworn off doing -- to watch the U.S.-Germany World Cup soccer match in 2002. I'll happily watch the finals of a Grand Slam tennis tournament, but find it almost physically impossible to sit through any other match.

I'm not alone here. Wimbledon and the French, U.S. and, to a lesser degree, Australian opens are major television sporting events in this country even though pretty much the same bunch of players gets together for a tournament every week for most of the year, the news of which barely makes the "Other sports" roundup in your local paper.

Every four years the American public becomes besotted with volleyball. We watch the U.S. Olympic volleyball teams and just go crazy for them. There's invariably talk that this will be a shot in the arm for volleyball in this country. Pro leagues are envisioned or formed. Endorsement contracts are handed out to the star players.

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And then it passes. We weren't watching volleyball. We were watching the Olympics. It happens in all kinds of sports. When was the last time in a non-Olympic year that you could name a top swimmer or gymnast who had not yet been to the Olympics? These people compete all the time, but they only become superstars in years divisible by four.

It even happened, to a lesser extent, with curling, which worked its goofy charm on millions during the Salt Lake Games two years ago. It couldn't last and it didn't. Most people have forgotten about curling again.

Not me, though. I still think it's, I dunno, cool.

Previous column: Gagne's saves, Sharapova's education

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