Matt Howard Hit A Free Throw For Your Sins

4 min read

I am decidedly not a news junky. I never watch network news, and the only reason I get any local TV news is that My Beautiful Wife has WTHR’s pre-Today Show newscast on every morning while she gets ready for work. Occasionally I read The New York Times online; ditto for The Indianapolis Star. I skim the Indianapolis Business Journal. I pay some attention to and I listen to podcasts–not really for news, but for opinions about the news. I suppose I get most of my news from radio.

Speaking of which: I used to listen to a lot of sports talk on the radio, and sometimes, I still do. But I find the whole thing to be curious. Why do (mostly) men spend so much of their time blathering on about the same sporting events, over and over? Why are we so consumed with replaying, in minute detail, games that have already happened? Why do we spend so many hours speculating about future events even the “experts” can’t possibly predict?

I don’t claim to be immune to sports blather. After Butler beat Pitt in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Saturday night, I couldn’t get enough coverage. I watched all the post-game hoo-ha, then tuned into the halftime of the following game, just in case they were saying anything about Butler. I read the stories about the game in the Sunday Star and the Times and on I searched out the Pittsburgh newspapers to see what they had to say about their number-one-seeded Panthers losing to my Bulldogs. Then I watched some of the Sunday games, just to make sure they weren’t talking about Butler some more.

Why? I knew what had happened. I’d seen it with my own eyes. It was the craziest end to a basketball game I’d seen since Reggie Miller scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to beat the Knicks in the 1995 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. It was worth watching again–maybe a couple of times.

But–did I really have to read the same quotes in eight different stories? The outcome wasn’t going to change. I wasn’t going to get any more insight into Butler’s victory or Pitt’s loss. There was no more drama to wring from one of the most dramatic final 10 seconds of basketball in the history of the NCAA tournament–and that’s saying something. What exactly was I looking for?

I should also note that I’m not a sports junkie. I enjoy sports. But I’m not sure I watched five minutes of college basketball before the tournament this year.

I think what attracts me to Butler basketball, or New York Mets baseball, or Indianapolis Colts football, is a desire for connection to something larger. It’s almost religious, this desire; perhaps it’s no coincidence that professional football games are played on Sundays. For some people, football is religion: they don’t go to church and they may or may not believe in God, but they sure will send prayers heavenward when it’s fourth and two and the game is on the line.

And so, just as some religionists bask in the glow of God’s love, so do lots of sports fans bask in the afterglow of athletic competition. After you’ve seen SportsCenter once, it offers no new insight, no new evidence, not even any new video clips. The same, old commentators don’t really have anything different to say. But it sure feels good.

And the fans themselves have even less to say. Listen to any sports call-in show on the radio today–go ahead, I dare you–and find me one example of a fan whose opinion is worth repeating. Most fans call for the same reason they obsess over games that have already been played: to feel that connection to the team, the players, the institution, the city, the radio host.

Here’s the moral of the story: we all want some kind of connection. We all want to be The Member of the Wedding–all want to be part of a “we.” It’s not coincidental that so many fans talk about what “we” are going to do later this week when “we” play Wisconsin–even though “we” are not going to do any of the playing or coaching.

In a world in which so many of us have given up our roots and grown antennae, sports give us a sense of connection. We want it so badly that we’ll listen to the semi-coherent chattering of smarmy talk show hosts and clueless fans. We’ll put up with insulting advertising, billionaire team owners who want more of our money, and a system that treats college athletes like spare parts to be thrown away when we’re finished with them.

When you take half a step back, it’s really more than a little bit awful and ridiculous. But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s like an obsessive dream. Matt Howard stood at the free throw line, carrying the hopes and dreams of thousands of people who were willing him to hit that shot–and thousands of others willing him to miss. When he hit that shot, he gave thousands of us a warm bath of victory to bask in–and thousands a stagnant pool of wait-until-next-year.

I still think most sports talk is stupid. Go Bulldogs.