PMP 2024: Balance

PMP 2024: Balance

I always feel like I need an intro that explains "PMP." It stands for Pick My Post and each my I ask for donations to a scholarship named after my dad. With your donation you receive one Pick My Post. Anything you want me to write about.

Here's the next question on the list:

You clearly place primary importance on family and other facets of life that are not sports.  Yet it's equally clear that sports matter deeply to you.  How do you reconcile that, keep things in their proper place, and how do you see sports serving and benefitting those more important things in life?

~Jim E.

Love this question. I could go so many different directions with it. But I just watched a video yesterday that gives me a great starting point here.

To best answer this question, I feel like I need to start with "the more important things in life" and how doing what I do – spending my days blogging and posting on social media – is probably at the core of society failing to see the more important things in life. I probably need to tell you how I reconcile that before I tell you how I reconcile sports and life.

This is a clip from the podcast Pablo Torre Finds Out. His guests are Elle Duncan (of ESPN) and Katie Nolan (formerly of ESPN). I've followed Katie on Twitter for a long time and was a huge fan of her "SPORTS?" podcast when she was with ESPN. And I thought her comments here were fan-freaking-tastic:

Man, somebody hire Katie Nolan again.

I want to write out her entire quote there. In reference to the Kardashians and the "Attention Economy" – and it's a true economy, it's not just cornered by the Kardashians or even celebrity culture, and there are billions of dollars available – Katie said this:

"I resent the competition that they're trying to win. Because I'm trying to... I don't agree with what you're saying. I don't value them as much as it sounds like you do. But it's because I resent that game. The game of being looked at versus being seen. I feel like the people who make their whole thing just to be looked at everywhere they go, but once you look at them, they're not like 'now that I have your attention, here's something important' or 'here's something that matters to me', they're more like 'no, keep looking. Don't look away. I'm over here now. Look over here. Look over here.' They can do that, and they are winning that. I hate that that's how it operates."

Every time you've heard me grumble about the way college sports are covered in 2024, it's that. When I see the fans of the team I love getting the "keep looking, now look over here, now look over here" treatment on social media, it's so disheartening for. BUT, in those moments, I can't help but feel like I'm part of the problem (because I, too, ask people to "look over here"). If you wonder why I rarely link my articles on Twitter (or anywhere else), there you go.

I had to start there because the rest of my answer will come out of that. I know you're asking about the sports-life balance – and there's probably some very valid "Illini in a top-10 matchup on a Wednesday night or your son's piano recital?" in there as well – but I needed to first draw a line between what I consider "healthy" sports following and today's "look here now look over here" attention economy sports media.

With that now established, I can take you back to 2003.

I've written about this before, but in 2003 I took a break from sports. I'd been a sports guy for as long as I can remember – my mom tells the story that I learned to read by going through box scores in the newspaper with my dad in 1977 – and I 100% chose Illinois for the sports, not for the academics. I loved everything about the 1989 Final Four and needed to be part of it. Whatever it took, I was getting into Illinois. For the sports.

I was that guy all the way up through 2002 (when I turned 30). And in 2003 I just had this realization that my relationship with sports wasn't healthy. I don't think I attended a single Illini football game in the fall of 2003 nor did I drive up for a basketball game that entire winter. I needed some time off.

In 2001 and 2002, I was posting on IlliniBoard nonstop (back when it was just a messageboard and I wasn't a writer here). But I quit the IB from 2003 through 2005. I had been obsessed with basketball recruiting in the summers of 2001 and 2022 (with Self, how could I not?), but during that phase I turned it all off. I found out that Shaun Pruitt had picked Illinois (in the fall of 2003) by reading it in the St. Louis newspaper a few days later.

My wife tells this story to people from time to time. When we met in late 2003, I didn't mention sports... ever. I wasn't going to games. I wasn't watching games on TV. I basically told her exactly where I was at the time: that I used to be a massive sports fan but then I realized I needed a break because it wasn't emotionally healthy for me.

I picked it back up in late 2004. In fact, I remember the game: that "Wooden Classic" game in November where we played Gonzaga in Indianapolis. I remember watching it and thinking that my 18 months away had done me good. I had a much better approach to everything. I then made plans to join Carmen in his seats for this little basketball game against #1 Wake Forest in early December and... the rest is history.

I've recommended a sports sabbatical to everyone I know since. I really do think it's what helps me keep my balance today. I pushed the reset button on fandom and tried to remove it from the unhealthy "it will ruin my life if we lose this game" place. Results on that side of it are still... pending.

Phase of life also played a role there. As you may know, I married a single mom, so when we got married in May of 2005, I instantly turned to "father of 13, 11, and 9 year-old boys." 2005 through 2010 was my "can't go to the Purdue game because the awards ceremony at the high school is that night" phase.

When my middle son got his driver's license in late 2009, there was this shift in our household. Our oldest was off at college, our middle son got an evening job and we rarely saw him during the week, and our youngest was in the 14 year-old "shut the door to my room" phase. I had started the blog that year, and the fall of 2oo9 was when the shift back to sports returned to 2002 levels. Just, like, healthier levels.

