by Chris Foss
Last week, I discussed the range of options for sports fandom in the dog days of summer. Unless you have tickets to Rio, getting out to watch games means either taking in MLS or MLB. Old fogies, dads with kids, and belligerent drinkers often dominate the latter crowd. Nothing wrong with that, but what about trading the TV for outdoor activities? If more sports fans were involved in, say, a summer kickball league, or even went for a hike, would we somehow become more open-minded? More to the point, are these experiences worthy of the sports fan’s time during the dog days of summer? Can sports fans learn something from the non-sports fan hiking in the mountains or throwing softballs?
The last decade has seen recreational kickball and softball leagues dramatically increase in popularity. Unlike MLB’s male, rich, ’roided-up product, kickball and softball are inclusive activities. Fans of all orientations are increasingly represented, and skill level doesn’t seem to matter. No one’s judging how well you field the ball or how fast you run. If academic faculty and graduate students or bookstore employees can get out there every summer and test their softball skills without shame, so can anyone. Sports fans might learn something from playing alongside longtime kickball/softball players who couldn’t care less about mainstream sports.
At the same time, kickball and softball require a degree of skill and athletic doggedness, even for the summer leaguer. Mark Mangrem, a pastor playing in a summer kickball league in Arlington, Texas, recently told the Fort Worth Star Telegram: “You think that, ‘Oh, kickball. I was great in third grade. This is going to be easy.’ […] Once you get out there, it’s not that easy. The ball’s bigger. The bases are farther. You’re older, fatter.” You’ll probably feel that way if you give summer sports a try. But consider that even in toasty-hot Arlington, Mangrem’s Gospel City Church had a whopping 84 players sign up to play on six teams this summer. “It’s fun—and it should be,” umpire Scott Morgan told the Telegram.
Fans seeking a somewhat more solitary athletic challenge, on the other hand, go hiking. Hikers are of all ages, and include our four-legged friends, too. Hiking is becoming more accessible, with the monochromatic, rugged rangers’ hiking maps of our parents’ generation replaced by spiffy illustrated walking guides, as well the array of online hiking and walking guides made available for free. President Barack Obama recently toured Yosemite to tout the nation’s national parks system and to urge Americans not just to caravan out in Winnebagoes, but to work to help preserve the vitality of the park system.
Short hikes, day hikes, and multi-day hikes/climbs test the sports fan’s willingness to go all-out. Walking a paved path by a lake is one thing, hiking the Pacific Coast Trail is another. But there’s options for every skill and desire level. Shorter (but still intense) hiking options are available for those who can’t just pack up and head to Georgia to start the Appalachian Trail. Hiking could also, arguably, be a team sport. I never go hiking alone, and I rarely see hikers by themselves. One major difference is that unlike kickball and softball, hiking is often a family venture: people tend to hike with their families, their friends, and their spouses, although there are outdoor clubs put together by colleges and online meet-up clubs.
Choosing among baseball, kickball/softball, and hiking might lead the fan to re-assess the borders of sport. Earlier this spring, for example, I wrote a brief memoir of my life through bowling. Is bowling a sport? Depends on how you define sport. If you define it by exertion of physical as well as mental energy, could baseball could be less of a sport than bowling? Baseball is often more a mental exercise than physical, especially during the dog days of the year. It starts to resemble a sport more in the fall than in the summer, when major league players are just trying to push through the schedule.
Should we get out there and play, rather than watch, in the dog days of summer? We’re not seeing much when we watch the “sport” of baseball this time of year. True, kickball and softball are scarcely more strenuous (if sports are defined by level of physical exertion), but perhaps better than nothing for the couch potato fan. Getting in a league, however, can still help us lose weight, get in shape, and make friends. Even with the umpire.
But is hiking a sport? I would argue it is, although I understand the feelings of the obstinate deniers among us. Indeed, there’s no ball, there’s no score, and there are no referees. Hiking is usually a team activity, however. It involves considerable physical exertion, and there’s an aim of some sort—complete the loop, get to the top of the hill/mountain, get to the lake. Just as in team sports, hikers help each other all the time to achieve their common goals—guides (a la coaches) leading the way to scale the sheer mountainside, everyone encouraging each other to go a little further, and even (perhaps) the rookie carrying the water and the food. And, when groups of hikers reach the summit of a mountain together, is that not the very essence of team accomplishment? Campfires, clubs, Facebook groups, and albums knit together hiking groups for life. They can become every bit as much a fraternity as groups of sports teams.
Here’s what we can learn, in the end, from kickball, softball, and hiking: whether or not you are an avid outdoorsperson, or even if you don’t get out much this summer, there’s little doubt that a critical consideration of these summer athletic activities helps us rethink our assumptions about what is a sport and what is not. They all have sports-like, athletic, team-oriented qualities; but they all can be very solitary, sedentary ventures as well. Summer offers us a unique time to consider these activities in juxtaposition with each other before football returns.
 Anecdotal evidence suggests leagues in some areas have curbed typical summer inner-city boredom—perhaps even violence--by providing outlets for youth and adults who aren’t otherwise athletically-inclined. See these examples from Wilmington, NC and Minneapolis: http://www.wwaytv3.com/2016/06/26/kickball-league-aims-to-cut-back-violence-create-community/ and http://spokesman-recorder.com/2016/06/22/kickball-brings-northside-neighbors-together-drama-free-fun/
 Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “sport” as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other”, AND as “a physical activity (such as hunting, fishing, running, swimming, etc.) that is done for enjoyment.” Let the debate begin as to whether or not bowling is considered “physical” or, some cranks might argue, whether hiking is considered “enjoyable”. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sport