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A Nation of Amateurs

America is a place where the majority of athletic competitions go unseen, and the majority of athletes uncelebrated. What does it say about us that we continue to compete anyway?
NCAA National Championship trophies, rings, and watches won by University of California-Los Angeles teams. (Photo: Ucla90024/Wikimedia Commons)

NCAA National Championship trophies, rings, and watches won by University of California-Los Angeles teams. (Photo: Ucla90024/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week in Miami LeBron James played a game of basketball in front of 18,000 fans. Millions more were watching on a high-definition screen, a handful of whom had their personal finances tied to James’ performance. After the game, James wrote his signature on things for people he had never met before. For the day, the prorated portion of his annual income was in the neighborhood of $150,000.

Most Americans are not LeBron James. We are, instead, a nation of amateur athletes. Though the transformation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the U.S. Olympic Committee into revenue-generating organizations has deprived the word “amateur” of a consistent meaning, our country is full of athletes who exemplify the lifestyle implied by the word’s basic definition.

Over 180,000 NCAA athletes compete in a Division III sport, a grueling endeavor for which athletic-based financial aid is literally non-existent, and lucrative professional careers are only marginally more frequent.  Another 60,000 are part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), and 14,000 are members of an ultimate Frisbee team that competes in the USA Ultimate college division. The National Adult Baseball Association and the Men’s Senior Baseball League boast a combined 70,000 members; the U.S. Tennis Association leagues alone have more than 300,000. This summer a group of amateur teams will take on Major League Soccer squads in the U.S. Open Cup. Their players will be among the 250,000 who make up the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.

These competitors—largely anonymous, and mostly unsponsored—repeatedly put their short- or medium-term happiness in the hands of their athletic performance. Competing will almost certainly never become their jobs, but their athletic commitments feel too important to be called hobbies.

Amateur events lack certain features—chiefly, the best in the world going head to head—but they present the most representative snapshot of American athletics. As I found out on a one-week tour of the American amateur sports scene, these competitions are happening all around us, all the time, and they all have something unique to offer.

It’s predictable that amateur basketball players would remind you what’s so great about the professionals. What’s unexpected is that they do it by magnifying the humanity in the game and not the level of the talent.

PLAYING AN INDIVIDUAL SPORT can be a solitary endeavor for an amateur. For most, there are no trainers or coaches to surround you as you practice, and no media interviews. The absence of teammates means a dearth of people who can share in your misery or triumph.

The Grand Open is a place where players from across the U.S. and Canada come to relieve each other of those burdens, and celebrate their shared passions. Each January, Grand Central Station in Manhattan morphs into the center of the squash world. The temporary glass arena erected for the JP Morgan Tournament of Champions cranes the necks of passersby and puts your local health club court to shame. But for those without the professional chops to qualify or the pocketbook to attend—a back wall seat to the finals will set you back $170—the concurrent Grand Open, one of seven official U.S. Squash regional amateur championships, provides a welcome alternative.

The clothing is the first sign that many of the 200 players have crossed paths before. Yale. Swarthmore. Penn. Dartmouth. They’re all here because of college squash.

Katie Giovinazzo’s face lights up when she reveals she was on the Princeton team that beat Harvard in the finals of the 2009 National Championship. Ben Hoefs, who took home the men’s 5.5 division title for the second straight year (squash skills are rated on a one to six scale), emits a similar glow when talking about his days as a player for George Washington.

Everybody remembers being part of the team. Unfortunately, most competitors have exhausted their college eligibility, and so U.S. Squash tournaments are the next best thing. The familiarity of it all creates a heavy blanket of nostalgia that eludes only me, and it’s clear that even in the absence of true teammates players are feeling like the good old days.

As for the squash, the Grand Open showcases the best and worst qualities of amateur athletics. Being impressed is all you can ask for as a spectator, and to me, a novice observer with under an hour of pro tournament YouTube viewing under his belt, there’s little difference between the best of the amateurs and the professionals.

The atmosphere is different at the lower skill levels, where rising frustrations lead to the discovery of the “1st corollary of amateur squash.” The amount a player argues with a referee is inversely proportional to the player’s skill level. Squash players tend to take after tennis players in protesting with hand motions, dark stares, and awkward pauses rather than with words. The volunteer referees take their share of abuse, but they’re always saved by a tournament official’s familiar scolding of “Play Squash!”

The story of amateur squash may be best symbolized by the practice of alerting players to their match locations by writing their names and start times in marker on the court wall. When the match ends the names are wiped away, but the players already have what they came for. While some players, both young and old, harbor professional ambitions, most are not attempting to leave an indelible mark on the sport. They merely want a brief visit with their past; not a sad Gatsby-esque return driven by regret, but a hopeful moment in which they can latch onto to something great and drag it back to the present.

WILLY MARSHALL LOOKS INTO the rafters, trying to get a sense of the pain coursing through his bare ankle. The EMT pulls the gurney closer, disrupting the ebb and flow of the murmurs in the crowd. On the other side of the mat Marshall’s opponent, Shak Porter, waits as a friend talks strategy.

Even when he’s not prone on his back Marshall cuts an unassuming appearance. In his early 40s and with an average build, he could easily be sitting behind a desk explaining the nuances of different car insurance policies.

Marshall has had enough. It could be the stereotypical Brooklyn-bred toughness or the fact that students from his Coney Island martial arts studio may be watching. He waves away the EMT with the derision of a teenager turning down parental assistance and gets to his feet. The stiffness foretold by the encroaching gray hair around his temples appears to dissipate quickly. Soon, he’s back in position and the match continues.

