Finding the Meaning of Sports: Parting Shot

As I leave the ranks of Crimson Sports, that is my final request: To athletes, be more than just athletes. To fans, view athletes as more than just athletes. And never just shut up and dribble.
By Henry Zhu

Like many kids growing up in the suburbs of this country, sports was what grounded my understanding of reality and my acculturation into American society — it represented a certain ontology and social fact. I treated the members of my favorite teams — the Yankees, Nets, and Giants — as extended kin, with each player’s batting average, each team’s draft picks, each franchises’ championships serving as enchanted totems of truth.

Sports provided me with a common language, allowing me to immerse myself in the collective consciousness of both my peers at school and the masses of strangers sitting next to me at Yankees Stadium or watching football on TV every Sunday at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC. Those debates at the cafeteria table about which NBA player to start your fictitious franchise with, which coach deserved to be fired, how this GM should have used salary-cap space — all of this provided a sense of order and morality in our lives, however simplistic and trivial. These conversations built up a symbolic interactionism in our little social world of sports, giving meaning to our trek through childhood.

From a pessimist’s perspective, I was perfectly molded into exactly what the sports-industrial complex wanted out of a young consumer — I paid for commemorative jerseys and hats, watched entire preseason games on television, waited an hour in line for a picture with Eli Manning at the opening of a Microsoft store. But for my younger self, all of that hoopla was part of my identity as a sports aficionado.

And as one could imagine, those rare moments where the wall between reality and that mythical sports universe broke open — whether that be getting autographs or simply sitting in the nosebleeds — were what I selfishly lived for.

In many ways, this opportunity to fully entrench myself in the sports world was what originally inspired me to get involved with sports journalism at Harvard. And boy, did I live out that dream.

Traveling the country, I covered three years of Harvard Basketball and experienced the thrills of a game at the Dean Smith Center, the heartbreak of a lost March Madness bid, the craziness of a triple-overtime Ivy League contest, and much more that ironically can’t be put into words. Sharing the sheer emotionality of the live sporting experience with an avid fan base and weaving together the narrative of each thrilling season made the long trips down I-95 worth it.

But what I least expected to realize this final year is that the true value of sports is not merely in what it provides as an entertainment product — rather, sports is tremendously powerful when it serves a tool for elucidating qualities of humankind and of our society that truly mean something outside of the playing surface.

Sports in America bestows such tremendous cultural capital that even in an academic-first school like Harvard, student-athletes are immediately elevated to a higher pedestal and seen as figures who should be emulated. Handed this platform, many individuals I have gotten to cover and profile on this campus have shown tremendous character and leadership — bringing greater attention to mental health, fighting against gender inequities, spearheading organizations that mentor younger generations in academics and beyond. I have learned more from these teams and athletes about the less “observable” traits such as grit, service, and commitment than I ever will about play schemas and clock management. Even at the simplest level, so many of these folks who cross the Charles River daily have unique personal stories that cannot be merely captured through a stat line or roster sheet.

However obvious this may seem, it is apparent that athletes are not presented in this fashion enough. Too much of the time, sports teams and athletes are displayed as commodities: Can a better 40-time improve this linebacker’s draft stock? Why has this slugger’s batting average dropped? How is this guy so freakishly athletic in his shot-blocking abilities? Why can’t this team score one more goal to hit my parlay?

Our 24/7 sports channels and social media perpetuates this dialogue, arguing over whether someone’s 50-million dollar contract was too risky, or whether this superstar should have stayed quiet to preserve his marketability. The athlete in America is thus quite easily prone to be viewed and idolized unidimensionally, building a personal narrative but one that they have little control over.

I, like many others, was part of this complicit audience growing up. I could tell you how much my favorite athletes were making per year or their wingspan but honestly knew nothing about them as human beings. In sum, sports was a fictional universe, when it could have very well been a powerful connector to reality.

As the sports industry, journalists, and athletes themselves have awoken to this fact, there have been tremendous signs of progress — take Kevin Love becoming a national spokesperson for mental health or sports websites like The Undefeated that bring awareness to social justice, for example.

Sports may be what brings people to the table, but it is ultimately in pursuit of something bigger. Whatever the message or cause that one is compelled to deliver, there is no better place than in the arena of sports. Now more than ever, we need athletes to serve as educators and exemplars in conjunction with their role as entertainers.

As I leave the ranks of Crimson Sports, that is my final request: To athletes, be more than just athletes. To fans, view athletes as more than just athletes.

And never just shut up and dribble.

Year in SportsSports Parting ShotsCommencement 2020 Sports