Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 30, 2012

In Defense of Sports (and Figure Skating)

Matt Wasowski is on a quest to defend sport from its critics, though even he has trouble defending the slow pace of baseball, and the Brooklyn Nets.

Justin Adler

Let's say you're a diehard sports fan who happens to host a regular intellectual gathering of self-professed nerds, many of whom look down upon anything sport-related.

In an effort to show them the light, do you:

(A) Explain there's nothing nerdier than a properly spelled chant, then begin screaming J! E! T! S!
(B) Ease them into your world with a gateway sport such as figure skating.
(C) Write a 185-page book on why it's actually OK to like sports and leave no room for confusion by naming said book It's Okay To Like Sports: How Women, Intellectuals, and Artists Can Find Cultural Value in Athletics

If you're Matt Wasowski, the host of New York City's Nerd Nite, the answer is C, with a little bit of B, once the nerds are on board.

Matt Wasowski
"Surprisingly, the most common reason people tell me they don't like sports isn't the actual sports themselves, but because they dislike sports fans."

Matt Wasowski

His book contains a series of intensely personal essays that illustrate how sports have impacted his life. The entire collection teaches intellectuals, artists, and other highbrow types that one can be a sports fan while maintaining a high degree of intellect.

In addition to hosting cerebral panels in DUMBO, the native Clevelander works as the senior manager of customer programs for the collaborate division of the educational technology company Blackboard, Inc.—and in any rare moment of free time he pours his heart into all things Browns, Cavs, and Tribe.

In the following interview—which was conducted by a sports-crazed intellectual and has been edited for clarity—Wasowski discusses Brooklyn's least-annoying sports bar, the Nets' future fan base, and how a triple lutz might be all a sports hater needs.

Gelf Magazine: How many sports-haters has your book converted? Do some of your friends still look down on all things sport?

Matt Wasowski: In this case, I prefer to use the term "tolerate" versus "convert." While I don't know of any women, artists, or intellectuals who were diehard anti-sports people before they read the book and have since become diehard pro-sports people upon perusing its pages, I know that the vast majority of feedback I've received can be summarized as, "I read your book and agreed with many of your points. I guess I can understand why someone would like sports."
I realize that statement is hardly a rousing endorsement, but when you're starting with people who were previously "disgusted" or "nauseated" by sports, I consider any level of understanding or tolerance to be a huge victory. It's like when my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers were hovering around the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs most of this season—everyone considered that to be a great accomplishment because there were predicted to finish last in the conference (which, of course, they ended up threatening to do). But it was enough to keep people interested and optimistic—which is what this book was going for.

Gelf Magazine: Are certain sports better as starter sports for people who aren't yet sold on their merit? For instance is tennis an easier sell than the brutality of football?

Matt Wasowski: I truly believe that figure skating is the strongest gateway sport. When a world-class skater combines grace and showmanship with the athleticism to perform a triple lutz or salchow in the heat of the moment against other world-class skaters, one sees a sport that possesses elements of a Broadway show with top-notch athletes: obviously a nice way for a non-sports fan to ease into sports. Figure skating combines elegance, creativity, athleticism, and pomp-and-circumstance that seem to transcend other sports. Though I also wish ping pong and badminton were broadcast more widely because they're sports that nearly everyone has played at one point in their lives and just happen to be two of the best sports to watch live because the elite players take garden-variety backyard games and turn them into a whirlwind of speed, power, and precision.
Unfortunately, sports like baseball, football, and tennis, no matter how entertaining a particular game or match might be, are too slow and have too many breaks to keep the
attention of most non-sports fans. And this is often a recurring a problem—sports where typical plays last two to 10 seconds and then have a 30-to-60-second break until the next one. These make the non-sports fan lose interest quickly. If you actually count how long all the plays last during a 60-minute NFL football game, you'll see that a typical game is six to eight minutes long. It's pathetic, and not a good way to attract newbie fans.

Gelf Magazine: What's the most common reason why people tell you they don't like sports? Also, what aspect of sports do you find the hardest to defend?

