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Of Sports and Jim

I do not hail from a family of sportsmen. My father's usual Sunday afternoon companions are a good book and the living room couch, not John Madden and the Fox NFL crew. My mother's interest in athletics faded quickly after her teenage years on the basketball courts of Arlington Heights, Ill., where she made sheepish use of her 6-foot frame to accidentally terrorize small girls of equally dubious coordination.

Thus it is not as the result of some familial sporting lineage that I have spent four years writing about sports for The Cavalier Daily and plan to seek my modest fortune by continuing in similar fashion after next month's graduation. I arrived at a love of sports for reasons that are still only partially clear to me.

The life for which I've prepared myself - a life spent watching sports and telling other people about them - is fundamentally less worthwhile than the work my classmates will do in shaping government policy or healing sickness or teaching children to read. Sports are mere games, insignificant pastimes played with a ball and a handful of other equipment. Stripped to their bare essentials, sports are pointless.

But these trifling games will live on - and I will continue to have a career - because stripping them to their bare essentials would necessitate the impossible task of yanking them from the cultural contexts that create and sustain them. Sports offer a diversion from the confusion of reality. They have rules, limits on where and when and how long the game can be played, who can play it and what tools can be used. The object is victory, laid out in easy-to-follow directions (e.g., score more points than your opponent). Life has no rules, no time limits, no handy instructions. And I fully expect to spend several decades trying to figure out what the point of it all is.

This is not a problem I encounter as a sports fan. Order triumphs over chaos - except, I suppose, in professional boxing. At a baseball game, the shortstop isn't going to field a groundball and start gnawing on it. He's going to run with it or throw it somewhere, in the interest of advancing towards the aforementioned clear-cut objective of victory.

That kind of stability and repetition is comforting to me, consciously or not. I was a kid who used to go into meticulous detail at the dinner table, laying out for my parents the seating charts of my grade-school classrooms. There was a reason I entered college as an Engineering student.

Yet for all my neurotic impulses, I also enjoy occasional interpersonal contact with other humans (perhaps that explains my switch from engineering to English). Sports, I have discovered, is one hell of a unifying force. I haven't gotten it to work reliably with the ladies and sometimes it can be too much of a social crutch, but it serves as a common interest for millions of people.

Sports fans can talk to each other, no matter who they are. If the recent rioters in Cincinnati had coffee breaks, they probably spent them making fun of the Bengals or debating whether Barry Larkin can return to MVP form. Monday night at the library, a total stranger interrupted my roommate's monologue on the NBA Draft (I would call it a discussion if it were one) to toss in his $.02 on the pro prospects of Tayshaun Prince.

My mother likes to remind me that in high school I declared that I was looking forward to a future free of papers and essays. Then the first week I hit Charlottesville, the opportunity to immerse myself in sports drew me back to writing. I remember digressing from one particular late-night chemistry study session three years ago to consider if I should just ditch engineering and give this journalism thing a shot. Now I'm knee-deep in it.

Yet four years ago, I was equally convinced my fortune lay in the direction of engineering. So I think discretion is the better part of valor this time as far as expectations go. I'm not sure exactly where I'll be after next year. But I'm willing to bet someone will be throwing a ball nearby.

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