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Reading between the sidelines

A female acquaintance recently asked me why I followed sports. Initially flustered by the elementary nature of the question, I replied with a measure of desperation, “Well, why do you read?”

It seemed to be a response that would be relatable to an individual as infatuated with fictional accounts as she. I loved to follow sports, just as she loved to read. And I loved following sports for very much the same reason that she immersed herself in fiction.

It took only the stink-eye that followed for me to realize that this wasn’t one of the more intelligent things I could have said — that is, insinuate a parallel between an escape which she more than likely associates with innocence and intellectualism and an institution which she more than likely associates with couches, beer and phantom girlfriends. But, given the discussion that followed, I regret nothing. Nothing.

Digressions and irrelevant details aside, i.e., the criticism that followed my admission of reading the Wikipedia plot summary in lieu of enduring the 25-plus naps required to complete “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” I eventually posed the following challenge to her (shout-out to my readers who also enjoy digging holes for themselves): provide a reason why an avid reader consumes fiction that does not also satisfy a reason why an avid sports fan follows athletics. Here’s her list and a, shall we say, “rephrasing” of my original responses:

The characters: As far as fictional characters go, Hermione Granger and Jacob Black are crowd-pleasers — or so I’ve heard. Well, sports feature such crowd-pleasing characters as well. I’d pit Brian Scalabrine up against Jacob any day. Werewolves may clothe themselves with jean shorts, but ultimately they are nothing more than flesh and blood. Scalabrine is God. I’d like to see a werewolf take on God. And, with enough practice, ex-Wizard JaVale McGee could certainly say wingardium leviosa as well as Hermione. No joke. The diversity of characters that populate sports rosters most certainly contends with the diversity of characters from fiction.

The plot: A plot is supposed to be engrossing. Do you recall Linsanity? Do you recall Jackie Robinson’s traversal of the color barrier? And do you recall those special David versus Goliath confrontations — the stuff of legends? The eighth-seeded Warriors’ first-round dismantling of the first-seeded Mavericks? The underdog New York Giants ousting the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl on a helmet catch? Greg Jennings scoring on the Saints with a broken leg? The eternal struggle that is Dwight Howard and the free throw?

It’s something to talk about: In the same way that two readers may connect over a mutual distaste of an instance of poor style in the fourth paragraph on page 231 or may laud an author’s vivid use of imagery in said fiction novel, two sports followers may connect over a mutual distaste for the Warriors’ fashion-forward, i.e., ugly, long-sleeve jerseys or shared admiration of Coco Crisp’s hair. And there’s value in this — there’s no substitute for an argument over sports, especially the argument involving Stephen A. Smith trouncing Skip Bayless. And just think about the cultural references that sports so often spawn — see Marshawn Lynch (True Meaning of Determination).

It teaches life lessons: Studying the imaginary actions of an imaginary character supposedly makes us better people. Similar to how the writings of Shakespeare teach us not to suffocate our wives with a pillow over a misplaced handkerchief or stage a dramatic death at the suggestion of a friar, sports reminds us of certain life realities. Having a fictitious girlfriend (a la Manti Te’o), for example: not a good life choice. Fabricating a fictitious website (a la Melky Cabrera): not a good life choice. Punching a brick wall out of frustration (a la Kevin Brown and, I’m sure, many others): not a good life choice. Throwing the football around in the backyard with pop (a la A.J. McCarron): good life choice. And this list goes on.

And there you have it — my undeniably bulletproof defense of the relationship between sports and fiction. And if I may append a concluding defense of sports, one that could not be said of fictional accounts, in the words of a friend, “I follow sports because I love watching grown men sweat. I couldn’t put in the work and sweat required to be a pro athlete. Hence, respect.”

Wise words. Very wise words.

David Eng would rather read “Manti Te’o and the Half-True Princess” than anything by J. K. Rowling. Tell him what you think of his life choices at dkeng ‘at’ stanford.edu.