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Malee: What I learned after ‘majoring’ in sports



Since the day I decided to come to the University, I’ve been asked some form of the same question roughly 50,000 times.

“What made you want to come here all the way from Chicago?”

Four years later, I still don’t totally know how to answer that — though I’ve developed a reply so well-rehearsed that I could recite it even if you drugged me with Lil Wayne’s breakfast cocktail.

I was tired of the midwest. Oregon’s journalism program was well-renowned. Eugene seemed like a nice town and everything didn’t wither and die during the winter. Mostly, though, it just felt right when I visited during the spring of 2008. Sometimes the biggest decisions in life come down to the most intangible factors.

But there was one thing I always left out when I tried to explain my 18-year-old decision making process, so that my intricate story became at best a half-truth and at worst an outright lie.

Sports.

We’ve heard over the last few years — as the Oregon football team exploded onto the national scene with three straight BCS trips — that enrollment here appears to be increasing in correlation with athletic success. I’ve typically scoffed at those stories, wondering how anyone could base such an important choice on the success of a football team —  forgetting, of course, that I was actually one of them.

As much as I like to pretend otherwise, watching Dennis Dixon and the 2007 Ducks defeat USC back in October of 2007 played a fairly significant role in dragging me more than halfway across the country. I remember feeling a distinct sense of pride that day, even though it was long before I signed my future into Oregon’s hands. Sports had often dictated the direction of my life up until then — my emotions, my ambitions, my friendships — and so it shouldn’t have been surprising that Dixon’s spindly frame dashing around the field, sparkling in green, black, yellow and every other Oregon color, so entranced me as I charted the path forward. @@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&[email protected]@

Since then, you might say that I double majored in “Journalism” and “Sports,” with the two overlapping in a thousand different ways. If college is, in the most typical of parlance, a period of intense self discovery, the great majority of my epiphanies came while either watching or covering sporting events. And many of them orbited around the same basic question.

What role should sports play in my life?

For most of my 22 years, ever since a babysitter dragged me to opening day at the White Sox’s Comiskey Park and Michael Jordan’s Bulls started reeling off championships (only two of which I actually comprehended), sports have been everything to me. I’d float through days in middle and high school daydreaming about getting home and turning on ESPN. Weekends were planned around Saturday baseball games and Sunday football marathons. Thrilling wins sent chills down my spine; crushing losses nearly crippled me with grief.

And all the while, I never questioned it. Depending on how you look at things, it was like being born with either dashing good looks or color blindness (neither of which I have) — it became so normalized in everyday life that it was easy to forget the absurdity of it all.

College was my chance to step back a bit, and spending three full years covering Oregon sports as a reporter effectively forced the issue. Because, unless you’re literally a cyborg, it’s impossible not to question the world’s obsession with athletics when you spend every day covering their inner workings. The games and practices all start to bleed together. The quotes from players and coaches alike basically amount to a paragraph’s worth of simplistic platitudes. The arguments that fuel water cooler talk and debate shows become so tired and repeated that you do everything in your power to avoid them.

In a weirdly backward way, when covering sports becomes your life, you start to look at it as anything but. Throwing myself headfirst into the sports world was actually the first step in a prolonged detachment process.

My life, as it turns out, can no longer revolve around the ups and downs, the twists and turns, of the everyday world of professional and college athletics. Where once I would have happily engaged in an hour-long debate about the merits of LeBron James or Darron Thomas, now I’d just as soon change the subject. At a certain point, it’s just not fun anymore — the inner circuits in your brain go haywire and begin to shut down, like when you’ve had one too many cups of coffee.

And make no mistake, sports are more caffeinated now than ever before. Twitter and Facebook and the 24-hour ESPN spin cycle make sure of that. Lost somewhere within all of it is what made the games fun in the first place: the swan-like grace of the players, the pulsing crowds, the sense of community that prompts people to pack stadiums and crowd around televisions all around the world.

That’s what seems to be cast aside these days — we get so caught up in the daily grind of fandom and debate that we forget why we gravitated to sports in the first place. This, more than anything else, is what I took away from my “major” here at Oregon. What I’ll remember most fondly about my time here won’t be cheering raucously in Autzen Stadium or arguing about whether Ernie Kent should be fired — it will be the smaller moments, like finding common ground through NBA basketball with my hallmates as a slightly terrified freshman, or standing on the field in the waning moments of the national championship game and momentarily forgetting I was supposed to be a journalist.

I love sports for moments like these, for the brief escapes and binding connections they forge; I hate sports when they remind us of the most ugly human traits, when they hurt our souls more than they heal them.

Four years in the thick of it showed me both sides of the coin, and I’m better off for it.

But the starry-eyed Chicago kid who fell in love with Oregon football is gone forever.


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