On February 3, 2008, the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII. I know this, because it’s one of the few major sporting events I actually sat down and watched since I was in grade school. I watched it partially because my wife’s brother threw a party, partly because my sister in-law bribed me with cake, and mostly because my father brainwashed me at the age of 8 to like the Giants.
In whatever heaven my dad is in, I’m pretty sure he takes sadistic pleasure in the suffering that he has inflicted upon me and my brothers. Outside of the Giants and Muhammad Ali, I have no interest in any sort of sports (unless you’re talking about American Gladiators, which is comedy gold). But my dad managed to implant in my young mind a devotion to the Giants franchise that has transcended my general disdain about professional sports. And, for many years, being a Giants fan has been like being in some sort of clandestine eastern torture camp. The Giants won the Super Bowl when I was 9. Then they went on to 17 years of finding new and painful ways to lose important games. To see them enter a championship game and defeat a team that many thought was unbeatable made me wonder if air is still breathable. (After much research, it is. Also, politicians are still lying douchebags, and Tom Cruise still hasn’t been captured and dragged back to whatever alien internment camp he came from.)
The thrill of seeing the Giants finally win the Super Bowl made me wonder why exactly sports are interesting in the first place. What makes people fans of their local team? What makes watching grown men getting paid millions of dollars to play a game appealing, and why don’t we shut down the major leagues and devote that money to something more useful, like schools, farms, and an army of titanium-fanged deathbots that can help me finally destroy Canada?
What I know about sports is that it’s another form of entertainment in a country that worships entertainers. The difference between watching a football game and watching a movie, though, is that the movie has a script. If you know a bit about movies, you can usually predict how things are going to turn out. Sports don’t have that script. Without the benefit of fiction, the underdog is usually going to lose. Rocky doesn’t beat Apollo Creed in real life. Even the most inspiring figures, such as Muhammad Ali, stay in the game too long. In Ali’s case, he nearly got killed against Larry Holmes late in his career. Not exactly inspiring stuff. However, because the laws of reality so cruelly inflict themselves upon sporting events, it makes the upsets much more spectacular and surprising than in fiction. Just as fiction has taught me to expect the impossible when reading a book, reality has taught me that when three 300-pound defensive linemen hit a quarterback, he’s going down and might not get up. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning not only took those hits, but kept his feet, threw the ball 100 feet downfield, and had his receiver catch it not with both hands, but rather with his forehead. In a movie, that would be breaking the suspension of disbelief. To see it happen live and unscripted is flat out amazing.
When the underdog Giants beat the perfect team, or when Ali beat the invincible George Foreman years before I was born, it was the stuff fiction is built off of. Without a precedent of some sort of reality, those stories have no meaning. It’s not a phenomenon that’s limited to sports, either. When the people of London bravely stood against the Nazis despite being bombed on a daily basis, that was planting the seeds for great stories about sacrifice and heroism. Without widespread government corruption, conspiracy-based television shows such as The X-Files would seem entirely unbelievable. Sports just have the advantage of being broadcast live to millions of homes.
To those who follow them, sports as a whole mean giving the chance for the good guys to really win once in a while. To me, the Giants winning a championship shows that hard work, discipline, and integrity can pay off. This is a franchise that was considered too loyal to its players and coaches, who were criticized for not firing their head coach at the end of the 2006 season. Instead, the owners of this family-run organization showed loyalty and stuck with their man, and his hard work paid off one year later. This isn’t a lesson that is unique to football, but in this case it’s a story whose end chapter unfolded live in front of millions of people – cementing the notions that are often only heard of in stories.
Sports are not good when drunken fans throw snowballs or beer bottles onto the field. They are not good when athletes think they’re above the law and use their celebrity to get away with heinous crimes. They suffer when fans delight in another person’s misfortune, or when they openly threaten or condemn their team for not being talented enough to overcome the odds. The wide world of sports is one often full of drunken idiots who place too much value on the outcome of a game. It is full of overpaid, often childish athletes. It is a place where cheating, arrogance, and bad sportsmanship are celebrated rather than condemned. But to those who can keep things in perspective, sports are a valuable form of entertainment that tells many inspiring stories. The Giants’ Super Bowl season tells a story of a team that was determined and always believed in each other. It tells a story about an Iraqi war hero, Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, who lost his legs serving this country but still gets to be a hero by inspiring his hometown team as an honorary captain. It tells many stories, all of which happened in real life and none of which had an editor determining what was dramatically appropriate. For those exact moments, once in a great while, sports can be surprising, funny, and dramatic. Literally, events like that are the stuff that great fiction is made of.