by Alex Langer
Today I thought I’d talk about what I don’t know. Though I would hope I never give off the impression of being an expert, our un-previews are designed to make it very clear that we do not know what is going on, and our Twitter is expressly designed to remind our many followers that mid-season predictions and hot takes are almost always a fool’s errand, we too can fall into the trap of expert-ness. So, this week, I am going to talk about something I do not know about, and why not knowing isn’t necessarily the worst thing when it comes to sports.
Of all the major sports played in the United States (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey), I know and understand hockey the least. Perhaps it was because I did not grow up in close proximity to frozen lakes, though I did grow up only a few hours from Canada. Perhaps it is because hockey was not a big youth sport in Seattle, though I lived across the street from a former Czechoslovakian hockey player, who gifted me several of his old sticks. Perhaps it was because I was never comfortable on roller skates, and needed to use the walls to slow down, and if I wasn't comfortable on wheels, I would never be comfortable on skates.
Whatever the reason, I never learned how to play hockey. That is not, in and of itself, out of the ordinary, but I also never learned how to watch hockey. I knew the basics (number of players on the ice, the goal of the game), and I learned what icing was somewhere along the line, but ask me anything more complicated about the game of hockey, and you were about to win some money. Now, after watching multiple NHL games and playing the NHL video game, I can confidently tell you that I understand…offsides and icing. And that is it. Do I understand how or why line changes work? Not at all. I assume they are a much quicker version of NBA teams playing their backups for much of the 2nd quarter. I understand that there are forwards and wingers and defensive players, and from my hours playing the video game, I learned that crossing in front of the goalie then attempting to shoot backhand is an effective strategy.
Does that mean I understand hockey and can be an intelligent fan? No, it does not. Am I, in the words of my father, “just knowledgeable enough to be dangerous?” Definitely. I think that this is an important step in any sports fans’ life. The basic working knowledge of a sport, enough to be angry at perceived mistakes, leads to seeking out true knowledge, and eventually informed fandom. There is an emphasis on expertise in the sporting world. To be “true” fans, you must not only understand the rules and the basics of the game, but be able to talk with authority on strategy. To not understand the second tier of strategy makes you, in some ways, not a real fan. I think that this is dangerous, and sometimes takes away the fun of it all. When I used to play sports video games, especially Madden NFL, there was a sense of chaos to it, a sense that you could pretend to be great without having to know greatness. In the most recent Madden, there are close to three hours of tutorials on how to real zone coverage and pick the right route against types of coverage. Now, this may be a boon to young quarterbacks in need of free lessons, but I don’t particularly like having to read coverage as well as an NFL QB in order to play my sports simulation video game. It takes away the fun of throwing deep on every play.
I barely understood basketball until I attended college at Arizona, where it is imperative to know basketball. It has made my enjoyment of the game more complete by knowing the strategies and the positions, but I could not diagram a play in basketball the way I could in football. And that is okay. I like watching a team run a play with no idea what the ultimate goal is. It makes the wide-open three or the dunk at the end of the play more exciting. The same is true when I attend a hockey match now. The goals always come as a shock, both to me and to the announcers, it seems. I cannot tell you when they’re going to happen, or even which team seems to be in charge of the match. It makes the game more exciting to me, and ironically, it makes me want to know more of the strategy. It is an odd push and pull. The love of the unknown makes you want to know more, so that those moments cease to surprise.
Sports sit at the fulcrum of known and unknown. We are regaled weekly with tales of football coaches sleeping in their office the week before a game, trying to find that one particular formation that wins them the game. Football players spend hours of their game watching film to discover if, for instance, a wide receiver puts more pressure on his back foot when he’s prepared to run a go-route. Before every start, a starting pitcher and his catcher break down each batter’s tendencies and put together a plan to pitch to them. Each of these actions are vital in the cutthroat world of sports. They’re often the difference between victory and defeat. But I must ask how much we fans need to see behind the curtain. Do we need to know the type of routes that beat man coverage in order to enjoy an NFL game? Do we need to know the principles of a motion offense to enjoy watching the Golden State Warriors rain three-point shots? Or do we simply need to know the general rules and goals of a sport? At what point does it become counterproductive to know too much about a sport? I am not sure, but I’d love to hear your comments. How much knowledge do you need to watch and enjoy a sport? How much is too much?