A Jeopardy! question

The Jeopardy! twist on TV game shows is to supply the answers and challenge contestants to come up with the right question. But executive producer Michael Davies’ declaration this month that Jeopardy! is “a major league sport” invites an inquiry difficult to verify: Is it?

What is a sport?

In a post on the program’s website, Davies offered as proof of Jeopardy!’s sports bona fides the introduction of players’ statistics — box scores!; “lock-in” and “buzzer” data, the success rate for responses — that compares to top four champions in the show’s history. Coming next, he said, will be a “structured season and post-season every year.”

Predictably, when The Athletic website cited Davies’ we-are-a-sport claim and invited readers’ responses, the barstool argument was on. (Which may help establish that Jeopardy! indeed is a sport.)

“Is chess a sport?” one Athletic reader thundered. “What about poker? From there we can debate pool and darts, then perhaps bowling….If Jeopardy! is a sport, then….so is ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and myriad other game shows. What’s next, Monopoly?”

Another reader shot back: “Look at what ESPN says are sports. Hot dog eating, spelling bees. Jeopardy’ is a sport. There is a halftime, a two-minute warning, a play-by-play announcer. The only thing missing is uniforms.”

OK, my turn. And since the first Athletic reader brought up chess, let’s start with the 1972 world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, when newspaper editors couldn’t agree where to place their coverage. Did chess belong on the front page? In the features section, next to the regular bridge column? In the sports section, alongside the Yankees and Mets? Was chess a sport?

Fischer and Spassky were dueling in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the thing went on forever — the impetuous, egocentric Fischer against the increasingly exasperated Spassky. The event sent office workers scurrying to chess boards to play during their free time. The contest received massive attention; an independent New York television station actually had continuous live coverage of absolute inaction while the contestants thought out their next moves. Maybe a half-hour would go by before the host of the show, Shelby Lyman, would be stirred by the sound of a little bell, causing him to announce, “We have a move!” as he went to the ticker tape. And then he would display the move on the huge chess board behind him.

And people watched, hanging on every development. There were accounts of bar patrons requesting the community TV be switched from baseball to the chess. Thus the impassioned discussions of the time, the call for guidelines, for definitions.

What is a sport? Is a sport merely a game? Or does it require a participant to sweat? Maybe bleed?

Should the Super Bowl yardstick be applied — enormous crowds and massive TV ratings? Do large audiences make a sport? Or is the number of spectators simply a function of popularity, which can be based on varying and sometimes regional public tastes.

As a society, we accept football as one of our primary sports, and it does fit casual parameters: It’s a game that requires physical effort. Back in the early 1980s, when the sudden boom in road-running was cresting and accomplished American marathoners like Bill Rodgers were yearning for the credibility and, frankly, the money lavished upon players in accepted sports, Rodgers proclaimed that “I will be running over Joe Namath’s grave.” It was his way of saying that marathoning required superior fitness to playing football. (Rodgers, who still participates in running events at 74, and Namath, 78, both are still with us.)

Still, does fitness make a sport? If so, baseball might have to do some fast talking, given the number of weighty souls — though far fewer than in the past — among Major Leaguers, as well as accounts of players smoking in the dugout and clubhouse.

It has been argued that a sport must have hand-eye coordination. But even that definition must be liberalized to include eye-foot coordination, or the world’s most popular sport, soccer, will be left out.

Another thing: If a game is subjectively scored, is it a sport — or just entertainment, like ballet? Such widely accepted sports as figure skating, gymnastics and diving are subjectively scored, not to mention boxing. (Although Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s solution to boxing subjectivity was once holding up his two fists and proclaiming: “These are my judges. K and O.”)

Boxing certainly has the sweat factor — and it does have a defense, two generally acknowledged elements of sport. But if a sport requires a defense, is high jumping a sport? An opponent in high jumping can impose a strategy on his rival, by skipping to a higher height, but it would be stretching matters to call that a defense. Without defense, is golf a sport? Bowling? Yachting? Archery? Horse racing?

How about this definition: Modern sport as the evolution of primal hunting. A sport is a sport if it is based on aiming and chasing. Baseball, football, basketball ice hockey, foot racing, tennis, auto racing, soccer — all our traditional sports would qualify. Even the high jumping example works: One aims for a certain height and chases others aiming higher. Golf may be more along the lines of aiming and stalking. But that’s close enough.

The theory of the hunting analogy assumes that, if something isn’t hunting, it’s farming. (Chess — planting certain seeds of entrapment and then waiting patiently for them to take root — does seem to lean a bit toward farming.) Hunting obviously goes back to the long-held thesis that all of modern sport is an outgrowth of warrior disciplines: Running, jumping, jousting, boxing, wrestling, climbing, riding, throwing and on and on.

So, then. What if we said that a sport is anything that is physical, competitive and has a set of rules?

Is aerobics a sport? (What are the rules?) Is ballroom dancing a sport? Is tiddlywinks? (There are serious tiddlywinks competitions; some years ago, the athletic department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent a tiddlywinks team to London for the world championships. At the time, MIT did not field an intercollegiate football team, though it does now.)

For some reason, many sports get their feelings hurt if anyone dare dismiss them as a hobby or a game. Chess insiders, for instance, insisted that champions such as Bobby Fischer had to call upon great reserves of physical strength and endurance to emerge victorious. How, the chess mavens wanted to know, could anyone not call chess a sport?

Full disclosure: I am big Jeopardy! fan. But is it a sport?




Long Island Newsday sports journalist for 44 years, currently a freelance writer and adjunct professor at Hofstra University.

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John Jeansonne

John Jeansonne

Long Island Newsday sports journalist for 44 years, currently a freelance writer and adjunct professor at Hofstra University.

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