Growing up, the phrase “it’s just a game” never fully made sense to me. I could apply it towards the types of games that I often played — Monopoly, hide and seek, four square — in remembering not to get too upset whenever I lost. But the real games, with college athletes tossing a basketball and my dad on a bench dressed in a suit and sneakers, I had no idea how to take lightly. Maybe this is because I’ve been taught that I shouldn’t.
My dad, a Division 1 college basketball coach, communicated the importance of his games to me when he paced the sidelines and slammed his playbook down on the officials’ table during the last two minutes of a tied-up game. My mom, while anxiously watching away games from our living room TV, would tell me, “If Dad loses too many games, we move.” We knew coaching families that had moved four times in the 10 years I spent in Oregon due to the paucity of coaching jobs and reliably high turnover in the industry. My parents understandably took basketball very seriously, and from their examples I grew to understand that my life — the athletic club memberships I enjoyed, the location where I lived, my dad’s satisfaction with his job — depended on it.
Taking the lens of basketball as a job rather than a game helped me understand why my parents’ perspectives differed from the narratives I heard at school. Other kids had parents who were bankers or engineers; mine played games. My friends didn’t see their parents’ professional victories and losses played out on national television. The clashing messages from my parents, teachers and peers about what games like basketball meant to them left me with broader questions about how much value I should place on basketball and games in general.
What distinguishes the games we should be wary of taking too seriously and the type my life essentially revolves around? The most common understanding of games juxtaposes it with work, or pursuits undertaken for financial gain. However, this definition falls flat when we consider how college coaches like my dad, professional athletes, chess masters and gamblers all receive payment for playing. In this light, the stakes of a game determine whether or not we take an activity seriously, and the activity’s categorization as a game actually holds little to no bearing.
If we think of a game as just a strategic interaction between individuals each pursuing their own objectives, which may align with or oppose others’ goals, we can deem most situations as games: governments making foreign policy decisions, activists marching to protect a set of rights and investment bankers organizing deals between companies, to highlight a few. These people all also act within the confines of sets of rules, which are codified in laws or job descriptions instead of pocket-sized manuals or wordlessly communicated through examples of the consequences of deviation. By virtue of living in a society with other people and standards of behavior, we must constantly move through the same decision-making processes that games require to reach our ambitions.
Sitting in a basketball gym as an 18-year-old in 2020, I found it more difficult than when I was younger to accept the control college basketball exerts over my life. The players who would show me magic tricks at Thanksgiving dinners when I was eight, whom I looked up to as adults, were the age I am now. They had always been fallible — I saw that when they choked and turned the ball over or accidentally fouled when they were ahead in the last 30 seconds — but the critical difference was that their failings now seemed less logical. College athletes were often 18-year-olds like my friends, who made mistakes when they were hungover or homesick or anxious. And I, especially as someone who has never played basketball, was supposed to passively accept that my life was wrapped up in their decisions?
It wasn’t just my age that made basketball’s role in my life harder to endure. The mask I wore, the rows of empty seats tied in the upright position, as well as smaller details like the team’s black warm-up shirts featuring words like “unity,” “peace” and “equity” persistently reminded me of the real-world issues outside of the stadium. Through comparison, they rendered the outcome of any given basketball game trivial, and just like that, I was an elementary schooler confused as to whether I should take “it’s just a game” outside of the playground and onto the court.
But I’m not an elementary schooler anymore — I see the line between work and games as much murkier. The lawyer makes a case for his client’s claim to the house during a divorce trial, working around the opposing attorney’s moves. The candidate for public office readies a defense against a potential attack on his character. And my dad began to play a new sort of game this past summer when he launched a nationwide campaign called “All Vote No Play” to combat voter suppression by giving NCAA athletes the day off from practice on Election Day. In doing so, he had to navigate around diverse political ideologies and preexisting beliefs as he attempted to rally other coaches around what he believes to be a bipartisan message. Such is but one example of the old definition of games bleeding into the new, my nuanced understanding of the world’s injustices seeping into the narrow, court-sized parameters of my childhood perspective.
I now realize that dependence on the outcome of games others play is not unique to daughters of basketball coaches. In fact, even when we get to play the game ourselves we still give up control due to factors like luck, odds stacked against us and the simple condition that games eventually produce one or more losers. I’m not yet at the point where I can enter a basketball stadium and welcome the possibility of a starter’s sprained ankle contributing toward a loss that will leave my dad stressed and forced to miss family time for extra meetings. I’m not sure I ever will be. However, this process of learning to accept the unusual position I’ve been born into, which forces me to care deeply about the outcome of basketball games, prepares me for the games I’ll watch and play the rest of my life. In light of how these games are a condition of human interaction and life in general, I think my childhood self was right to distrust the phrase “it’s just a game”; “it’s just life” doesn’t quite pack the same punch.
Contact Katie Reveno at kreveno ‘at’ stanford.edu.