So here's a criticism I hear sometimes that I never entirely understand: That game was boring. There are all sorts of reasons people call a sporting event boring. There isn't enough scoring. Neither one of the teams is among the most talented in its individual league. The pace of the game is slower than an average game. People love to complain that a game is dull. BOR-ING.
I am baffled by this. The theoretical reason we watch sports is to be awed by the possibilities of human physical achievement, but it goes beyond that. Nothing else we do in life can measure up to the unpredictability and visceral delight of a sporting event.
Here's what I mean. When I finish writing this column, I'm going to go for a run. It will be the same route I take every day, down the same streets, stopping at the same stop sign, as I do every day. (I'll probably even see the same people, including that always hungover college student and his stupid, undisciplined dog.) When I finish my run, I will take a shower in the same shower I shower in every day, and then I will put on the same shirt and put on the same watch and grab the same wallet and get in the same car. Then I will drive the same road to wait in the same endless carpool line to pick up my kid from summer camp. Then I will make him the same sandwich and he will go down for a nap in the same bed, and I will come back upstairs to this same computer and probably start writing some variation of these same words.
And this is fine! We exist in routine, in structure, in the ability to create lives for ourselves in which we can find comfort and stability. This is part of getting older, of becoming a responsible, reliable human being who isn't late for Thanksgiving dinner, who pays all his or her bills on time. But you need a place for escape, a place where you have no idea what is going to happen. For some people this is gossip, or reality TV, or movies, or politics. For me, and many of you reading this, such escape is through sports.
Thus, how could sports ever bore me? A game lacks all the contours and reassuring arcs of real life. It could go anywhere. I only have to sit there and enjoy the ride.
I've said it before: What else in life other than sports can make you spontaneously and involuntarily jump up and start screaming? It's just sports. (And maybe seeing a spider.)
Last night, Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit, during the first half of the USWNT's 2-0 win over Colombia in the knockout round of the Women's World Cup, tweeted out some thoughts about women's sports. Wisely, he deleted the tweets (though perhaps not in time), but the exact quote was "women's sports in general are not worth watching." As tends to happen, everyone piled on Benoit, with much justification, though considering all of this kerfuffle was going on during the first half of the game, I eventually had to shut Twitter off so I could, you know, watch the game. Outrage because someone doesn't like what you're watching shouldn't preclude you from actually watching it.
Benoit -- who I don't know personally but have generally found to be a solid enough NFL reporter, in that reliably meatheaded way people cover the NFL these days -- will surely apologize at some point, and people will bring it up anytime he ever writes anything the rest of his life, and then we'll all move on to the next outrage. But it's worth examining what I think he was trying to say. He was trying to say that women's sports aren't as exciting as men's sports because men are generally faster and stronger at athletic activities. He was saying women's sports bore him.
Now, this is not a rare sentiment, and it's not even one limited to women's sports. I hear this all the time about college basketball, one of my favorite pastimes. All my friends who fetishize the NBA say that because the quality of play in college basketball is so far below the NBA's -- and it obviously is -- that there's no reason to watch it. But what I think they're really saying is, "I didn't grow up watching college basketball and lack the energy to learn more about it."
But college basketball -- and the Women's World Cup -- is only boring if you choose not to care. The same goes for women's sports. People like Benoit toss out these justifications for not watching women's sports out of some sort of faux sports purity, like he's really just out to watch the pinnacle of athletic achievement every night, like anything less than the "best" and the "fastest" and the "strongest" is somehow a waste of one's time. But this isn't why we watch sports at all; we watch because every game we watch, we have a chance to see something we've never seen before. Dismissing that out of hand isn't a way of demanding the highest quality performance every game (as if that's something that could be done anyway); it's a way of confirming your preexisting biases. It also devalues the actual athleticism on display, and the amount of work it required of everyone to get there.
This is not to say I never get bored watching sports. Golf and NASCAR, in particular, seem specifically invented to put me in a nap. But that doesn't make those sports boring. The problem when I'm bored is with me. It's because I don't understand what's going on. If I were invested enough in golf to follow along, if I knew what the heck a Brandt Snedeker was, if I had any idea of the stakes, I'd be engaged enough to buy in. If other people like golf and I don't, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with them, or the sport they love. It just means they know more about it than I do; I'm bored because I'm ignorant. To sit on the sidelines and pthbbt at them for enjoying something that I don't would be to simply pour negativity and lazy cynicism into the universe for no reason other than my own slack nihilism. It's OK for me not to like things. But it's OK if other people do. To blithely dismiss something because you don't understand it or care about it is to expose yourself.
This United States Women's World Cup team is one of the best in the world, even if they haven't exactly played like it just yet. (The irony: Last night's win over Colombia was probably their dullest game of the Cup!) They've got a chance to win this whole thing. Will they? I don't know! We get to watch and find out! This is the fun of it. On Friday night, the U.S. will play China in the quarterfinals, without two of their best players, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, both of whom earned their second yellow cards and thus will have to sit out a game. The U.S. hasn't played a complete game yet and have not impressed the way France and Germany have. They have received a subpar performance from their team captain Abby Wambach, one of the best women's soccer players of all time, who is trying to win the Cup that has eluded her her entire career. They have a stalwart, stereotypically American defense that has allowed them easy victories even when the offense has struggled, thanks in large part to outstanding work by Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn and keeper Hope Solo. The USWNT is trying to win its first World Cup since the infamous '99 team, the one that captured the American imagination in a way no women's team has since.
See all that? Those are stakes! That's context. If you can't look into what's fascinating about this team, and this tournament, and this sport, and then go out Friday night and cheer on the USWNT with a bar full of like-minded Americans, then the problem is not with the sport. It is with you. This is only boring to someone who has already determined they are going to be bored. This is only boring to boring people.