A Google search for “sports as escape” produces about 300 million results. A similar query for “sports as entertainment” reveals over 3.5 billion.
A search for “sports as inspiration” generates 296 million—a lofty number, sure, but it’s telling that (at least by this wholly unscientific method) we tend to view sports as a way to avoid our problems instead of a source of motivation from which we can better ourselves.
I include myself in that number. Normally, when watching sports, it's for entertainment, or to take a break from whatever pressing real life issue I don’t want to deal with at the moment. Through circumstances largely outside of my control, however, covering Michigan basketball this season became an exercise in understanding and appreciating why we really care and what can be produced through a deep connection with sports.
In my junior year of college, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome—also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), a less common name for the illness that better captures its severity—and I’ve suffered from symptoms going back to my senior year of high school. It’s a disorder about which much is still unknown, including both its cause and cure. In fact, it's still the subject of controversy, especially regarding the CDC (a story that is both too unrelated and too lengthy to detail here, but I’d strongly encourage you to read this article).
The primary symptom of ME is “post-exertional malaise,” or what ME patients often refer to as the “push-crash” phenomenon. It is exactly what it sounds like. The amount of energy available to an ME patient varies greatly on a case-by-case basis, but we’re all in the same boat—if an ME patient uses more than their allotted energy (whether over the course of a day, week, month, or even year), they will pay for it dearly, with compound interest, in the form of worsening symptoms.
I’ve experienced crashes before, but mostly in the years leading up to my diagnosis. Without knowing what I was dealing with, I spent my first three years of college taking 16 credits per semester, working as a receptionist at the Michigan Union, and living the social life of your typical liberal arts major at a state school. My family and I realized I was dealing with something more than a sleep issue when I was fired from my job for repeatedly calling in sick and put on academic probation for failing, of all things, an intro-level stats class—one I probably attended twice, choosing much-needed sleep instead.
Pretty shortly thereafter, I went to see a world-class ME specialist in North Carolina, Dr. Paul Cheney, and received my diagnosis. In the aftermath, I slowly but surely made significant alterations to my lifestyle. I took fewer classes, pushed off graduation for a semester, and moved back home (for those who aren’t familiar with me, I grew up in Ann Arbor and attended U-M) for my final year-and-a-half of school.
Upon graduating in December of 2010, I did not go searching for jobs. Instead, I stayed home, enjoying my new-found freedom to spend more time with friends and posting on my old blog. I turned down a chance to interview for a PR position at GE in Cincinnati; on its face, because that wasn’t the field I was interested in, but mostly because I wasn’t in a position to take a demanding job away from my support system.
When Brian posted the MGoBlog job opening in August of 2011, I leapt at the opportunity to continue blogging—a profession that allows me to mostly work from home, with flexible hours and the opportunity to write about my hometown school and alma mater. For my first year on the job, I continued to live with my parents, and despite the new work demands my health improved markedly.
At both my parents’ and my own behest, I moved out last September, renting a place with two close friends just down the street from Michigan Stadium and the Crisler Center. Dealing responsibly with ME while still trying to live a normal life is a constant game of testing one’s own (constantly changing) limits, and it was time to find out where mine were. Through the end of football season, things couldn’t have gone better—work was going well, I had a sufficient social life, I got to live away from home with a pair of great roommates, and I even resumed some level of physical activity, playing co-ed soccer over the summer at Fuller Park and working out in a gym we set up in the basement. When basketball season rolled around, I took the chance to expand my coverage and applied for a season credential, looking to attend every home game and some handpicked away games.
As it turned out, I added a little too much to my plate. As Michigan raced out to a 20-1 start, I felt my health start to decline. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Crisler, incidentally. While I hunched over my laptop, my lower back ached, a signal that my body was tapping into my adrenal glands for an unsustainable source of backup energy. I became increasingly sensitive to sound and bright light—pregame player introductions were particularly uncomfortable, even painful. But I wanted to be there, and not only because of my job—I savored every second of watching the Wolverines electrify a building transformed from gray obsolescence to modern basketball mecca.