It’s impossible to tell how many people have ever journeyed to the Long Island town of North Hempstead for a sporting event, but my guess is that a sizable chunk of them are packed inside the Herricks High School gym for the 2014 Long Island Winter Open. The Open is the first of five annual martial arts tournaments on the N.Y. Tournaments Circuit, and nearly 400 competitors of all ages and skill levels have made their way here. Some were drawn by the modest prize money (about one Bitcoin for a handful of Grand Champions to share—or $800 for those still using the archaic dollar system) or the chance to improve their official N.Y. Tournaments ratings, but most are here for the opportunity to compete.

On the surface, an amateur martial arts tournament has most of the same components as any other sporting event. There’s the nagging social media presence (Follow NYTournaments on Instagram!); a heavy dose of corporate sponsorship (A Touch of Zen: Your one stop shop for body and mind); and an unhealthy, overpriced, and extremely tempting concession stand.

But there are differences, most notably the observers. This tournament would suggest that there are no casual amateur martial arts fans. Relative to a baseball game on a Wednesday afternoon in July, there’s less smartphone use and more knowledge of the sport. You’ll probably overhear something more insightful than, “We need to stop swinging at pitches in the dirt.” Without making any effort to eavesdrop, I learn about the intricacies of changing weight classes and hear an update on which reality TV fighters recently landed contracts.

What stands out the most is the personal investment. The percentage of people at a professional game who are a close relative of a player is negligible, but at an amateur event the number rockets upward.

As a college freshman my responsibilities with the school newspaper made me a regular at sparsely populated Division III women's soccer games, and I still remember crowds. Sitting among a group in which 15 out of 20 fans are parents can be an excruciating experience. They rise and fall with every twist, as if their child’s success is the final judgment on the quality of their parenting. Mostly, they just really want their kid to be happy. This produces a lack of generic cheering. It’s mostly gasps, strongly worded statements of encouragement, and courteous applause when it’s all over.

The spectators at the Winter Open watch their friends and family with a similar nervousness, and no moment holds more tension than when Marshall gets to his feet and the Grand Champion sparring final resumes.

It’s a stereotypical battle of athleticism vs. experience, and the quicker Porter comes out on top. He and Marshall hug it out, return to their symbolic corners, and bask in the adoration of the crowd. It’s a routine that had been repeated throughout the day, and the cheers were not just directed at sons, daughters, siblings, or friends. One sparring match ended with a cry from the little girl seated behind me: “Daddy won!”

SANDWICHED BETWEEN THE EAST River and a Lower East Side housing project, the industrial warehouse that’s home to Basketball City will fool you. Though the outside looks like the kind of building where environmentally unsound things are covertly taking place, the inside is straight out of a dream sequence in a Kevin Durant Gatorade commercial. Basketball courts, many with properly attired referees and their own electronic scoreboards, stretch one after the other.

There’s no crowd noise and no PA system—just the sounds of basketball: A squeak of sneakers, a cry of "and 1!,” and a whistle that mercifully puts an end to the lackadaisical transition defense. Intramural sports tend to occupy the most mundane rung of the non-professional, organized sports ladder, but there’s a unique brashness to the “A” league games at Basketball City. For the first time all week I’m in the presence of people who visibly hate losing.

The result is endless chatter. You hear the frustration of teammates on the bench when things go wrong, and the gentle ribbing when things are going better. There are discussions with officials about the finer points of defensive positioning, and the urgent strategizing before the last possession. Some moments are startling, like when one coach—which in intramural basketball tends to be little more than a designated yeller—blurts out, “Oh no, not him!” as an opposing shooter is left open in the corner. The informality gives onlookers access they could never get at a high school or college contest, while the stakes and intensity create conversations that would never arise at a mere pickup game.

Of course these moments exist in professional basketball too, but they’re often hidden for the sake of civility and fairness. The professional basketball watching experience becomes filled with vacuous announcer chatter, meaningless stats and graphics, and all the piercing classics from Jock Jams Volume 2. The tension of a final huddle never ceases to be broken by a 30-second Bud Light ad or the latest jumbotron animation.

Over time, journalists and video editors are able to tease out the raw human elements in professional sports, but for those who can’t wait amateur sports can deliver them in real time. And such moments can remind you what’s so intriguing about pro sports. The frustration between teammates is a reminder that professional players really are co-workers in a way that entails the same things as it does for a sales manager in Wichita. And the bickering with officials highlights the extent to which game outcomes are partly based on one person's ability to convince another that their view of reality is correct. Is the other team actually getting away with moving screens? Can your coach win the argument? It’s predictable that amateur basketball players would remind you what’s so great about the professionals. What’s unexpected is that they do it by magnifying the humanity in the game and not the level of the talent.

IS THERE A QUINTESSENTIAL archetype for the American athlete? I wouldn’t nominate anybody I came across in my amateur sports foray, but if it’s not LeBron James or Lindsey Vonn or Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Russell Wilson, then who could it be?

I think there is an answer. A person who exemplifies the necessary camaraderie, intensity, and confidence, as well as the refusal to allow the passage of time to alter any of those things. Perhaps it’s only fitting that my typical American athlete comes from a film as classically American as The Big Lebowski. Yes, we are a nation of Walter Sobchaks, albeit slightly more considerate versions. While we would surely stop short of waving our f-ing guns around, the same cocktail of emotions that underlies such behavior continues to fuel American athletes all over the country.