Matt Wasowski: Surprisingly, the most common reason people tell me they don't like sports isn't the actual sports themselves, but because they dislike sports fans. But this is tricky, and one of the key points I try to make in my book. When someone tells me they don't like sports fans, I understand that they're referring to loudmouth, drunk guys who spontaneously chant for their teams in the streets and are generally unruly, unkempt, and/or obnoxious. And I totally get that. I hate those guys, too.
But the fundamental problem with hating "sports fans" is that that's a gross stereotype. That's like saying I don't like books because I hate librarians or I don't like music because I hate teenagers.
With such an array of sports (from basketball and football to running and biking), there's an equal array of sports fans, and thus someone who doesn't like sports fans ultimately ends up hating ninety-plus percent of the population.
The aspect of sports I find hardest to defend isn't the brutality (of rugby, football, hockey, etc.), as one might expect, but it's actually the duration and lack of action in most games—particularly American sports. Baseball—a game that takes three hours and has about 15 minutes of actual playing time from when the pitcher releases the ball to when the play is over. Football: a "60 minute" game that actually has six to eight minutes of real-time action. The NBA regular season—when no one on the court even gives 75% effort until the last six minutes. And so on. I always hear that these sports are boring and I have a difficult time providing a counter-argument. If one doesn't know the teams playing or have a vested interest, that certainly can be the case.

Gelf Magazine: Within New York City, which bar or venue is the best for showing skeptics the greatness of sports?

Matt Wasowski: 200 Fifth in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. It's a sports bar with literally two TVs per table, but the crowd is low-key, you can usually get a seat (I hate standing because I lose focus of what I'm watching), you can hear the game you're watching, and the beer selection is incredible, which keeps the aforementioned "typical sports fan" at bay because he can't find Miller Lite anywhere.

Gelf Magazine: On the flip side, which bar or venue makes you question your own love for sports?

Matt Wasowski: Easily the Village Pourhouse in the East Village. It's so crowded that you end up spending most of your time trying not to get bumped into by the "typical sports fan" who is carrying a round of Miller Lites back to his buddies while he's proudly wearing his brand new Linsanity T-shirt, Jets Tim Tebow jersey, or whatever other frontrunner jersey is fashionable that particular week.

Gelf Magazine: If you meet someone who is a Cleveland-sports fan, does that automatically mean you'll get along? How often do you find that you don't have anything in common with fellow Cleveland fans?

Matt Wasowski: As I mention in my essay, "Talkin' Sports," this is an incredibly tenuous scenario. The rare times I run into a fellow Cleveland sports fan here in New York, we dive right into a conversation about Cleveland sports, and I then spend a considerable amount of energy purposely and consciously trying to ensure the conversation never strays from sports talk. I do this for two reasons. One, because at my ripe-old age of 37, I honestly don't want to spend much time getting to know a stranger whom I'll likely never see again. I don't care if that person is an astronaut or the inspiration for the Most Interesting Man in the World, I just want to focus on my beloved sports talk with this stranger.
I simply care more about my Indians, Cavs, and Browns—teams in which I've invested 37 years of blood, swear, and tears—than about this stranger whom I met five seconds ago.
Second, even though New York is a bubble in which nearly everyone feels the same way I do about traditionally touchy subjects such as politics and religion, I just don't want to stray from sports talk and risk these subjects coming up. If I'm talking to a fellow Cleveland fan, I want to escape reality for a few moments (of work, bills, and bank accounts) and talk about the Browns' draft, the Indians' hot start, or the bright future of the rebuilding Cavs. Talking about serious things is often sad and depressing, so I definitely don't want to engage and in sad and depressing discourse with a stranger.
I'm also afraid that the Cleveland sports fan might eventually find out that I'm a vegetarian and then laugh at me. Though I would totally understand, respect him for doing so, and be skeptical of him if he didn't.

Gelf Magazine: As the host of the hip(ster) event Nerd Nite in Brooklyn, do you see the borough's cool kids getting excited about the NBA team that's about to move into their midst?