In January, I was granted a credential for the February 2nd game at Indiana. A few days before the game, I asked Brian if he’d like to go in my stead; I’d spent the week feeling flu-ridden and unable to think clearly, and even though he declined to take the press pass I didn’t make the trip down to Bloomington. For the past two months—except for the week when Brian mercifully granted me sick leave—I’ve mostly worked from my bed, and in this final push before the offseason everything in my life has taken a back seat to work. This week, I came back to my parents’ place in order to make matters easier on myself, and we’ve decided that it’s best for me to move back home when my lease is up in the fall.
I promise that there’s a non-depressing point to writing all this, but first I feel the need to say something about what I’ve just revealed. The reason I’ve only told a small group of family, close friends, and co-workers (actually, just Brian) about my illness is that one of the worst aspects of being sick—for anyone, in my experience—is being related to as a sick person by other people.
I am not defined by my illness. I do not need your sympathy, which could be better directed towards any number of other places. I live a rich and fulfilling life. I love my job. I have a very understanding boss. I have a great group of close friends. I have access to world-class, cutting-edge medical care. Most importantly, I have a wonderful, supportive family. As soon as I’m able to get some rest, I’ll be back to my normal self, and even if my normal may not fit your definition I happen to really enjoy it.
The reason I’m writing about this, and writing about it now, is to illustrate a larger point. I should probably get around to that now, shouldn’t I?
Sports were an escape for me before they became my job, and even then the, let’s say, wide-ranging nature of blogging versus more traditional media has allowed me to continue relating to them as a fan. I’ve never been one to focus too much on the Sports As Microcosm Of Life, Big Picture stuff (except to convince my father that I’d chosen the right career path). I simply love watching them, and am endlessly fascinated by humans pushing their bodies to unseen heights, as well as the intricate strategies and minutiae that drive team sports—hence my gravitation towards football, perhaps the most violent and entertaining version of chess. When Tom Rinaldi appeared on my TV screen, poised to tear at my heartstrings over a soft piano soundtrack, I almost always changed the channel.
When searching for inspiration, I never turned towards sports, instead looking to any number of other things: music, beer, friendship, traveling, beer, family, school, job hunt, beer, etc. These last two months, however, I’ve either been cooped up in my room or covering Michigan basketball—alternative options have been limited.
If this were a Michigan hoops team from another year—especially any of the years of my childhood—perhaps I’d be feeling different about my life right now. I’ve been so fortunate to cover this particular team, in person for all but a couple of home games and from home for the rest. Their success alone has been a source of considerable joy, of course, but it goes far beyond simple wins and losses. Even given the same success, a different team with a different coach probably wouldn’t affect me the way the 2012-13 Wolverines have.
It hasn’t been hard to muster the energy to write about these guys, and frankly that’s not the case when it’s time to put together a football recruiting roundup. Getting to watch this crew, whether I’ve been in the press seats at Crisler or glued to my couch, has been a true pleasure. They’ve made my job easy at a time when that can’t be said for much else in my life.
I’ve drawn inspiration from Trey Burke’s unflappable will, the way his expression never changes regardless of circumstance*. The same goes for John Beilein’s genuine decency and mastery of his profession; Mitch McGary’s infectious enthusiasm for, well, everything; the sacrifices players like Jordan Morgan, Matt Vogrich, and even Tim Hardaway Jr. have made in the name of the team; the love these players show for each other. I wouldn’t change a thing about these last two months, crash be damned, and those guys deserve much of the credit.
Sports can be an escape, sure, or simply a source of entertainment. But there’s a deeper level, too, and looking back I think it’s influenced me more than I’ve ever acknowledged until recently.
Yeah, I write about kids playing games for a living. That may not sound fulfilling to most, but it works for me. I’ll feel no shame about my maniacal fandom this weekend, allowing this team to grab my emotions and take them where they take them. They’ve earned that right. Whatever happens in the next four days, I’ll never forget this team and what they’ve unknowingly taught me—about perseverance, loving what I have, and appreciating being a part of something greater than myself—in the course of their being kids and playing a game.
*Celebrating miraculous 30-foot game-tying jumpers excepted, of course.