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What is a Sport?

Ernie Samora

Contributing Writer

Graphic by Macy Loy

During my latest poker night, I brought up that poker used to be broadcasted on ESPN, resparking an old debate I’ve been having since high school. Can poker, and other niche athletic activities, be considered a sport? It doesn’t feel like a sport to me, but if it airs on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, how could it not be? As the world grows more complex, our understanding and definitions of concepts within the world must carry more nuance. With the growing popularity of esports in recent years, it seems our understanding of sports is vastly different than what it used to be. Now that I am a sports writer, I should probably know what a sport is. So, I set out to answer the question: “What is a sport?”

Oxford Dictionary defines sport as an “activity that you do for pleasure and that needs physical effort or skill, usually done in a special area and according to fixed rules.” This definition feels rather vague to me. It leaves too much up to interpretation. Looking into ESPN’s broadcast, you’ll find the usual suspects, soccer, football, basketball, and other widely popular sports. The network is also known to air other more niche programs such as poker, horse racing and eating contests. Does this mean ESPN considers these activities sports? Labeling some of these as sports feels a little overzealous to me even though they fit Oxford’s definition. As a result I decided to search elsewhere for the true definition of a sport.

In order to answer my question, I spoke with three individuals who could provide a valuable perspective in my search for sporting truth: Leslie Shevlin, Associate Director of Athletics, Taylor Hamura (‘23), member of the Willamette Dance Company, former cheerleader and lifelong dancer, as well as JD Willis (‘24), pitcher for the baseball team, avid golfer and fishing enthusiast. There were some commonalities across each of my interviews. Every interviewee seemed to agree that sports require a few key components: competition, skill and some degree of physical exertion. The skills involved in sports were often said to be ones that not everyone can do, a talent that has been honed through extensive training. Even if others can do your activity, not everyone can be great at it. Take bowling for example. Bowling is a popular recreational activity that most people can participate in. Being able to participate in competitive bowling requires a great deal of skill. “People train their whole lives to bowl 300s,” said Willis. Dance and cheer are other activities which require a great deal of skill. “I know I couldn’t dance or cheer, it takes skill,” said Willis.

The element of competition does not necessarily mean an activity is a sport. Shevlin spoke on the idea of an outcome, a clear winner and loser; an objective way to tell who performed better. However, with dance and cheer, the judging is based on more subjective measures. “Was it clean enough? Was it creative enough? How much energy did it give?” are just some of the factors dance and cheer competitions are judged on, said Hamura (‘23). This is part of the reason why Hamura argues these are more art than sport. Their main purpose is to tell a story and express yourself rather than to determine athletic superiority. It should be noted that cheer competitions are generally considered to be a sport by those interviewed, and tumbling is listed as an emerging sport by the NCAA Cheering on the sidelines of sporting events lacks a competition element, which causes some to hesitate in labeling cheer a sport.

The idea of an objective outcome continues with the topic of fishing. Willis argues that fishing is a sport, citing skill, knowledge and a degree of talent, but Hamura disagrees. “There are alot of outlying factors, like luck,” she said. This is consistent with Oxford’s definition requiring a set of fixed rules. So sports are standardized, looking the same anywhere you may play them. Fishing could look vastly different at different locations, leaving its sports status up to question.

A sport requires some exertion of physical energy. Each interviewee was quick to dismiss poker as a sport on the grounds of little physical exertion. While there is a great deal of skill involved in poker, it doesn’t take a great deal of energy. Despite airing on ESPN, it seems that poker cannot be considered a sport. It is here where I began to discover the subjectiveness in the physical action required to deem an activity a sport. Your skill is important, but a certain level of effort must be displayed. Eating competitions seem to hit most of the requirements of a sport; they are competitive, you have to train and not everyone can eat food at that rate. While Hamura considered them sports, there is not enough physical activity for Shevlin and Willis to be able to consider them as sports. “I consider it more like a skill,” said Willis.

Horse racing and other equestrian activities are similar points of contention in the discussion of sports. Willis and Shevlin believe these to be sports as it takes some level of control to excel in them. Not everyone can do it. However, Hamura argues, “no, because there are no humans doing anything. It’s a competition.” Shevlin brought up that other activities, such as band and orchestra, require “a certain physical threshold that you have to have to participate and be able to do those things,” without a certain level of exertion they are separated from sports.

Exertion remains a problem when discussing billiards and cornhole. To some, the hand-eye coordination and level of control needed was enough athleticism to deem them a sport, but Shevlin argued against this, claiming “I’d more consider them a game as opposed to a sport.” Esports were generally considered a sport by all. Although the level of physical exertion is not as high as other sports, a great deal of concentration, precise movements and hand-eye coordination is required. It seems the complexity of esports as compared to billiards and corn hole allow it to elevate to the title of sport.

Sports seem to be a physical activity that is standardized and scored objectively. There needs to be a level of talent involved, it cannot be done by just anyone. Although the level of physical exertion required is rather subjective, there needs to be more than you may exert during everyday activities. If these all apply to your activity, well then you just may have yourself a sport, my friend.

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