Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Culture Of Informal Sports

I was thinking of writing a post on this topic for a long time, and this column by Stanley Fish finally persuaded me to stop being lazy.

For as long as I remember, I have played sports for fun and competition. I think I started playing cricket at about age 5 -- my eldest brother, then 13, taught me the forward defensive shot and the straight drive -- and basketball at about age 7 or 8 (not coincidentally, fellow by the name of Michael was about 28 years old then, and doing some pretty ridiculous things). Between the ages of 10 and 19, I would say I played some sport for some part of the day about four or five times a week. I stopped playing sports in college mainly because I was too nerdy and refused to leave my room for anything other than the library, but every now and then we would get a cricket game going amongst all the South Asians at our tiny college. Only when I got to grad school did I start playing regularly again -- basketball two or three times a week.

Leaving aside how much fun it was and is, I want to talk about the culture that pervades informal sports. My only experiences have been with pickup basketball and tape-tennis cricket, but I'm sure this applies to many other people's experiences with many other sports.

Here's the most interesting passage from Fish's column:
Why? Why continue to do something I wasn’t any good at nine times out of ten? Well for one thing basketball players are by and large generous. (There are exceptions.) If you’re not very skilled, if you’re old and slow, they will make a place for you in the game. In his recent book “Give and Go: Basketball as a Cultural Practice,” Thomas McLaughlin speaks of the ethical practices that emerge in the course of a game even though no rules have imposed them: “Every time one of the players in our game says to a weak player as he is taking an open shot that he will likely miss ‘Good shot,’ he is weaving the ethical fabric of the game.”

I have often been the beneficiary of that ethical fabric, even when those weaving me into it are perfect strangers. For one of the great things about being a basketball player (or pretending to be one) is that no court is closed to you which is why I always have a basketball in the trunk of my car. You can just show up wherever there is a hoop and a game and you will be included. (This holds also in foreign countries where there may be a language barrier, but never a basketball barrier.)

That's the most important and most amazing thing about informal sports: everyone gets a chance. I speak from experience: when I was in Pakistan, I was always one of the three best players on the basketball court; in Chicago, I am always one of three worst. In cricket, depending on the setting and the people there, I could be anywhere from the best player there to just barely in the upper quartile (top 25%). The point is, I've experienced informal sports from a variety of different perspectives, and the result is always the same: bad players are still allowed to play, still given the ball or bat ahead of someone who might deserve it; everyone is made to feel welcome and no one is shunned on the basis of their ability (the bigness of their mouths might be another matter entirely).

It really is unbelievable when you think about it. Economists from places like the University of Chicago would tell you that human beings act almost always as rational agents in their own self-interest, and most people's self-interest is to win. And yet, very rarely do teams and players act completely like they want to win. Note, I'm not saying people don't want to win. I'm saying they sometimes act in ways that makes their winning less likely.

In cricket, for instance, it is a time-honored trait that a player has to be given either at least one over (for Westerners, read: be allowed to bowl, which is cricket's equivalent to pitching in baseball) or bat in the top three or four. I've played a tape-tennis game of cricket about 4 gazillion times in my life. Almost every time, the team batting second makes its decisions on the batting order according to the following criteria: (a) how big a score are we chasing? and (b) who didn't get a chance to bowl?

Though these options are often in opposition to each other -- for the simple fact that if a player didn't get to bowl, it probably means he sucks, which probably would get in the way of successfully chasing the first team's score -- they are almost always handled pretty adroitly by whoever is in charge of selecting the batting order. Usually you'll send a really good player with the sucky guy (for Westerners: in cricket, two players bat at any one time, in effect in rotation), hope the sucky guy does something productive or gets out quickly, and take your chances by interspersing sucky guys with talented guys in the order.

In basketball, it's very similar. If a sucky guy is open, everyone will encourage him to shoot, even if the sucky guy's open shot is less likely to go in than the good player's contested shot. Good defensive plays (which rely less on skill and more on effort) are always applauded. And I've never been in a game -- ever -- where someone is made fun of for their lack of ability (unless it's between friends, in which case all bets are off).

Again, think about how weird that is. In every other walk of life, be it in an office building or a school or even a home, people with less skill are usually marginalized for (and by) people with more skill. And yet in sports, where winning and losing is a very discrete and binary outcome (you can't "sort of" win the way you can "sort of" be friends with someone or "sort of" be good at your job), where dog-eat-dog Darwinian logic should be in full play, where every minute should be a heroic battle for establishing one's manhood, we actually see something very different: empathy and the sense of unity. And the crazy thing is, it is often expressed by people who don't know each other at all -- by people who have almost nothing in common except a passion for the sport.

At the U of C gym where I play pickup basketball, for instance, there are white guys and black guys and East Asian guys and Hispanic guys and, um, one South Asian guy (guess who?). There are undergrads and grad students and people who work at the U of C hospital and people who simply live in the neighborhood here in the South Side of Chicago. There are rich guys and middle-class guys and poor guys. Occasionally, there's a girl too. And unlike Cheers, very few people know everyone else's name. They just shoot for teams, ones and twos to 11, winner stays, and repeat. It's a pretty simple formula, really.


I know this is going to make me sound like one of those old dudes who hates that his time has passed, but I really can't believe kids these days. The amount of time they spend indoors on their goddamn Xboxs and PS3s and Nintendos and Civilization and Prince of Persia and whatnot is really beyond me.

Look, I understand there are a lot of virtues in playing sports that are replicated in video games: the idea of wasted effort, the idea of losing despite trying your hardest and having to accept it, the idea of camaraderie and team spirit, and the idea of using past failures to overcome future obstacles, to name just a few. But no one is going to convince me it's the same experience, and one of the main reasons is the stuff I've talked about in this post: the delicate balance between altruism and winning that is commonly struck in informal sports. If anyone under the age of 20 is reading this, please stop and get your ass out of the house and throw around a goddamn ball with someone your age. Trust me, it'll be fun.

Even if you suck.


humairahumaira said...

this is not always true
or is it my big mouth?

JJY said...

Notable exception: Salman Pervez.

dudelove said...

Ok, so here's my take:

The informal playing field is one place where guys can arrive without the baggage they carry around in offices, homes and schools and thus when there aren't any motives left, their behavior is the truest expression of how they are wired.

Men enjoy playing godfathers to the little guys and earning respect of the fellows on the field. This must be the instinctual behavior they learned in the days of fig leaves around waists to increase chances of emerging as leaders/alphas of their clan. Also, the bigger a clan grows the stronger it gets and hence, everyone is accepted to play. For example one game with my bunch and you are "apna banda".

Primally, i guess women lack this instinct - of a protector.

I read humaira's stuff and she does sound like the pest you'd have enough of very quickly on a playing field. I don't blame the losers from Madina Badr.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree with you more.Just wanted to add that passion for sports- basketball or cricket breaks down cultural and language barriers and helps bring down people together, no matter their language, or culture.This post made me remember Magic's' famous quote,"They said playing basketball would kill me. Well, not playing basketball was killing me."

Ahsan said...


No doubt, girls are allowed to play cricket less than say soccer or basketball.


Yeah, Salman was one of those "I'm going to take a single off the last ball of every over and you better be prepared to run" guys. Hated being on his team.


That's a very interesting explanation and to be honest, one I'd never given consideration to before. But even so, the point still stands: you have two conflicting forces (one pushing you to win, one pushing you to be a leader of men) that sometimes act in opposition to each other. And the tension between those two forces and how it's resolved are very fascinating, at least to me.

humairahumaira said...

wow thats mean dudelove. Not that it makes a difference, but I was only kidding

Anonymous said...

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