What Is A Sport – Who Is An Athlete?

If you listen to sports radio or if you read certain sports columnists, you have heard or seen these kinds of questions asked and debated and re-hashed. One of the problems I have is that when either of these questions comes up, the other one rears its head. People find it difficult to focus on just one topic and so they always cloud one issue with the other. I think these are two distinct questions and need to be considered that way.

If you ever studied differential equations – and that should not be wished on anyone who did not have to study it as a requirement for their major in college – you know what it means to try to “separate the variables”. It makes life simpler; it makes problems solvable. That is what we need to do here; we need to separate “athletes” from “sports”.

I’ll offer as a definition that a sport is a competitive event where the outcome of the event is unambiguous. When the players have finished a football game and the referee has declared the game to be over, all one needs to do is to look at the scoreboard to see who won. All of the events that led to the elements of the scoring are clear to anyone who watched the game or to anyone who looks at the videotape the next day or sometime in the next century. It is common to have an umpire/referee/official in sporting events because there needs to be a neutral arbiter of the rules. Officials will make mistakes and some of those mistakes may involve scoring events but the score of the event is recorded as total of the scores declared by the officials. The winner is the one with the most advantageous score.

I’ll offer as a definition that a competition is not a sport if the outcome is based on – or can be based on – some subjective judgments of a panel of experts. Calling the experts on the panel “judges” does not make them objective; forcing them to use numbers to grade performances does not make them objective. These trappings are merely attempts to make it look as if someone could actually determine how close to “ideal” a specific activity was. In gymnastics, it matters not how far one jumped in the vault over the horse; that would be an objective measure and would make that event a sport. In gymnastics, a panel decides on the value of a vault over the horse based on their subjective estimate of how closely the contestant held her feet and how straight her legs were when she landed and etc. These kinds of competitive events are not sports; they are closer to artistic expression.

So sports – by my definition – include things like baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, horse racing, swimming, billiards/pool, chess, bridge, poker, NASCAR, archery, track and field, volleyball, tennis and – well you get the idea.

Conversely competitions that are closer to artistic expressions – by my definition – include things like gymnastics, figure skating, ice dancing, ballroom dancing, ballet, diving, synchronized swimming, synchronized diving, surfing, trampoline tumbling, boxing and – you get the idea.

Now we need to define “athlete”. If I suggest that an athlete is someone who through physical exertion and coordination and speed and strength and reflexes undergoes some kind of aerobic activity that leads to success in some kind of endeavor, then you can see that athletes compete in both sports and competitions and that not all sports participants are athletes.

One can play the “sport” of poker and have no athleticism at all. One can perform in a ballet company and exhibit extraordinary athletic skills and no one is even keeping score. One can train for years to compete in synchronized swimming and have a resting heart rate of 40 and only 5% body fat, but it still ain’t a sport.

So when people ask you if Jerry Bailey is an athlete when he rides six winners on a race card at Churchill Downs in a given day, the answer is yes. And coincidentally, he competed in a sport while he was being an athlete.

Is Steve Mizerak an athlete when he wins a pool tournament? If you look at him, your first guess would probably be, “Hell, no!” But this is a borderline judgment since his competition does require coordination and very minor physical exertion. Personally, I would rule him out as an athlete on the basis of the lack of any real aerobic activity; I admit this is debatable even under my definitions. But he competes in a sport under any circumstances.

Is Dale Earnhardt an athlete? Another close call but I believe the constant use of strength and reflexes and coordination overcomes the minimal aerobic activity and makes him a borderline athlete. Given the prodigious degree of bladder control necessary, I’ll cite that as the thing that puts him over the top here. And he definitely competes in a sport.

Is any random golfer on the PGA Tour an athlete? Given the popularity of golf, this is where I probably get myself in trouble, but my answer is no. Yes, there is some physical exertion; and yes, there is coordination and some small amount of reflexes involved, but not enough to convince me that a golfer is an athlete. When the governing body of the sport – the PGA – argues in a court that walking is an integral part of the game, then I get suspicious. Walking is mastered by the average two year old. I would argue that it as integral a part of golf as is respiration. Golf is undeniably a sport, but when one of the world class golfers can go through a career known as “The Walrus” – and it is not because he likes to say “goo goo ka joob” – it might give you a hint that athleticism is not a key to the game. Interestingly, many great athletes from other sports try to play golf in addition to the athletic activity at which they excelled and most of them do not master the game. But golf is undeniably a sport.

If you look at all the examples of things I listed that are more like artistic expressions than they are sports, you will see that most of the participants are indeed athletes. Gymnasts are athletes; boxers are athletes; ice skaters are athletes. But they are not dripping their sweat while participating in sports.

