November 3, 2014

In the debate between practice and exercise, I definitely choose sport.

At soccer practice, before even touching a ball, we would first run the entire length of the cross-country course. Our Iranian coach would complete the whole circuit with us, jogging casually backwards, calling us fat cows as he trotted along. I’m not making this up—he told me, in particular, that I ran like his grandmother. You don’t forget such a thing. His easy laughter signaled profound cardiovascular health. The beautiful game was our reward for such abuse.

The following year, the fit Iranian moved up to a higher level and was replaced by an obese and friendly American. He had a serious thing for clipboards. He and his two assistants basically dressed for softball, always wearing matching button-up polyester shorts and collared shirts. Again, I’m not making this up. We talked earnestly about completion percentages. Everything was diagrammed, and we ran ceaselessly among various configurations of orange cones. Everything was an exercise. Having developed severe tendonitis in both ankles, I played the sport almost to spite this regime.

Indeed, the glory was always on the field. There, your exertions had meaning. You could pick out a pass, and if it went wrong, at least your intention was known. You had said to your teammate: Here, you are in a better place. In general, I derived great pleasure from predicting others’ actions. I loved, in particular, the moment of interception. It signaled a certain intimacy: Adversary, I know your mind. Likewise with the tackle, a bond was formed at the very moment of disruption. To be right, the violence had to be precise, and completely without malice.

I always played in midfield, and my expertise is still in the in-between. The pass before the assist; something we called “making space”; controlling the tempo of the game.  These are strange arts, but I stand by them. They are something you must repeat to learn, and you could call this repetition practice, for sure. You could likewise call the effort exercise, by all means. In my experience, however, the really interesting things were learned by actually playing.

So, if we return to the initial terms of debate, I chose sport because while practice and exercise are necessary, I also see them as necessarily preliminary. Sport is their unpredictable and improvisatory culmination.

I confess, I also like the term itself, because “sport” can’t easily enter the artspeak shorthand lexicon. One will not soon be hearing artists talk about their sport in the way one presently hears them describe, after a deep breath, the details of their practice. Sport is not a word with high class or particularly positive connotations. It’s not a word that’s easy to inflate.

Instead, a simple, unassuming word like sport might encourage art people to think about culture from start to finish. Not just their own behavior and the various ways their personal state of being can be improved, but rather their role in the broader (and messier) field of human activity. Because if we need a term to talk about art making, we should have one that includes—at least implicitly—things like youth leagues, bad referees, insane fans, national pride, television rights, corporate sponsorship, analytics, injuries, tactics, warm-up routines, superstition, betting networks, YouTube replays, elite seats, worldwide scouting, semi-annual international competitions, and the like.

That, to me, would bring us closer to the game we actually play.