Sportsmen talking about sport, in this case Brazilian footballers at the 1958 World Cup. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What we're talking about when we talk about sport

The friendships that thrive on football banter
September 19, 2018


Sportsmen talking about sport, in this case Brazilian footballers at the 1958 World Cup. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Last month, I heard two guys talking on their way into the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. On the diving platform, the subject was West Ham’s leaky defence. Twenty minutes later, climbing out of the water, they were discussing Chelsea—only Ruben Loftus-Cheek had come up through the academy, and who knows if he’s even going to get a game.

In Barry Levinson’s Diner, released in 1982 but set in Baltimore in 1959, a bunch of guys meet up to talk crap between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when Eddie Simmons is supposed to get married. They talk about girls, they talk about music (“who’s better, Mathis or Sinatra?”) and they talk sport. It’s a picture of male friendship, stupid and limited and loving.

Eddie is worried. Two nights before his wedding, he makes his fiancée take a test about the Baltimore Colts, the American football team who have just won the championship. If she fails, he threatens to call the whole thing off.

The movie is about nostalgia, twice over—Levinson’s nostalgia for his Baltimore youth, and the guys at the diner who already sense that adult life is pulling them apart. But it’s also about conversation. The cast got together a week before filming and used to hit the nightspots together. Much of the dialogue was ad-libbed.

Aristotle and Larkin up front, with Wordsworth playing in the hole

I never much liked talking music. It seems weird to me that an honourable minority of people admit to having no interest in sport, but it’s hard to find anyone who claims the same about music. Shrevie, one of the Diner guys, is already married and reproaches his wife for never asking him “what’s on the flip side” of a record. He misses how easy it is to talk about this kind of stuff with his male friends. “What’s the big deal?” she says. “It’s only music.” I’m with her.

But sports talk dominated my childhood, not just at school, but at the dinner table, too, where my sisters knew as much and cared as much as I did. What are we talking about, when we talk about sports? Who’s good and why? Who’s going to win? How do things happen? In other words, the big basic questions. And when you disagree, there’s usually an answer at the end of the game, so conversations don’t get lost down the rabbit holes of opinion.

When Aristotle, in the Ethics, tries to describe how people can be responsible for things they can’t control, he pictures someone throwing a stone and letting go. To be virtuous is like “training for any contest or action,” you have to “practise the activity the whole time.”

Philip Larkin turns to the same image to show how the play of chance deepens into a fact, as he tosses an apple into the bin: “Watching the shied core,/Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,/Shows less and less of luck, and more and more,/Of failure spreading back up the arm…”

And Wordsworth uses the language of sports to capture how, in the heat of the moment, without choosing to, we give ourselves away: “Action is transitory—a step, a blow,/The motion of a muscle—this way or that—/’Tis done, and in the after vacancy,/We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed.”

You can see all this happen, compacted into an hour and a half, every Saturday night on Match of the Day.

Transfer-window banter is better than silence

But that’s not really why we talk about sports—and sometimes keep whole friendships alive, years after their heyday, by maintaining these conversations, on the five-a-side pitch, in the pub, on Facebook, over the phone.

My first job coming out of grad school was teaching English at a private school in New York. I was 24; most of the kids in my classes were 17. There were a lot of people in my department I liked, I made good friends, but I was also aware that something had happened in that seven-year interval to the quality of friendship. The intensity of it was all on the other side of my desk.

And the reason was simple enough: every day, five days a week, my students shared a world with each other, and the conversations that come out of that common ground are unlike any you will ever have again.

But watching a game together, talking about it afterwards, reading the same sports websites, tracking your team through a season, discussing the manager and the transfer window, comes close. It’s like joking about a teacher or complaining about a test score. Shared life.

At one point in Diner, Eddie asks Shrevie what marriage is like. “It’s nice, right?” He wants reassurance. “And if you want to talk you always got the guys at the diner.”