Not convinced? I’m not surprised. This is not a view I’ve found to be widely held. But think about the activities that I contend are not sports. Now imagine that someone in the “Olympic Movement” conned everyone and got poetry writing added to the Games for 2004. (Forget the language barriers and imagine for a moment that everyone in the competition is fluent in English.) You would have a competition where contestants wrote compulsory rhymes and compulsory free verse couplets which would be judged/scored/graded by a panel of professors from major universities. In the second round, poems would need to be composed based on meters and phonic feet that are drawn randomly and presented to the competitor. Finally, there would be the free program where the aspiring poets would present an original sonnet and an epic poem based on Greek Mythology (that is the tie-in that gets this in the Olympics). Now tell me just how different that is from figure skating and ice dancing and ballroom dancing and the like – other than poetry writing can be done in a sedentary fashion.

The next time you hear the argument start about what is an athlete or what is a sport, think about what people are saying in these terms and you may have a way to inject something different into the discussion instead of saying the same thing that has been said before except you will try to say it louder than anyone else.

And when this argument tries to turn into another famous argument – if someone is a superior athlete in one sport, then he/she can be a superior athlete in any sport – all you have to do is mention Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was obviously a great basketball player; he was a track champion at Kansas; he claims to have scored 20,000 women in his life making him a mattress athlete. But all you have to do is to imagine Wilt trying to replace Jerry Bailey on a mount in the fourth race at Churchill Downs on any given day. At 350 lbs, Wilt might have broken the horse’s back; his feet may have dragged on the track; and there is no handicapper in the world that would not take into account the “overweight” on that animal. I’ve been going to racetracks for more than a few years now and have heard announcements that some horse would be carrying “3 pounds over” or even “5 pounds over” in rare circumstances. For Wilt the announcement would be that “the number seven horse is carrying 235 lb over – or 2 jockeys over – whichever you prefer.”

Remember, separate the variables to make these arguments understandable.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

Gambling On Sports

Let me be sure to lay my cards on the table here at the outset:  I have been known to make a wager or three on sporting events in my tenure on this planet.  And I mean that I have bet on events in venues other than the office Super Bowl Pool where you buy squares on a matrix and then somebody draws numbers from a hat and the person who gets the intersection of the final score wins the money.  That is not gambling; that is not even interesting to me; that requires the same level of skill and analysis as concluding that Martha Stewart is an annoying shrew with all her scolding that pretends to be exhortation.


I gamble on horse races; I make trips to Las Vegas to bet on football (college and pro), baseball, basketball (college and pro).  I do not bet on hockey, NASCAR, golf, tennis and boxing because I don’t know enough about those sports to do any “handicapping”.  I draw the line on betting on spring training baseball games and pre-season NFL football games – you can actually do this at many Las Vegas sports books.  I don’t even watch things like the Pro Bowl or the NBA All-Star Game, so you can be certain that I have never considered betting on either of them.


There are moralists and purists who want to make it illegal to bet on sporting events – particularly on college sports.  When one of these true believers gets a microphone stuck in his/her face and there is a camera rolling anywhere in the same zip code, post the small craft warnings because here comes a gale of rhetorical wind.  Oh the evils of it all; oh the lives that are ruined; oh the poor naïve collegians who are seduced by the evil gamblers.  Listen to it for what it is.  It is well constructed prose that is well rehearsed and designed to convince people that gambling on college football or basketball games is worse than – say – cocaine use on campuses around the country.


And after all the dust settles, it is mostly a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing – to steal a line from the venerable Billy Shakespeare who was a really good power forward in college but blew out a knee and had to turn to writing to pay the bills.  All  these people want you to do is to behave the way they want you to behave.  You would not let them tell you how to behave in other aspects of your life so why listen to them here?  That is why they will never present their case in terms of controlling the behavior of others; they know that most people will not stand for that.


Looking at this analytically, no amount of gassing by these opinion makers is going to stop people from gambling on sports.  They might be able to get Congress or other local/state governments to make it illegal to bet on sports, but that will not stop the activity.  Gambling is something that many people do; and laws don’t change that behavior.  Want proof of that statement?  Gambling on sporting events is legal in only one state in the US and that is Nevada.  So, if laws were efficient and effective ways to prevent gambling, then no one would be betting on sports in any other venue than in Nevada.  If you believe that, you are probably naïve enough to believe that you need to make an appointment to be seen in a hospital emergency room.


