Past OTL Shows

Tom Farrey

True confessions: Inside the mind of a 'rasslin fan

Behind the scenes with the script-makers

Is it a sport? Pro wrestling in the context of real sports

Sound off: Readers react to issues raised in series


College hoopster Wally Szczerbiak respects the athletes in pro wrestling.
avi: 842k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN

This four-part online series on the growth of pro wrestling is a companion to the Outside the Lines television show. The show re-airs on ESPN Friday at 12:30 a.m. ET (Thursday at 9:30 p.m. PT), and April 8 at 3:30 a.m. ET.

April 2, 1999
Wrestle with this

Tom Farrey,

Just for kicks, go to Yahoo! and hit the link for "sports." More than 100 sports pop up on the page, and the human-produced directory is by no means complete. There's fishing but no hunting, korfball but no bodybuilding, camel racing but no ballroom dancing, which makes its debut in the 2000 Olympics.

This can mean only one thing.

The room we call sports has gotten way too crowded.

The fire chief (me) says we're above the maximum occupancy level. Either we toss out the charlatans -- this isn't just about you, pro wrestling -- or we risk getting trampled by our own convenient logic. I'm calling for a fundamental reappraisal of what constitutes a sport, the kind of philosophical discussion the Greeks once had while sitting naked on large rocks.

So, line up, all of you so-called sports. Time to check your credentials.

"From my professional point of view as an academic lawyer, perhaps the dividing line between leisure is that sport is something worth litigating over," says Steve Greenfield of the University of Westminster in England.

Point well taken. But I'm going to defer to the definition provided by Allen Guttmann, a noted sports history expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts: "Sports are a form of play that are governed by rules and take the form of contests, with a certain degree of physical activity."

A contest lends itself to having natural winners and losers. Sweat alone does not a sport make. So, step aside aerobics, sky diving, rock climbing, windsurfing, skateboarding, cheerleading and a multitude of other activities grounded primarily in recreation or amusement. (And don't give me any guff that these events can be found on ESPN -- you try to fill 24 hours of programming on multiple networks without the aid of Kiana's "Flex Appeal.")

Physical activity means the necessary use of more than a little muscle. For that reason, say goodbye to chess, poker and other intellectual games that occasionally show up in your local sports section. With all due disrespect to the National Rifle Association, let's also toss shooting guns, which requires tremendous hand-eye coordination but involves no more muscle activity than using a computer mouse.

Also, by muscle we mean human muscle in the course of the competition, which eliminates dog racing. As Boston College sociologist Michael Malec says, "If we had some MIT students create robots to box each other, most people wouldn't say that's a sport."

I say pretty much everything else qualifies as sport.

Ah -- but some are more pure than others! Putting a small person on top of a horse doesn't mean that small person and his or her whip necessarily won the race. As long as animals are in the equation, the best those sports deserve in this room are standing-room-only tickets. That means you, bullfighting, rodeo, dog-sledding, polo and equestrian.

Same goes for sports with lots of assisting technology -- such as golf and auto racing. Look, I know that directing a small, dimpled ball into a small hole 300 yards away is tougher than putting a man on the moon, just as I know that Jeff Gordon does more than make left-hand turns. But the fact remains that players in both sports must achieve their success through their equipment. The same can be said of hockey and tennis, although hockey gets more of a reprieve because at least the equipment is highly standardized.

Subjective criteria for winning also dilutes a sport's standing. You could easily argue that boxing is the purest sport of all, for the goal is to literally knock your opponent unconscious with your (OK, padded) fists. But as long as judges such as Eugenia Williams get to call it like they see it, then boxing is no more of a sport than figure skating, which is essentially ballet with grades.

A roaming strike zone isn't enough to get baseball knocked off the list at this point. After all, the sport has no more of an objective criteria problem than the NFL and NBA -- where fan-driven firestorms have erupted over botched calls by referees. No, baseball falls by the wayside at this juncture because it requires infrequent use of the body. Ken Griffey Jr. is a marvelous athlete, but he spends most of the game spitting sunflower seeds in center field.

What about pitchers, you say? I'm sorry -- I've seen Lee Guetterman with his shirt off.

Separate from the above category is limited uses of the body. Cyclists rarely take a break, but they do the same thing over and over and over. A bowler uses the same hand and same muscles every time. Swimmers and rowers work on perfecting essentially a single motion. These sports require use of the total body, but in a narrow, predictable way.

The same could be said of most track and field events. But let's place running, jumping and throwing into a higher category because of the amount of competition that athletes in these sports face. Virtually every able-bodied human has tested himself in these activities, with the best moving on to elite sports.

"Track and field events are the purest forms of sport because they are the oldest," Guttmann says. "People have been running races since before there were records."

 Jesse Ventura
A Minnesota governor gets hip to the purest of sports.

This is where I depart from the good professor. I have greater respect for a sport like soccer, which asks of its athletes strength and touch, speed and stamina, discipline and creativity, strategy and spontaneity -- and like track needs little equipment, offers lots of competition, and has a glorious history behind it. Soccer taxes nearly the full extent of the body and mind; don't forget that sport at its highest has a mental aspect.

Problem with soccer is, it's unnatural. Humans use their hands. To cook. To type. To carry. To throw. Hands are perhaps the most trained physical feature on our bodies, so it is only deserving that basketball be honored as the purest form of sport. It is soccer with a jump shot, football without the gear, amateur wrestling plus the teamwork.

As for pro wrestling, we all know it's a morality play with scripted winners and losers, no less of a performance art and no more of a sport than opera -- although you don't see art critics analyzing the choreography of the World Wrestling Federation. That's fine. We in the sports world will keep an eye on pro wrestling for now, for our own selfish purposes.

"Pro wrestling enables us to see what is not a sport, in order that we may understand better what a true sport is," said Jim Steele, who allows his sports sociology students at James Madison University to turn in papers on pro wrestling.

Plus, it's fun to claim Gov. Jesse Ventura as our own.

Disagree with Senior Writer Tom Farrey's rating of the purest sports? Vote in the above poll, which allows you to rank the sports in order by dragging and dropping the corresponding tiles. Also send your comments to Poll results and selected comments will be displayed on Friday.

Copyright 1995-99 ESPN/Starwave Partners d/b/a ESPN Internet Ventures. All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form. Privacy Policy (Updated 01/08/98). Use of this site signifies your agreement to the Terms of Service (Updated 01/12/98).