Sports & Society: Not Everything Means Something

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns in the world and attach meaning to the events they perceive. It's an evolutionary trait that has helped us defeat predators & rise to the top of the food chain. Being able to discern an event's importance is a vital skill in the world; it can help a person cross the street safely, spot a knife in a mugger's belt, or realize you reached for the Clorox instead of the sugar for your morning coffee. The drawback to this trait is that it never, ever, ever shuts off. There are 7 billion people on this planet with a a part of their brain constantly scanning the room for a pattern & a meaning even if that meaning may not actually be there. This is how Vegas stays in business, by letting you watch the roulette wheel & convince yourself that 33 is due to come up. This is how 24-hour news networks fill 22.5 hours of their day, by letting pundits bloviate about What It All Means & argue with other pundits about how their view of What It All Means is completely wrong. Hell, it even happens with Oscar nominations. People love to draw meanings & patterns from events throughout the world.

This also happens in sports. Whether it's Richard Sherman's interview with Erin Andrews, Michael Sam coming out of the closet, Richie Incognito's alleged bullying, or Marcus Smart shoving a guy in the stands, people want to attach a larger meaning to the event whether or not it actually merits one. ESPN has entire shows devoted to grumpy pundits vomiting words at viewers, allocating grand meanings to every news tidbit that crosses their screen. They are there to promote the narrative that It All Means Something and therefore we all have to discuss and/or argue about it. Sometimes an event is culturally significant; Michael Sam potentially being the first openly gay NFL player has a larger meaning & can provide a litmus test for society in some ways. The reaction to Richard Sherman's interview can open a small window into the viewpoints of the NFL fanbase. But sometimes a thing is just a thing. Sometimes a player shoving a spectator is just a player shoving a spectator. Marcus Smart isn't a cultural touchstone and he's not a symptom of something bigger. He's a teenager that wears his emotions on his sleeve and he let an obnoxious fan get under his skin. This isn't a clarion call for everyone to break out their political/religious/social soapboxes; it's possible to discuss whether Marcus Smart's actions were justified without making it into a larger discussion about race, culture, and societal decorum. As Mark Harris so eloquently describes in the above-mentioned essay about the politicization of Oscar nominations, "...is there any conceivable way to ask or answer that question without acknowledging that something horrible is being inappropriately trivialized and something trivial is being inappropriately transformed into a crisis of situational ethics?"

Sometimes, a thing is just a thing, and pretending that thing is bigger than it is distracts from other stories. What people could be talking about right now is Oklahoma State's slide from top-10 team to NIT squad, Travis Ford's loosening grip on his job security, or how an Oklahoma State team without Marcus Smart is basically Baylor in orange uniforms. All of these subjects are ripe for interesting discourse without the airs of some sort of larger pretense, without the hot-button issues simmering under the surface, waiting to be triggered by lathered-up pundits who want to wag their fingers at society. You know, normal sports conversation material. Is it such a bad thing to just talk about sports on occasion? Perhaps it's naive to want sports to remain an escape from the kabuki theater of the Outrage Machine, to want sports to remain largely a refuge from the politically-charged Internet diatribes of social media. There are some stories that will (deservedly) blur that line, and then there are some that become a tempest in a teapot for no other reason than people make them. Marcus Smart shoving a guy that mouthed off to him isn't a sign of society writ large, it's not the fault of our cultural decay, R-rated movies, or violent video games. It's just a thing, and the sooner we recognize it for what it is, the sooner we can move on to the things that deserve more reflection & discussion.

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