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The Zak Zone

August 17, 2011

For as long as I can remember, there has been a debate in the sports community, among athletes and fans alike, centered around one important question: What exactly is a sport?

In high school, I knew the question existed, but I also didn't really have to consider the answer too closely. Most of my friends liked and followed the same sports I did, and so there was no room for debate.

Football? Basketball? Hockey? Baseball? There was no debate with those sports. Whether we liked to watch them or not was one question, but we each acknowledged they were all sports.

Professional wrestling? Not so much. Entertaining, yes, but not a sport. Again, we were all in agreement.

I really didn't run into anyone who had a different sporting-world view than I had until college.

And unfortunately for me, the person I was debating was also the girl who I was dating at the time.

You see, she grew up a cheerleader and I had never heard of cheerleading as a sport. I acknowledged how athletic those who took part had to be, but had never really considered cheerleading a sport. Until, that is, she convinced me to go to a competition.

After watching children, women and men pull off stunts that I never even imagined possible in a competitive fashion and getting caught up in cheering for one of the underdog squads, I walked away with the realization that her understanding of cheerleading as a sport was worth just as much as my understanding of footbal as one.

Which brings me to my questionable sport: Stock car racing.

I have always spent rain-free Saturday evenings at Marion Center Speedway.

It used to be a full-family affair. Mom and Dad would pack my brother and I into the car, and we'd head to the races. My brother was one of the few people I ever met who could sleep through the late model features, but we all had our favorite drivers and cheered for them adamantly.

Nowadays, Mom isn't as interested in the races, but Dad is still a regular. I tag along with him any time I can, and I have decided that there are two reasons I will continue to defend racing as a sport: Competition and camaraderie.

All sports have these two elements, at least in my humble opinion.

The competition aspect is quite universally accepted. Most folks will agree if there is no level of competition involved you are not dealing with a sport.

As much as we like to say we play "just for fun" in the back yard, Major League Baseball teams pour millions into their jumbotrons so the fans can stay constantly aware that someone is keeping score.

But, professional wrestling is a competition. There is usually a winner and a loser, and yet I still don't consider it a sport. So, what's the difference?

Well, for me the difference is clear. I don't enjoy professional wrestling anymore (though I will admit my cousins and I used to huddle around the television for pay-per-views), and so there is no opportunity for camaraderie in it for me.

During hockey season, if my parents and I don't have other plans that evening, we gather in the living room to watch each Pens game. We have a mutual enjoyment for the sport, and for the Pens, and it brings us together for an opportunity to socialize.

For the same reasons, I refuse to watch sporting events with fans of the other team. While I can still be friends with fans-of-rivals, camaraderie must be a positive experience for me. So, I don't watch Steelers games with Steelers haters, unapologetically.

Now, using two open- ended criteria as these opens the door to a debate. I can hear your reply already: "If those are the only two things that make a sport a sport, then why not board games? Why not gardening? Doesn't that mean that anything that can be judged and people share interest over is a sport?"

My answer to that question put quite simply: "Why not?"

If ESPN can open the debate over whether the latest phenomenon of "competitive eating" is a sport, why can't we throw other competitions into the mix?

If you love square dancing, you go to competitions and you want to consider it a sport, I say, again, "Why not?"

Although, that doesn't necessarily mean I'll be including the results of your latest square dance or Yahtzee competition in The Spirit's sports pages.

Growing up, my friends and I found entertainment and fellowship in sports from schoolyard hoops to volleyball tournaments to two-hand touch football in the back yard. And today, I still cherish the time spent playing or enjoying these and other sports.

I still go to the races because I have favorite drivers I like to keep track of and because I enjoy spending time with my dad, my uncle and the dozens of other friends I've made at the track.

Sports such as cheerleading and soccer, while they are not my favorite sports, offer others the opportunity to compete and fellowship. So, I now recognize them as sports, even though I would have debated that back in my unwiser days.

My love for sports has been one of the things that has brought me the closest to those who mean the most to me, and if there are folks out there who want to call "questionable" events sports, I say one last time, "Why not?"

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