John Hodgman, in one of the many introductory notes to his engaging pseudo-almanac, The Areas of My Expertise,1 writes, “Please note that there are only two references to sports in this book. They are on pages 71 and 95, and both are appropriately dismissive. If you wish for sports information, might I kindly refer you to every other aspect of our culture?” I’m convinced that a) Hodgman is a secret alumnus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, or b) something resembling his “Note on Sports” is scrawled on the wall of at least one bathroom in the Michigan building.
While the administration probably isn’t about to copy and paste it into the Student Handbook, Hodgman’s statement seems to be onto something: sports really are everywhere. And then I got to thinking: everywhere except for SAIC. Aside from the occasional retro basketball jersey or pick-up tetherball game, you just don’t encounter the sports gear or sports conversations so familiar to the cubicle farms and Knights of Columbus halls of the greater Chicago area. I mean, my gosh, there’s a Go Bears! banner dangling from the top of The Art Institute’s entryway.2
As a matter of disclosure, I am a giant baseball fan, and a former baseball player. If I had cable, I would watch Sportscenter a lot, and I leave comments on Houston Astros blogs.3 Basically, if there aren’t sports somewhere, I almost always inject them into the conversation.4
So I decided to explore the sports scene at SAIC, to determine if the term “sports scene” was even applicable. I loosely defined “sports” as maybe a team activity, with a ball or a Frisbee, or some sort of goal in mind that goes a bit beyond self-awareness and satisfaction. Excluded from this idea, in my mind, are “activities” like yoga and belly dancing, about whose existence and value at the school I have no doubt. No, what I was looking for was something that spoke to the urge for sport in a place where jockeying for a spot in the elevator is usually the day’s sweatiest engagement.
And so I discovered that there is an Ultimate Frisbee team at SAIC.5 I spoke with the team’s founder, sophomore Tristan Hummel, and he was excited. He told me that, while the team didn’t have the money to go anywhere last year, its first, they had recently played in their first tournament, in St. Louis. Team members paid for their own train tickets and they made their own way.6 “We got into St. Louis at midnight,” Hummel told me, “and we played the next day from nine until nine. We were pretty beat.” He laughed and raced through a rough play-by-play of the weekend. “We actually got destroyed,” he concluded, without a hint of displeasure.
SAIC Ultimate Frisbee Team
Pursuing the art of tactical sportfare at SAIC isn’t without its trials. When I asked Hummel what it was like to found a Frisbee team at SAIC, he replied, “‘Difficult’ is a good word for it.” Among people that I spoke with, a recurring theme seemed to be either the difficulties that came with starting up an organization, or the difficulties that came with letting people know that they can, in fact, start up an organization.
“A lot of students make informal mention of wanting to be involved in sports,” said Tara Sullivan, the Director of Campus Life. “Why it isn’t translating into people wanting to start student groups on their own, I’m not positive.” Sullivan stressed to me that students have the chance to start a sporting group, and to in turn take advantage of group email accounts and funding. Hummel, on the other hand, expressed some amount of frustration with student groups, and preferred an easier way to notify the student body about possible opportunities and events like, for example, Ultimate Frisbee games.
Administrative details aside, what quickly became obvious to me was that sports at SAIC are a Do-It-Yourself (or DIY) affair. There isn’t the year-to-year infrastructure of athletic endeavors that characterize other institutions. Finding fields or courts or ping-pong tables of any kind is a constant issue in an urban environment. Nothing is assumed. Students who hunger for a regular schedule of competitive hacky sack and interscholastic handball—and they are most certainly out there, except for the handballers, that was a joke—must bear the standard themselves. In the words of my old friend and teammate Dan, “They’ve Got to Want It.”
As this might, on the one hand, seem a frustration, I’ll provide another perspective. Sports fans and players are constantly on the search for a “purer” form of a given sport. This Purity Quest explains recent uproar about excessive steroids in baseball, excessive headbands in basketball, and excessive Tartan plaid in middle school girls’ field hockey. What guys like Tristan Hummel achieve—along with the elusive but apparently well-received dodgeball games that go down…somewhere7—is an act of sport, of Frisbee, brought about almost solely through a sheer force of will. That’s pretty pure.
“We are a tight-knit group of people who are willing to invest themselves,” Hummel said of his Ultimate crew. “Lots of people who are here tend to stick to a plan, and are pretty motivated, they show up when they say that they will show up.” Networks of friends, and friends of friends, are the largest contributors to growth. And while I won’t suggest that this isn’t the case with athletes elsewhere, at SAIC a statement like that, in reference to sports, glows with a kind of heroic sheen. Well, I think it’s heroic, anyway.
“Most people are looking to do something,” Danielle Martin told me in an email. She graduated recently, and seems to have been as physically active a student as I can imagine. “Or they at least feel as if they should try something.” There may be a more organized chance to try something soon enough. According to Tara Sullivan, Campus Activities plans to hold an informational mass meeting “to see who wants to participate in sports programs. Without the student-directed groups it is harder to get a sense of what people want.”
In the meantime, though, the only meetings that will matter will be out on the field. Wherever the hell that might be.
3 That’s a pro baseball team, from Houston. Wang Shugang’s early 2006 exhibition at the Walsh Gallery included dead animals on Astroturf that wouldn’t have been possible without the Astros.
4 The conversation, at the very least, in my own head.
5 The listing of school groups that I found included a robust two organizations whose goals seemed sporty. Ultimate Frisbee was one. The other was a bowling club of some sort.
6 Some impressed fellow participants even chipped in a few bucks towards the team.
7 I found the dodgeball factions to be elusive, and couldn’t find its framers. This says more about me than about dodgeball, but its presence only seems to further my point about purity and the DIY effort. Hummel: “You should see it just for the spectacle of it. It’s a bunch of people in a parking lot throwing things at each other.”