Just what is a sport?

Just what is a “sport” anyway? I was reminded of that age-old question two weeks ago. I wrote my “outdoor sports column” on deep woods raking. But my editor, alertly recognizing that raking isn’t actually a sport, moved me out of the sports section into the “Clippings” section.
It was actually nice for once. I mean, Andy Kirkaldy is a good guy, and a fine writer. I enjoy talking sports and playing basketball with him regularly, and it’s an honor for my column to be near his. But for once I got to be close to famous dancing star Jessie Raymond — whose column several years ago has made Gender Based Blindness (GBB for short) a common expression in our household.
But back to raking. OK, so it isn’t a sport. Unfortunately, I had been trying to convince my sons that it was, and that raking the lawn competitively would be a fun way to spend the weekend. On Friday afternoon they got off the bus and, as usual, raced up the driveway so eager to read my column that they almost ran right past it until I pointed to the paper on the table and told them that we could have snacks after they’d read it.
Alas, my column was not in its usual place and they had a hard time finding it. I had to explain that I’d written about raking, which wasn’t actually a sport, and so the column had been moved. Now until that revelation I can honestly say that my sons felt almost the same amount of enthusiasm about raking the lawn as they did about my column. But now the cat was out of the bag: Raking wasn’t a sport. They decided to go toss a football instead. And at least 50 acres of my 60-acre lawn have still not been raked.
But what is a sport? It’s more difficult to define than it seems. The question leads to regular debates in the intellectual circles at bars and on radio talk shows. You might try defining the term by thinking about baseball, football, basketball and soccer, all universally agreed to be “sports.” Maybe throw in hockey, lacrosse, tennis and track for good measure. All require running or jumping, strength, coordination and stamina in some measure. They are also all competitive.
Unfortunately, if you include “competitive,” you rule out hunting — unless you consider it a competition against the deer. But I’m not so sure that deer consider it “sport” to spend 16 days running through the woods with 100,000 people trying to shoot them.
Which leads me to another point. Of all the outdoor “sporting” seasons and their respective opening days in Vermont, this weekend’s opening of rifle season for antlered deer is easily the biggest. According to state officials, almost half of last year’s 17,000 deer taken in Vermont were harvested during rifle season — nearly as many as in archery, youth, and muzzleloader seasons combined. This year, I’ll be one of the 100,000 or so folks trying to harvest one of the estimated 120,000 to 145,000 deer roaming the state.
The problem is, while I’m out sitting in my tree stand with my rifle, I won’t know the answer to the question: “Am I’m participating in a sport?” I’d like to think the answer is yes. And others, I think, should unite behind my cause. After all, if we rule out hunting and fishing because they aren’t competitive, we also rule out jogging, biking and skiing. Sure, these sports can be competitive. But, unlike football or basketball, most of us now do them just for fun or exercise, without the competition.
Anyway, just making a list of what is and isn’t a sport doesn’t help, because the purpose of finding a definition in the first place was to determine that list. One might look at what activities are covered by major sporting media. That’s not much help either. If you judge by “Sports Illustrated,” then posing on the beach in a bathing suit is a sport. If you watch ESPN, you might be led to believe that poker was a sport. And if poker is a sport, then so are chess, bridge, dominoes, Scrabble and tic-tac-toe.
No. Whatever poker is, it is not a sport. Unless you play it out in the woods in the winter in a bathing suit. Then I’ll grant it’s an outdoor sport.
Or maybe we should just go along with ESPN and call poker a sport. Then if you play poker at hunting camp, it turns hunting camp into a sporting camp, which by association would turn hunting into a sport. In fact, we don’t even need the poker. People already place bets on the biggest buck. Sort of like putting money on the NCAA bracket during March Madness, or into a Super Bowl pool. And we know that college basketball and NFL football are both not only sports, but professional sports.
In fact, in this country it seems that gambling and money can turn any activity into a sport. So maybe, given the number of buck pools in hunting stores and camps all over the state — even if I didn’t actually enter one — I can sit in my tree stand on Saturday secure in my knowledge that hunting really is a sport after all.
Which gives me an idea. I wonder if I can get anybody to put money on who will get the biggest pile of leaves in my lawn?

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