April 8, 2004

Taking the Athlete out of Athletics

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Next week in the Sun, we’re publishing a writers bloc asking: What qualifies as a sport?In the spirit of the question, I would say a sport is a controlled activity that involves athletic competition between two or more parties. I might even be willing to strike the athletic from my definition; after all, how athletic is golf? Horse racing? I’d still call those sports. But if you erase the athletic from the definition of a sport, a whole world of possibilities open up.

Elements of competition infiltrate nearly ever facet of our lives. A capitalistic society is characterized, above all, by competition, and that competition is controlled by the laws and morals that inevitably surround us.

Take dating, for example: No one can deny that it is a competition for the most compatible person, for the coolest person, for the hottest person, the richest person, for the person with the best future, for the person most willing to settle for you. Get that person sooner or later and you win the game. You go to Disney World, or take a trip to the Bahamas, or perhaps just return from Vegas to live your life happily ever after.

For most of us though, this payoff is in the future. Right now we toil in the minor leagues, work on our game, learn how to score some points, and wait for our call-up to the big leagues, although many of us are not looking to hear that call anytime soon.

In this game, we, the whole of collegiate humanity, are the players, using our skills and strategies to maximize our potential and obtain the best results. We are the coaches for our friends, giving advice and instruction. We are members of teams, laying down a sacrifice bunts or throwing blocks so our friends can score.

Some characteristics make some players better competitors than others. As far as positive attributes, it is hard to argue with good looks and an engaging personality. In certain circles at Cornell, owning a BMW also seems to be rather high on the list, along with belonging to the right fraternity or sorority; in others, hip intellectualism will likely do just as well. There is no single perfect player, but some are certainly better than others; you just have to hope you have what it takes to win.

A working knowledge of the rules is key to the game. Unlike your typical sporting event, these rules change and shift depending on age, geographical area, and the players in the game.

First, in most American cases, the guy must approach the girl. Unfortunately, despite the advances in feminism, the sexual playing field is not quite equal. Girls still want to be approached, wooed, and asked out. Maybe it is that I am just not hot enough, but I have never been asked out on a date by a girl, and neither have most of my friends. One can only hope that will change.

Next, if you are interested, you should show interest, but not too much. It is all about having just the right touch. If you show too much interest, you are deemed desperate, creepy, or much too serious, and if that happens you are out. A casual look and polite conversation — perhaps a smile if you feel dangerous — usually suffice well enough. Avoid spitting when you talk; try not to say anything too offensive, and be interesting. If youre not, then you are just a face in the crowd.

At this point in the action, a player has to rely on his or her skills: some combination of looks, personality, and accomplishments — something like being the president of a fraternity/sorority or captain of a sports team — to impress the other person. By the end of the night, the ultimate question is whether to go for the walk-off home run or attempt to go for extra innings. The next step is all about strategy, and a matter of much discussion. Do you fit the players to the system, or fit the system to the players? A friend of mine at another Ivy League maintains email is the only way to go. It allows you to write and rewrite ad nauseam and avoids the potential horror of a face-to-face rejection. It sort of reminded me of the age-old philosophy, “Defense wins championships.” There is even a specific formula for answering the email messages: Wait 12 hours before your reply and never accept an invitation for anything less than two days away. In this way, she says, a date can be set up safely and efficiently.

Another friend played a sort of west coast offense, incessantly asking girls out on dates when he met them. You want to go kayaking sometime? Hey, we should grab coffee, he would say.

I always tested the waters with a few random conversations, and then asked a girl out. Then again, if I were a pro baseball player, I never would have made it past A ball.

Inevitably, there will be wins and losses in this sport. Society sets the rules and its members support them. Step outside the line, and a whole group of friends might greet you at the bars with steely glances; you could become that girl or that guy. Barry Bonds cant get away with using the roids, and you cant get away with making the wrong move.

And even the most honest efforts can end in disaster. There is, in every sport, a winner and a loser. The collegiate romance landscape is littered with Bill Buckners and Dan Marinos, guys (or girls) who dropped the ball at the wrong time, who never went all the way, or who just dont win too many games.

But that is the way it happens in a competitive world. We are stuck in the sport whether we like it or not. We can only do our best to compete and bend the rules to succeed as best we can, so we will end up with the results we hope for.