Shi: Sports is not bigger than life

April 23, 2013, 10:10 p.m.

What does Al Gore have to do with sports?

Al Gore is not an American sporting legend; however, he’s won the Nobel Peace Prize, which is considerably more important. Typing in “Al Gore sports” returns 40.8 million hits on Google, but if you scan the first page of results, none of them actually links Gore to sports in any meaningful way. In high school, Gore captained the football team and also participated in basketball and track, but like the thousands upon thousands of high school varsity captains dotting the American landscape, Al Gore is not defined by sports.

In fact, Al Gore gave a speech on climate change and the democratic process yesterday, right here on campus, and he did not mention sports once. One imagines that if he had mentioned sports, it would have detracted from his message.

Sometimes we have to have some perspective: When football coaches say that their sport “isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s more than that,” that’s a motivational saying, not derived from any true belief. (At least I hope that’s a motivational saying.)

Regardless of whether you agree with Al Gore on anything, Gore transcends sports.

Meanwhile, a little over three hundred miles from Gore’s family home, Auburn just removed the fabled oaks from Toomer’s Corner. Celebrating at the corner by rolling toilet paper has been an Auburn football tradition for many decades now, but the trees were recently marked for death. Specifically, after Auburn football defeated Alabama in 2009, Alabama fan Harvey Updyke poisoned them and subsequently made a deranged phone call to the Paul Finebaum radio show (deranged even by Finebaum standards, which is really saying something) confessing his guilt.

Updyke—who even named his children Crimson Tyde and Bear Bryant, after the team name and the legendary coach, respectively—is now in prison, and I doubt that he was watching a live feed of Gore’s speech. That is a pity, because Gore had some decidedly interesting things to say about the medium that really brought big-time college football to Updyke and millions of other Americans: television.

Gore’s point was that (especially at a tech-savvy university in Silicon Valley) people can often be disoriented and believe that the Internet is dominant. It is not. Television is still the main information superhighway in this country. Television attracts (according to Gore) 80 percent of election campaign funds. The Internet carries with it explosive potential, but the television industry has gotten very good at simplifying complex issues into short two- or three-minute segments that a busy viewer can easily digest.

But one of the downsides of television is that it not only enables reduction but is inherently and inescapably reductive; as Gore alluded to when talking about Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” television only captures a small part of a greater story. TV cameras try to catch longtime fans and students covered in paint shouting their slogans, but there is still a world of difference between watching a game on TV and being there in person.

Football is not all about the score: It is about playing the game, cheering the team, celebrating in victory and commiserating in defeat. Football is history; football is tradition for reasons inexplicable; football is tens of thousands of people gathering at an intersection in Auburn, Ala., to say goodbye to two trees that survived horrendous teams and spectacular failures, but not Spike 80DF herbicide. Football the sport is not limited to football the game, and it would be disrespectful to reduce it to such.

And at the same time, all the pomp and circumstance and traditions that make football such a compelling sport serve to remind us fans that they are still, on some level, a shadow to the realities of the life surrounding the field. Human existence did not begin at the tailgate, and it does not end when the game clock strikes 00:00.

Does this fact absolve Updyke of his wrongdoing, under the assumption that what he did is to a large extent irrelevant? In fact, misreading this last point, a defender of Updyke might say, “Hey, what’s the big deal, it’s just trees.”

Al Gore cares about sports, but I suppose he would say in response (and I would agree), “Hey, what’s the big deal, it’s just football.” Auburn’s stunning comeback against Alabama may have wounded Updyke’s pride, but that’s no excuse for real vengeance in the real world.

Contrary to public opinion, Winston Shi did not invent football. Confront him about this inconvenient truth at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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