Open Mouth, Insert Football: The last civilized arena

Ben Morrow
Sports Columnist


I am 31 years old.

By all rights, I have no business playing pickup basketball with 18 to 22-year-old college athletes. I have become what I once mocked – the old man who hangs around to try to get back in some semblance of shape only to wear himself out on the court in front of younger, fresher specimens of male athleticism.

Believe it or not, this is exactly why I am out there.

As I staggered out of the Wellness Center today, beaten but satisfied, exhausted but fulfilled, I remembered why sports matter. Sports are quite possibly the last civilized outlet for man’s natural aggression and competitiveness.

Before you laugh, think about it.

Men don’t slap each other and challenge one another to duels anymore. We don’t draw lines in the sand or knock chips off each other’s shoulders. We don’t thumb our noses at people, and we don’t settle card game disputes with six-shooters. It has recently become socially unacceptable to club a woman over the head and drag her to our cave.

So how does the modern man exercise his primal instinct in a civilized way and still face a challenge, stare a peer eye to eye and display his dominant masculinity over the other?

He picks up a child’s toy, bounces it at the other guy’s feet and says, “check.”

Aggression and competition are part of a man’s makeup. There’s no getting around it. It may lie dormant for a while, but he will always feel the need to show he can run faster, throw a rock farther or drain a three-pointer better than the guy across from him.

(By the way, this line of thinking is not to imply that women are not competitive or up to a challenge. Anyone watch the Baylor women’s basketball team lately? Fights, dominance and all-out aggression on full display. I’m simply speaking of human nature from a man’s perspective.)

Even the non-athlete will find other outlets to compete. But competition is primal. It’s how we push ourselves. It’s how we grow. It’s how we find a target beyond ourselves.

One of my favorite cartoons is the late Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” One of Larson’s cartoons depicts man’s evolution as first a monkey, then a hunched-ape man, then a Neanderthal, then a muscular Aztec warrior with a spear, and finally a fat, nerdy accountant waiting on the morning bus.

Among other things, this absurd depiction is meant to imply that with the advancement of civility and civilization comes the cessation of aggression and competition.

Sports put the lie to this theory. Anyone who has played or competed in a sport knows better.

This is why grown men well past their playing years yell at athletes on a television who will never hear them. This is why people shout at referees at a game when they are too far away to be heard.

Believe it or not, this is a perfectly legitimate human reaction.

We, the viewers, put ourselves in the shoes of an athlete or a team. We hand them our emotions, and, right or wrong, we live vicariously through them for a couple of hours. We live and die with our team.

Sometimes David beats Goliath. Sometimes he catches the giant off guard, hurls a stone straight at his head and finishes the fight before the favorite has a chance to recover. (See Murray State vs. Vanderbilt, 2010.) When this happens, the countryside rejoices at the unbelievable feat they just witnessed.

Other times, Goliath sees David coming. Other times, he swats the stone away and knocks David down with his brute strength. (See Murray State vs. Marquette, 2012.) When this happens, the locals shake their heads, go about their business and allow David’s family to weep over his broken body. (Or in this case, the local sports reporters. Just kidding, Sophie!)

In either case, the result demands an emotional response.

We are David, and we are Goliath. Sometimes we win; sometimes we fall. But sports are the way we struggle, fight, face a challenge and live to see another day. It is the civilized way we funnel our primal instincts and fight in our modern arena.

Is this a logical way to approach life? Probably not. But neither is falling in love or being afraid of the dark. We’re not androids. Human nature is what it is. And man’s need to assert himself and compete is real. Sports allow for a sophisticated way for people to unleash their pent-up emotions and satisfy their competitive natures in one fell swoop.

I remembered this as I stumbled to my car today, an old man who still felt he had something left in him. I remembered why I love sports so much. I don’t have to be Michael Jordan. I don’t even have to be Isaiah Canaan. I just want to see what Ben Morrow is still capable of. Even in defeat, I think I caught a glimpse.

This year’s basketball season was the ultimate sports experience for Racer fans. It never was about winning every game.

It was a season of highs, lows, exceeding expectations and disappointing defeats. As we sit back and watch the season conclude with the Final Four this weekend, we can look back on Murray State’s spectacular year and remember that we got to watch more than basketball. We were privileged to be a part of something that was an authentic reflection of life, struggle and the human experience.

We entered modern man’s last civilized arena.

And it was one heck of a battle.