Not following professional sports is no reason to avoid talking about them when you’re accosted by a person who does. I used to dread when a stranger asked me who I had my money on for the World Series, my first impulse being to ask if they were referring to PBS. They weren’t, and I would mumble something about not being very interested in professional sports, which made me sound not only out of touch with the popular culture but weak.
I have since come to actually appreciate such conversation starters because it’s immediate evidence that the speaker isn’t going to talk politics; or presume you agree with theirs. They want to talk touchdowns and three-pointers and RBIs, which are radically benign topics compared to Mexicans stealing our jobs or Black kids wearing hoodies or Dick Cheney orchestrating 9/11. As long as you can keep them off the sub-topic of Colin Kaepernick, it’s no great effort to tolerate a subject you have no interest in. (School kids do it all the time.) You see, sports-talking gets people very angry about the least important, most inconsequential thing in their lives. And legend has it that my high school driver education teacher, whose pedagogy consisted of screaming at the student driver, dropped dead yelling at the TV during a Super Bowl. What’s not to like?
So, you might ask, why don’t you like sports? First off, in high school the closest I came to being an athlete was the Key Club. Also, there’s the issue of laziness. Watching other people exercise is not good exercise in itself. Sitting on a couch or a bleacher and yelling, “Get your head out of your ass,” doesn’t burn off many of my own calories. I may as well be watching people fold their laundry or wash their cars and expecting my own chores to get done.
But talking sports — even with my larval knowledge — is a necessary and useful skill. It fools others into thinking you have a greater than zero interest in what they’re obsessed with. The first thing to do is memorize a few basics. For example, a reference to “the Gators” can mean the football, basketball, or baseball team at University of Florida. (It could also mean the softball or gymnastics teams, but there is no need to engage such people.) And it is vitally important to learn the difference between football and basketball. Know your balls, to start (and don’t get tripped up by hockey which is distinctly ball-less). I have learned from my brief childhood attempts at sporting that both types of balls, while appearing nonthreatening when inert, can really hurt when connecting with one’s face. A football resembles certain Colonial military hats, and is about as easy to throw. A basketball is big and orange and surprisingly unwilling to slip through a hoop. (Baseballs are downright terrifying, small and fast and itching to knock out your teeth, and thus should be regulated.)
Then learn the games. For example, football players wear helmets to delay chronic traumatic encephalopathy as long as possible, and basketball players wear almost nothing. Judging from TV camera angles, basketball players are tall, sometimes up to eight or nine feet, and football players are very tiny. Basketball players move back and forth speedily on what’s known as a court. I’m always impressed that from inside that mass of sweaty bodies they can understand what’s happening with the ball when I can’t from my much better vantage point. Conversely, football is very slow. Players get into a line in strange positions, which can’t possibly be good for their posture. One player sticks his hands under a teammate’s buttocks and through his legs as if delivering a baby backward. Then the quarterback yells something in German which causes all the players to spray out in various directions for approximately five seconds before a whistle blows. Sometimes they hug each other when the whistle blows, but not necessarily the two who have been so intimate at the beginning of the play.
The most important thing for a sports philistine is to be prepared with stock questions to throw the responsibility for the conversation back onto the initiator. When I’m asked something in the vein of, “How about them Gators?” instead of getting flustered because I don’t know if it’s football, basketball, or deer-hunting season, I simply say, “Who do they have this year?” It works every time. And by not specifying a gender in my question, I can pass even if the person is referring to women’s sports, which they almost never are. Ball in their court, the inquirer will then launch into the relative merits of various players as athletes and human beings. This can go on for quite some time, and before long I can figure out which sport he is referring to. And I carry my part by nodding frequently and adding an occasional “Yeah” or “That’s true” or “You’re not kidding.”
I may be fooling most people or I may be fooling no one at all. Perhaps those that I think I’ve convinced simply want to talk and don’t care about my ignorance or pretense. But only once has a person called me out. It was an older man at the gym who, through various stages of dressing himself, went on at length about how the supposed talent of at least seven different baseball players was not commensurate with the price of their contracts. After enough time had passed that I was sure I’d missed a birthday, he looked at me and said, “You really don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” I objected, of course, though my defense was not very nimble, saying as I did, “So, I guess the team needs a really big guy this season.”
Probably what had tipped him off was the lack of enthusiasm in my head-nodding, not to mention my straying eyes. You see, I had been distracted by the strange gap on the man’s abdomen, which I could only guess at the origins of — an old bullet wound; tattoo-removal gone terribly wrong; the portal to Narnia. When he didn’t respond but only shook his head at my ignorance, I blurted, “Lots of things are more interesting than sports.”