Matt Dickerson: More than sports played outdoors
“Just what is an outdoor sport, anyway?”
That is the question I am often asked when people discover that I am a famous outdoor sports columnist. Which is to say, if I ever become a famous outdoor sports columnist, I imagine somebody might ask me that question. Indeed, I spent a great deal of time imagining the questions my devoted fans will one day ask me if I ever have any devoted fans. Do I use steroids? Have I ever blood-doped? How long before I retire?
Therefore, I thought it would be prudent to prepare a few answers. Just in case.
No, I don’t use steroids. No, I have never blood-doped. And I have no plans to retire as long as I can continue to compete at the high level my fans have become accustomed to.
The other question, though, is a little harder. Just what is an outdoor sport, anyway?
That question was prompted by a recent trip to Massachusetts, where I went to watch the Middlebury College baseball team play a pair of doubleheaders against NESCAC rivals from Maine. Northern New England colleges often plan early season games in deep south states like Massachusetts. There, March temperatures can sometimes soar all the way up into the low 40s, while us northerners are still buried in snow and waiting for our pipes to thaw.
This year, however, Massachusetts has more snow than Vermont. And in any case, the game-day forecast was for mixed precipitation and temperatures on the wrong side of 40. So all four games were cancelled — just as they were each of the previous two seasons.
Baseball, you see, despite being both a sport and taking place outdoors, is most definitely not an outdoor sport. Weather short of a hurricane, tornado, or all-out nor’easter does not cancel real outdoor sports. It just makes them more interesting.
What, then, is an outdoor sport? We could begin with a definition of “sport.” Google’s dictionary defines it as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” It comes from the Latin word “spore” which means “a minute, typically one-celled, reproductive unit capable of giving rise to a new individual without sexual fusion, characteristic of lower plants, fungi, and protozoans.”
Actually, there isn’t any etymological relationship between “sport” and “spore,” except that both often involve one-celled reproductive units. Which is one reason that the definition of “sport” is not helpful in defining “outdoor sports.” The second reason is that many people consider auto racing a sport, along with baseball, basketball, soccer and curling. And any definition of “sport” that includes auto racing is unhelpful.
The third reason, though, is the one already mentioned: “outdoor sports” are not necessary sports — at least not according to the Google definition of “sport.” They are activities involving physical exertion and skill. That much I grant should be part of the definition. Although come to think of it, not many people watching me paddling a canoe, shooting a bow, or even casting a fly rod would have the word “skill” pop to mind.
But in any case, the rest of the definition fails altogether. For one thing, outdoor sports are not competitive by nature. Even those that can be made competitive — anything from cross-country skiing to fishing — are not dependent on the aspect of competition.
The vast majority of cross-country skiers, snowshoe enthusiasts, hikers, anglers, hunters, and canoeists are not out to win anything. Anglers and duck hunters routinely spend hours shivering and submerged waist deep in an icy water body just for the enjoyment of it.
Also, real outdoor sports are not done for entertainment — or least not for the entertainment of others. When was the last time you wanted to turn on a television and watch somebody sit for three hours in a duck blind?
So if “sports” is not the dominant feature of “outdoor sports,” what is? The definition must be broad enough to include fishing, hunting, cross-country skiing, canoeing, backpacking and rock climbing. But it should be narrow enough to exclude football, despite the fact that football — unlike baseball — is indeed played under all weather conditions.
The most important aspect must the outdoors part. And here outdoors must mean something more than the absence of a roof. In addition to involving “physical exertion and skill,” real outdoor sports take place in an environment that is not fundamentally human-engineered, and that allows natural weather. (The tools and other paraphernalia can be human-made, but not the environment.)
Indeed, anything that could played under a roof should not count. Similarly, any sport completely dependent on motors should not be included. (Sorry, snowmobilers. And sorry alpine skiers, except for those of you who climb the mountain on your own.)
Lacrosse, as played by the Mohawks, Cherokee, and Iroquois peoples almost certainly qualified as an outdoor sport. Modern lacrosse, though it involves exertion and skill, does not. Neither does football. Though it too is played outdoors, and in all kinds of weather, it is also played in a highly engineered environment. The grass surface, even if the grass is real, is artificially leveled and kept manicured to rigid specifications. And it can be played under a dome.
We return then to baseball — which despite what might appear to be disparaging comments in this column, actually happens to be my favorite sport to watch. But it’s not an outdoor sport. The pitcher’s mound is more than just a convenient anthill. You can’t have trees in the outfield. And even the most natural grass of a baseball field is still an artificial surface.
All of this I will remember this coming week, when I am down in Tucson, Ariz., watching the Middlebury Panthers playing in 85-degree weather under bright blue skies on carefully manicured baseball diamonds.
I will be thinking of how I could have chosen instead to be a real practitioner of outdoor sports back here in the natural outdoors of Vermont, experiencing real weather under an open sky — an open sky pouring down mixed precipitation with a thermometer reading on the wrong side of 40 degrees. And I’ll be thinking just how glad I am that baseball is not an outdoor sport.
Mark A. Nelson of Bristol
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