Why We Play

In Take Time for Paradise, Giamatti claims that we play or watch sports to experience an acutely transformative mental state, one of absolute freedom and happiness. As an athlete, and occasional spectator, I would agree completely.

From a spectator’s perspective some sports fail to deliver this excitement. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has recognized tennis as a sport with less than satisfactory spectator appeal and seeks to rectify tennis’ dwindling number of fans by shortening the matches. The NCAA committee’s final vote was announced a few days ago, confirming the board’s decision to enforce an abbreviated scoring format to all college tennis dual matches for the 2014 season. This decision is one of the most controversial changes in college tennis.

The NCAA has been trying to enact these changes since 2012, but the tremendous backlash that ensued from their initial proposal forced revisionary measures. The 2012 proposal was, “met with 10,000-plus signatures of protest,” and student-athletes created a website to show further outrage. Players and coaches argued that political agendas and entertainment objectives did not warrant compromising player development. They contested that the rules of tennis are what make it great, but don’t all sports have the same fundamental objectives?

Giamatti would argue that the sport and its specific rules are irrelevant; the only purpose of sports is to enable both participant and spectator to experience a sensation, “of fully playing,” and to be utterly consumed by this primordial desire. If shorter matches increase spectator enjoyment, while still allowing the players to “play” than isn’t it a logical compromise? I think so.

As a tennis player who will be directly affected by these rule changes, I’m surprised by the extent of controversy surrounding this issue because in my experience, abbreviated matches have little impact on the players. Some collegiate tennis players, however, assert that these rules favor the weaker opponent because of the shortened point system, which supposedly acts as an equalizer. Is our culture’s over-emphasis on the importance of winning to blame for athletes focusing on the result instead of simply the enjoyment of playing the game? And if, “the lesson of life is that you cannot win,” why is it that we have become so competitive even in games that have, “no real consequence”? Our necessity to win at all costs has blinded us from experiencing play as it was intended both as a participant and as a spectator.

I encourage you to read more about the NCAA decision-making process concerning these dual match format changes that will be implemented this year, and to learn more about the perspectives of collegiate tennis players with regards to these changes.