And I think that process – sports nut who chooses a college based on wanting to cheer from the student section, message board junkie in his 20's, quit cold turkey at 30, eased back into it through my (very abbreviated due to the age of my kids when I adopted them) parenting phase, started a blog and approached it from a different mindset in the early 2010's – has led me to a very solid sports-life balance today. Which leads me to the last part of your question. How I see sports serving and benefitting those more important things in life.

First off, as I tell people all the time, I wish that everyone would replace their politics with sports. I'm a "stay informed, vote, and then ignore everything until it's time to vote again" guy, and the current "politics are my sports" environment sickens me. I wish that every human who has ever said "that Michigan senator is so full of crap" would immediately switch to "that Michigan coach is so full of crap." Sports – especially college sports – can scratch that tribal itch, yet here we all are, choosing one political side and then mocking the other side when their "team" loses.

Secondly, I'm a big believer in having a thing. Quilt making. Marvel movies. Woodworking. I wrote years ago (I think it was 2011) that I'm a believer in everyone finding their thing and getting absolutely lost in it. And my "thing" just happened to be Camp Rantoul.

(As an aside, I was in Rantoul a few weeks ago. I stopped by the fields where Camp Rantoul was held just to be there again. I even took this photo of an empty field and an empty gate where the players used to head out to practice. I still miss it so much.)

So I try to write from that perspective. I'm writing for the people who shrug their shoulders and say "I don't know why - Illini sports are just my thing. Always have been, always will be." In my estimation, it's the best way to sort out "the game of being looked at versus being seen."

And to fully commit to that, I need to tell you about my life and my fandom. I'll do that again, right now, as an example of how it works. I'm not sure if I shared this story at the time but here goes.

The Nebraska football game in 2019 (night game, Reggie Corbin scored on the first run, Wandale Robinson had a bazillion yards and we lost). My son in Idaho had told us he was going to ask his girlfriend to marry him and wanted to do a surprise engagement party that evening after he asked her. He wanted his family and her family to be there.

We had a phone call in late July/early August to figure out a date that would work. On the phone call, I was not-so-subtly pushing for September 28th because of the Illini bye week. Her family had been leaning towards September 21st, but September 28th was on the board and I was pushing for it. Getting off the phone, I could tell that my son was bothered by my fairly obvious "just slide it one week so I can still attend every Illini game" motivations.

I called him back (I can't remember if it was the next day or several days later) to apologize. And it was one of those apologies where I stuck up for myself at first ("see, the website has gotten really busy so this is kind of my second job now") before I dropped all of that and just owned up to it. I was trying to make his engagement party convenient for my life ("the bye week is just one week later!"). That's a shitty thing for a father to do. I'm very sorry. See you on September 21st.

That's probably the best way I maintain this balance. Check myself constantly to see if the ratios are off. And yes, sometimes, after I moved to Champaign and made this my career, that's going to include "I know this is inconvenient, but for my business/career, it's really important that I be at this event" decisions as well. I believe it's possible to go too far in the opposite direction as well.

I'm really getting long-winded here. One last thing and then I'll wrap this up.

The reason I started this article with the Katie Nolan clip is because I think it's a good way to split "Life In 2024" into two categories. Not Democrat and Republican, not Wolverine or Buckeye, but playing the game of being looked at versus being seen.

The game of being looked at has ruined politics. The game of being looked at prevents deep personal relationships. And in the sports world, once Bleacher Report and SB Nation realized that a byline was payment – that they could get people to write sports articles for free because they would accept the excitement of "look, that's my name right there" as payment instead of, you know, money – sportswriting as we knew it was dead. Who is going to pay a reporter to write about the game when some 26 year-old dude in his apartment will do it for free? It might not be the quality of what that seasoned beat writer would produce, but nobody cares about quality anymore. Look here, then look over here, now look over here. Don't you feel informed?

I believe that this elusive sports/life balance is found by keeping the sports all the way on the "being seen" side. The vulnerable side. The "let's have a conversation about that" side. The side that absorbs the pain of a tough loss instead of immediately converting it to social media ammunition. Eschewing the Attention Economy at every turn.

Is that smart for my second career here? Absolutely not. I'm basically Jerry Maguire writing "The Things We Think And Do Not Say" here and arguing for fewer clients and less money. In a college sports world where the money is made from short bits of content thrown at you all day every day, here I am on word 2,237 (in a free post as part of a fundraiser).

But it's the only way I know to keep this all in balance. I must exist in the "these teams mean a lot to me and I won't be afraid to show it" universe or I know I'll lose my way. I must find the correct balance between "basketball recruiting is all I can think about this week" and "I'll drop it at a moment's notice and drive to Idaho if my granddaughter is asking for Bolo to visit" (that's her name for me).

And when those two are combined? When my Twitter mentions are melting down with "I don't care if we beat Indiana in overtime, Aaron Henry's defense gave up 45 points and if you don't go to the press conference and ask Bielema if he's going to fire Henry tomorrow, Robert, you're a fraud" and I'm nowhere near the press conference because I went back to the tailgate to Light The I with my grandkids and celebrate an Illini victory, sharing the thing I care about the most with the people I care about the most?

I feel seen. And then I go home and write an article in that frame of mind.

And then, hopefully, you feel seen.