Matt Wasowski: Well, first, I'll fight you to the death about the Nerd Nite audience being hipsters. In fact, based on audience surveys, they actually hold more advanced degrees and earn more money than readers of the New Yorker. So even though they're sort of young, smart, and definitely have an affinity toward delicious beer and cocktails, the "hipster" label probably doesn't fit too well considering hipsters are supposed to be lazy (suckling on their trust funds' teats) and too cool to want to learn about insects, the origin of the Jewish mafia, or why all sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell. But I digress…
There are three huge reasons why not just hip Brooklynites, but practically all Brooklynites, don't give a crap that they'll have an NBA team a few blocks away from their apartments in a few months.
First, the Atlantic Yards Project. This is the name of the development project and subsequent legislation that paved the way to bring the team to our fair borough in the early 2000s. Essentially this is the poster child for eminent-domain abuse. The new arena is constructed at the intersection of several of Brooklyn's most residential—and affluent—neighborhoods (Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and Fort Greene). In a nutshell, the NYC and Brooklyn governments deemed two neighborhood blocks as "blighted" despite them having hundreds of responsible—and many wealthy—residents, in order to tear down the small brick homes to not only make space for the arena, but for the 15 to18 high-rises that eventually will be constructed on the site. Not only were those blocks not "blighted," but even if they were, eminent domain can only be used for public projects—and the new Nets arena and surrounding high-rises-to-be are all private. So many people are so outraged (myself included), that this might be one of those few instances when an outraged community actually sticks to its guns and doesn't support the local monstrosity after it's completed (unlike, for example, a community that protests the construction of a Wal-Mart and then finds everyone unable to resist buying a 50" flat screen for the crazy low roll-back price of $400).
Second, I can count on one hand how many people I've ever met who grew up rooting for the Nets, so there's no die-hard, built-in fan base. I mean, there isn't even a fan base in New Jersey, where they've played for the last 40 years. I went to a Nets game in March to watch them host my Cavs, and I literally bought two tickets on for 87 cents each. Yes, 87 cents. And they were in the first row of the upper level straddling the half-court line. And there were maybe 4,500 people at the game.
And third, I'm calling it now: The 2012-13 Brooklyn Nets already have a serious shot at having the worst record in the history of basketball. And as novel as that might sound—even to a Brooklyn hipster who loves all things ironic—no one can get excited by a team that might win 10 games next season.

Gelf Magazine: If you could host any three pro athletes—dead or alive—at Nerd Nite, who would you chose, and what would the panel discuss?

Matt Wasowski: Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson, and Sandy Koufax. I would simply love to hear about overcoming stereotypes (of African-Americans and Jews) and how they dealt with the outside pressures and remained so professional.

Gelf Magazine: Among active athletes, who would you call the biggest nerd in sports, and why?

Matt Wasowski: RGIII. I love the fact that he wears SpongeBob and other cartoon socks, can tell you how to beat a cover-two zone defense, and just seems to be above anything petty. I couldn't tell you what his GPA was at Baylor, but he has this quirky confidence that will help him excel in the NFL.

Gelf Magazine: Your book draws parallels between your life and several aspects of sports. If you had to compare yourself to one athlete today, who would it be and why?

Matt Wasowski: Jamie Moyer, the 49-year-old left-handed pitcher of the Colorado Rockies. I compare myself to him because he's a small, lefty pitcher who has been underestimated and undervalued his whole career despite consistently performing. I compare myself to him because I still have a chip on my shoulder because I feel I'm not always taken seriously because of how I present myself. While in baseball, people see Moyer as a gray-haired, skinny, 5'11" pitcher and therefore dismiss him until he proves them wrong, I don't dress particularly well, I look like I'm 20 years old, and I can be shy at times—so in professional settings I'm often dismissed as too junior for certain roles.

Gelf Magazine: Finally, as a diehard Cleveland sports fan, do you think LeBron will ever play for the Cavs again? Would you even want him back?

Matt Wasowski: No and it depends. I don't think he'll ever come back because he'll eventually start to win championships in Miami and will be happy with his rings. But if he did come back, I'd only want him if he adjusted to our new offense—so yes, I make this argument based solely on whether or not he'd really help us win. After all, I've never seen a Cleveland team win a championship before, so who am I to be too picky? Now don't get me wrong, I, like all other Clevelanders, loathe him and hope he is constantly being infected by parasites, but he would still certainly make our team better than it is today. The problem is that when LBJ was a Cav, in late, close games, the default play on offense was to give him the ball at the top of the key, have everyone else stand around and watch him dribble down the shot clock, and then have him heave a 25-foot jumper or try to drive to the rim. It was just horrible to watch. And now that we have a true point guard in Kyrie Irving who will be our new star for at least five more years, LBJ would have to work with Irving late in games, kind of how Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant work together now.
So, in short, I'd take him back if he didn't have to or want to dominate the ball late in games. But otherwise, I'd still love to see him get injured, miss the rest of the playoffs, and watch the Heat win the NBA championship without him. That would bring me immense satisfaction I can hardly begin to imagine.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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