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Competitive hedge

An avid tomboy, I always loved sports. But I shunned formal teams for their regimented, paramilitary culture—their drills and uniforms, their team captains and authoritarian coaches. They seemed designed to stifle free inquiry, creativity, and individualism. Even going to the ballpark as a spectator raises a few qualms about mob mentality, a lust for victory, and hero worship—all pretty antithetical to critical thought, exploration of ambiguities, and integration of reason with emotion. For players and fans both, games are largely displacement behaviors,stylized redirections of primitive aggressions and clannish loyalties—which is better than actual warfare, sure, but is still far from high-minded.

Not that all of life should be lived on arid, windswept high moral planes. Slapstick, sex, chocolate, and roller coasters also have their charms. Like them, physical competitiveness—i.e., sports, with or without leagues and referees and scoreboards—strikes me as a fundamental animal desire that’s worth gratifying now and then. As Skidmore professor Dan Nathan says, “Sports obviously scratches an itch” (story here). I know it tickles m e: When competitive drive is firing up my urgent and serious resolve, if I lift my consciousness just a hair and regard my driven self in the cool light of reason for just a moment, the prospect is exquisitely foolish and hilarious.

That’s why I once helped invent a new sport. In the linoleum-floored lounge of our dorm, some freshman classmates and I broke the bounds of Ping Pong and pioneered Booples, a coed paddleball game of surpassing silliness. Rules of play: First the Booples court must be strewn with a few chairs, trash cans, or other obstacles; any number can play, but all must be barefoot; in a predetermined order, players swat a Ping Pong ball against the wall; the next player tries to return it before it bounces on the floor more than once; the ball may hit (or get stuck in) any obstacle and still be in play; each time a player misses, he takes a letter in the word “Booples,” being eliminated when he spells the full word. Half contact sport, half dainty parlor game, Booples was an unparalleled team experience for us—we collaborated to invent it, we umpired by consensus, we strove hard against each other, and we laughed together until we fell down helpless.

When civilized, sophisticated people run around scrabbling for a child’s plaything, the resulting mix of deep truth and utter farce is rather surreal. The players’ cerebrums scrupulously obey arbitrary rules, while their more primitive gray matter, juiced on testosterone, propels them like pit bulls to vanquish their equally arbitrary foes. To access and enjoy both these sides of human mentality may be key to developing personal wholeness and social empathy. I think it also feeds a sense of universal biological belonging, linking us to the way trees vie for sunlight, crickets play dueling banjos, peacocks strut their stuff, gorillas shake branches, and soldiers rattle sabers.

So the varsity squads can sign up for uniforms and league schedules if they like. Maybe the drills and rituals really do foster discipline or integrity or respect. I guess that can build “character.” But I prefer more colorful character—the kind that blossoms serendipitously in pickup games, intramurals, and goofing around with a Ping Pong ball. —SR