Let me repeat that last point here for emphasis and clarity.  Passing a law to forbid gambling on college sporting events will be no more effective at stopping the behavior than the laws on the books that make it illegal to snort cocaine, to engage the services of a prostitute – of either gender – or to drink beer on a college campus prior to the time when the student attains the age of 21.  The adjective that most applies here is “feckless”.


And what most people in the college sports business – yes, it is a business over and above everything else! – fail to see is that legal gambling establishments are their biggest allies in keeping games on the up and up.  Think about that, for just a moment.


Imagine that you run a major sports book in Las Vegas.  Your main objective is to try to keep the amount of money bet on one side of any contest approximately equal to the money bet on the other side.  Since the gambler lays 11 for 10 odds, you will win 10% of the action if you can balance your book.  The book is not betting against the gambler; the book is taking a percentage of the total action.  The book is not a gambler; the book is an investor.  But when/if a game is fixed, someone knows the winner; and if the action on the game is thin, there is no way for you, the book manager, to balance the book once the fixers have made their large play.  If they fixed the Bucolic A&M versus Hardrock School of Mines basketball game and they bet a total of $3000 on the Bucolic Buttmunchers, there is no chance of you finding any “walk-up” bettors to take $3000 on the other side of the game.  And if the game is fixed, you – the book – are going to lose.  For the record, that is not why you are in the book business!


So the book managers have a vested interest in tracking who bets how much and when and on what games.  And it is that kind of scrutiny and oversight that has led the Las Vegas book managers to become the allies of the people who investigate the fixing of sporting events – even college ones.  See, if someone wants to fix a college basketball game, he has to pay at least a couple of the players something for their efforts – or lack of effort.  To make that money back and then to make it worth his while, he needs to wager more than a $50 bet on the game.  And so when big money shows up in places where it never showed up before or in a pattern that involves a certain team, the alarms go off and the book managers start to watch very closely.


Do you think the neighborhood bookie or bartender who steers clients to the local bookie keeps track of this?  Of course he doesn’t and even if one tried to do it, the illegal book business is so fragmented that fixers can make a large bet by making a series of small bets so widely spread that the pattern will never to be discerned.  Even if he did see some strange betting pattern emerging, do you think he will go to the gendarmes to report it?  Imagine the scene where a bookie goes to the FBI and says that he has been taking illegal betting action for the last 7 years and has just noticed that Joe Flabeetz has always been betting against Bucolic A&M and cleaning him out and so he suspects that Joe is fixing the games.  Even if the FBI gives him immunity in this situation – which is no guarantee to be sure – he has just put himself out of business.  Altruism of that kind is a lot rarer than you would be led to believe by the movie makers!


Legal betting venues help to identify places where game fixing may occur so they actually help to keep the game clean.  Put them out of business and what you have done is open the door even wider for fixers to ply their trade.  The only way for the fixer to be put out of business is to assure that there are no venues for betting on the game.  Stated plainly and simply so there will be no misunderstanding, that is not going to happen!  The NCAA can emote all it wants; the moral police can tell you about the innate evil contained in gambling; it makes no difference.  Eradication of gambling as a human endeavor will require Divine intervention not Federal intervention.


You want to know what the real irony here is?  The NCAA moaners have it in their power to stop gambling on collegiate sporting events.  Think about the example I gave you above when you were the manager of a Las Vegas book; what was the thing that made running a book bad news?  Fixed games.  The best way to take something out of the realm for the sports books is to make the outcomes either a bit shady or blatantly predetermined.  Just try to get a bet down in Las Vegas on a pro rasslin’ match.  Just try to walk up to a betting station and tell the attendant there that you want to take Hulk Hogan to beat Bruno Sammartino in straight falls in their match next weekend.  Then plug your ears because the laughing will be loud enough that you might damage your hearing.  The books will not take wagers on rasslin’  because the outcome is already known to someone and that someone is not the book manager.  So if the NCAA were a bit less “vigilant” and a few more games had points shaved, you would see less and less wagering activity being accepted.


Listen to the arguments that will be coming soon about gambling as the NCAA and various coaches and several members of the Congress are loosening up the vocal chords.  Listen for the acknowledgement by the college Pooh-Bahs that sports book managers actually are part of the mechanism to detect game fixing.  You won’t hear it because it does not serve their hidden moralistic ends.  They don’t want to protect the poor, exploited, naïve student athletes – remember, they are the ones doing the exploiting; all they want to do is to tell you which of your behaviors are OK and which are not.  Look at the speakers and listen to their message and ask yourself if you want them to have that authority over your life and your behaviors.

For me, the answer is:  I don’t think so.


But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………