A Year Without Sports

couch-potatoI didn’t watch sports on TV for an entire year.

I did that because I thought it would be something interesting to write about. At the end of the year I would have a story to tell, like the guy who lived by Old Testament laws for a year.

And I did it because I wanted to find out more about what the business of sport is about, and what the real cost is to those who participate.

But in the end, my initial feeling was that all I really found out was this one thing: I didn’t have much to talk about with guys. And that really bugs me. Because there’s a lot more to talk about, and, as I learned over the course of this year, there’s a lot more to talk about when it comes to sports.

Sports has been such a big part of my life that not being able to discuss sports was more difficult this year than just not having anything to say. It’s not just the looks I got from guys who would ask, “Why?” after I announced that I wasn’t watching sports for a year. It was knowing that something amazing happened and I hadn’t been a part of it.

Being left out is not completely foreign to me. I remember quite clearly putting the key in the lock in my apartment on Oak Street in Vancouver as Joe Carter hit a grand-slam home run to clinch the World Series after my girlfriend at the time demanded that I take her out to dinner instead of watching “more of that ridiculous baseball crap you’ve been watching all summer” and hearing the entire condo complex erupt in cheers, screams, peals of laughter.

I saw the highlights. It’s not the same. You know as well as I do that it’s not the same.

I also missed Sidney Crosby’s gold-medal winning goal in the Olympics as we had to get to my wife’s grandmother’s 92nd birthday party on time. My brother-in-law texted me: “Wasn’t that crazy!!!????”

I don’t know, jerk, I’m on my way to your grandma’s party. When we walked in she said hello, then turned to my wife and asked, “Who’s that?”

But what I found out over the course of this year was that, with each passing week, I cared less and less. I began to not regret missing sports on television in order to take part in the rest of my life. I began to enjoy spending Sunday afternoons doing something with my wife instead of having to be in front of the TV for an entire day in order to watch several football games, frantically changing channels during the commercials to watch games that I really didn’t care that much about, but felt obliged to watch because, well, because football!

But it had been coming for a while.

My true love affair with hockey ended the year The Moose was traded to the Rangers. I grew up in Edmonton in the 80s, and have some of the best hockey memories imaginable. I stuck with them as Gretzky weeped his way to L.A., and sat transfixed as Tikkanen annoyed the hell out of everyone around him, and Messier led the Oilers to their last Stanley Cup.

Losing your team is one thing, but in the last few years I’ve completely lost my religion when it comes to hockey.

It seems like every time I watch a game I get to watch several minutes of hockey followed by a player intentionally injuring another player.

And while hockey pundits have been busy lauding praise upon Shanahan and his new, tougher regime, I can see little to no incentive for any NHL player to do anything differently when the average time of suspension is around 3 games.

Even Shawn Thorton, who recently drew a 15-game suspension as a result of a vicious hit on Brooks Orprik will lose just 18% of his salary for the year.  That’s not insignificant, but he’s also left with another $800,000 for this year, which is also not insignificant.

And players are standing up for him. Even Andrew Ference, who, you’ll remember, gave the Montreal Canadiens fans the finger after scoring a goal, said, “He’s broken up about it.” Which is great, but it doesn’t change the fact that it happened, and it happened because the league allows it to happen.

Cam Neely defended Thornton’s actions by saying, “If Orpik just would have dropped his gloves and grabbed on – he’s a strong guy – grabbed on, held off Thornton, maybe took a couple [punches], and threw him down or whatever the case it, then it’s over. Then it’s over. Then it’s done. You fought. You stuck up for yourself. If you don’t do that, somebody else on Orpik’s team, somebody on Pittsburgh has to do it for you because of what you did.”

Which is to say, if Orpik had just allowed himself to get the %$# kicked out of him, this wouldn’t have happened.

And I can’t support it. I can’t support the actions of players who willfully injure other players for our entertainment, and those who would defend their actions as ‘the norm.’

Even super-famous superfan, and Montreal resident, Jay Baruchel sounded off recently in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi in which he stated that hockey players are “soldiers,” that they know what they’re doing and accept the consequences of what they’ve gotten themselves into.

The difference, Jay, is that we don’t watch what soldiers do for entertainment. Nor should we.

I’m not squeamish. I’m not someone who is unrealistic about sports, about the entertainment value, about what it can do for economies, and what being involved in sports can do for young people in communities.

But it’s time that we all got realistic about the costs to players. It’s time we at least knew what it was that these people are doing for us while we eat nachos and drink beer. We should know that a full 5% of those who play in the NHL experience their first game as their last. That the average life expectancy of an NFL player is 58 years old and the average career lasts just four years.

Maybe our conversations need to be more about who these players are, and how we need to protect them

We’re not going to protect them by buying tickets to games or watching them on TV.

Maybe it’s time we got open and honest about what playing certain sports really means to those who play them.

Because until we, the people who pay to watch the games start doing something about it by not going to games and demanding better protection for those players, nothing will be done about it.

One can argue with Mr. Baruchel and say that they know what they’re getting into, but I don’t recall this being what they were getting into just a scant 20 years ago. Sure, this particular game, and many others, has always had its share of rule-breakers, but should we actually encourage these actions by giving these guys our money?

Much is being done to study and mitigate concussions in sports that should be applauded, but I, a regular guy, as well as people who make their living talking about sports, are quite sure that it’s not yet enough.

The question is, what has to happen for it to be enough? What will make them really protect players, and when will fans get on board and voice their opinions in more ways than just sounding off on the comments section of a sports blog?

What is it that needs to happen to force the average Joe, like myself, to stop watching sports?

I’m hoping very much that I don’t have to find out. I’m hoping that this new trend continues and that players begin to respect each other.

There’s a lot more going on here than can be summed up in these few words, but if there’s one thing I’d like to convey that I got out of a year of not watching sports on TV is that it didn’t kill me.

And it made me a better person. Not better than you, just better than me. It gave me the opportunity to assess my relationship with those around me, and with sports, and with the players who, quite literally it seems, are putting their lives on the line for my entertainment.

It’s time for fans to stand up and start doing more for player safety. And the only way that will ever be done is by making our stance known with our wallets.

Until then, it will be status quo with a sprinkling of sugar to make us feel like everything is okay.

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