Read Nathaniel's bio and previous columns
March 3, 2008
Even Without a Ball,
Some Sports Have Inherent Value
high school, my friends and I made fun of track and field, because
shouldn’t all sports focus on a ball? I ended up rowing for my college
Luckily, my high school friends were 3,000 miles and several years away
at that point. But still, my hypocrisy nagged. Not until finally
tackling Herman Melville’s Moby Dick last year did I finally gain
a decent perspective about the whole thing. I’ll explain.
Most rowing boats, or “shells,” consist of four or eight people, and a
coxswain (pronounced “coxin”), whose job is to organize and conduct the
activities of the boat, much like an orchestra conductor. The difference
is that, instead of silently guiding the individuals with a wide array
of facial expressions and body movement , the coxswain yells at the top
of his/her lungs insightful things such as “Row faster!” “Pull harder!”
or on the unfortunate occasion, “Turn around!”
Anyway, after about 200 pages of information about whaling and six pages
of plot, Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, finally happened upon some
sperm whales. They lowered several boats and, to my delight, the first
mates of the Pequod also happened to act as the coxswains of the smaller
boats intended to more closely chase the whales.
one point, Stubb, the second mate, yelled to his rowers, “Why don’t you
break your backbones, my boys? Why don’t you snap your oars, you
rascals? Bite something, you dogs. That’s it – that’s it! Long and
strong. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull. Why in the name of
ginger-cakes don’t ye pull?” Aside from the language being a few hundred
years past, this excerpt wonderfully captures the essential nature of
What I finally appreciated after reading this passage and many others
like it is that rowing, like track and field, represents a primitive
skill. And anything that so effectively connects a person with
humanity’s physical development is valuable.
Saturday, I attended a strongman competition. Believe it or not, my wife
and I have a friend about the size of two-car garage who participates in
this sort of thing.
showed up fashionably late with our Starbucks coffee cups and tiny
digital camera, and quickly discovered that most of the guys there were
even bigger, balder and more tattooed than our friend. There was even a
strongwoman who I didn’t meet and probably would not want to for fear of
getting crushed by any sudden movement. Although it would have been a
nice photo op, I stopped short of asking the participants to stand close
to each other holding a couple of giant dumbbells.
Instead, I stood to the side making insightful remarks.
“Do you think these guys prefer red wine or white?”
“Wasn’t that guy over there in Wild Hogs? And come to think of
it, that guy next to him, too?”
“Let’s play, ‘Find the accountant.’”
one point, my wife tried to point out this giant dude who was attempting
to break a world record, and I sincerely asked, “You mean the bald guy?”
She thought I was being sarcastic, but I was only having a brief mental
But more importantly, our friend won, dominating four out of five events
for his weight class. He took it all a bit more seriously than I did,
which, upon reflection, probably helped him win. And now that I’ve had
time to think about it, I wish I had taken it more seriously right from
the beginning,; not because he’s my friend, and not even because I
should have outgrown my childish, high school ways; but because the
strongman competition, like rowing, like track and field, is entirely
primitive. They even cheered each other on in the same brute way that
Stubb and my college coxswain’s did. “Don’t quit, you sissy! Lift!
And unlike either of the aforementioned events, the strongman
competition is as relevant to society now as it has ever been. Until
manual labor becomes a thing of the past, and we consequently all become
blobs of fat with overdeveloped mouse skills, people of physical
strength will continue playing an important role in society.
I’m a sports fan, and I would argue that sports that focus on a ball are
objectively more entertaining to watch. But since when has entertainment
replaced value? It never has, even if some of us have made it so in our
minds. For that matter, perhaps we should nix the phrase “entertainment
value” from our vocabulary for containing an inherent contradiction. At
the very least, we might learn to appreciate those among us whose
physical gifts, at one time or another, served a practical purpose. We
might realize that some activities, especially those that celebrate the
useful potential of our amazingly crafted bodies, ought never to be
North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.
Click here to talk to our writers and
editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.
To e-mail feedback
about this column,
click here. If you enjoy this writer's
work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry
This is Column #
Request permission to publish here.