Tuesday, May 3, 2011

This Sporting Life

The Cultured Barrister is a SCOV Law Column that is an ongoing miscellany cataloging the matters that young attorneys are likely to be confronting as they begin their professional ascent.  The CB is meant to begin a conversation and rarely will claim the final word.  If you agree or disagree, the Cultured Barrister and the other reader(s) of this blog want to hear from you.

The term “Country Club Lawyer” is often used in a derogatory manner, the legal synonym for a Babbitt.  We think of the pompous glad-hander who takes greater interest in his handicap and “making deals,” than the serious study of the law or the careful drafting of motions.  Though many of us see ourselves as Atticus Finch, too many of us appear to others as the rosy-cheeked chuckler at the “Nineteenth Hole,” swapping war stories between drinks with our chums.

Yet, there is something to be said about sport as a vehicle for lawyers to connect with society, relieve stress, exercise, and to gain clients.  The problem for most young lawyers is finding and settling on a sport that will not only provide a physical outlet but a social component as well.  No matter how good we get at long-distance running, we will be doing it alone because it takes a “special” person to just pop out with us on a Saturday and run 50 miles.  There are few adult-field-hockey or lacrosse leagues that give outlet to our former varsity skills.  (One might also note that there are also few of the concomitant beer-pong nights or keggers that traditionally accompany such skills.)   While some of us may prefer the solitary swim or the treadmill, we should also have a social sport ready that we can play with some degree of proficiency to woo clients, make friends, and escape the confines of practice. 

For the associate, finding a sport that will build a community is critical.  The sport must be communal, accessible, and not so-intimidating as to leave you or your client unable to casually join the game.  This should leave out the adult tackle-football league you were hoping to get off the ground. 

The following is a list of sports with social elements that recommend themselves as fertile grounds for those that like to mix exercise with pleasure and networking.

1.         Team Sports

Some sports are social simply because they require more than one or two people to play.  touch football and rugby fit these molds, but the following are definitely defined by them.

In the 1990s, basketball surged on a global scale and arguably took first place as the most popular global sport.  Soccer fans, of course, would debate this premise, but it is difficult to dispute basketball’s dominating presence, especially in this country.  When LeBron James left the Cavs, it was made into a television special.  Take that Charlie Brown and baseball. 

Playing basketball is a high energy, aerobic activity.  Its devotees will join leagues, play on their lunch hours, and follow the sport with a devotion previously attributed to whirling dervishes.  The thing about basketball is that you do not have to play it to get it.  As one of the world’s most popular team sports, everybody knows something about it.

Why Should I Play It: Basketball is fun, cheap, and easy.  It is high intensity, but it is universal.  The number of basketball courts out there makes tennis courts seem rare.  Not the sport that lends itself to casual play followed by cocktails, but it is sport of teams, and one where networking simply occurs.

There are two types of softball—the competitive sport for which scholarships are awarded and this kind.  If you are not a female high school or college athlete, chances are you are playing the latter.  Softball is the athletic equivalent of an office team-building exercise: it is an excuse to go outside before drinking.  The best you can hope for in softball is to not make a fool of yourself either athletically or because of inebriation. 

Why Should I Play It: Softball is the logical nadir for one-time athletes to get out and show off without actually doing anything athletic.  But do not take me wrong; it is a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon, especially in the summer and a fantastic way to build up a thirst for the post-game margaritas.   The connection between baseball and softball was made explicit in a classic Simpsons episode in which Mr. Burns hires a group of baseball ringers to fill his company’s softball team, and which led to this song, which captures the gentle, bucolic, and mocking nature of softball. 

Not every place has hockey fever, but if you live in New England, you probably played hockey as a child and have access to an adult league.  Hockey has a charm and thrill that this writer finds elusive, but one that nonetheless brings out the various themes that we will discuss: athletics, aggression, skill, and camaraderie.  Hockey is also an expensive sport: skates, pads, helmet, stick, pucks, rink fees, and clothes just to get started.  But for those that love it, and up here there are many, it is the best team sport going.  

Why Should I Play It: If you love being on the ice, if you have aggression issues, and if you have the technique, there are probably few other activities in life that give you the same raw satisfaction as this game.  If you do not get it, you should rent Slap Shot.  If you still do not get it, do everyone a favor and try something else on the list.  Rink time is precious.

2.         Court Sports

These sports have a few things in common.  They involve a prepared surface (clay, pavement, or hardwood), some type of ball, a solid athletic rigor, and the back and forth rhythm that makes them simple to learn but difficult to master.

The sport of cops and ex-boxers, handball is the badass equivalent of its more sedate cousin, racquetball.  American Handball—as it is often called—comes from both the Mesoamerican game that was played by the Aztecs as well as Scot–Irish tradition.  This is a tough game for tough people.  Although unlike its Central American antecedent, the required human sacrifice and bloodletting is far lower. 

Handball can be played outside on high walls but is just as likely to be played inside on racket ball courts.  The ball or “ace” is tough little rubber ball roughly half the diameter of a racket ball.  Play is initiated with a serve and the ball is tossed back and forth against a wall by the flat of players’ hands.  If you do not have calluses when you start your handball career, you will.  You will also have dislocated and stoved fingers.  Handball play is fast and furious.  When done right, the ball stays mainly at the corners with shots going high or low. 

Why Should I Play It: Handball is a blue-collar sport that is exciting, athletic, easy, and competitive.  With terms like “cut,” “chop,” “slice,” “corner kill,” and “bullet,” this is a game that feeds on aggression (one version of the game known as “cut throat” allows two players to rotate play against a single opponent).  Handball is they type of game that allows socialization but retains that air of engagement that is often lost in more-polite or skill-based games. 

The clichéd sport of professionals has been spoofed for years.  But it remains a great game because it is probably the easiest of all the racket sports to pick up.  I have yet to meet the person who thinks racquetball is hard.  With a little skill, a vague sense of coordination, and basic athletic proficiency, you can launch your racquetball career.  The ball, which is usually blue and the size of a child’s fist is easy to follow and easy to hit.  More experienced players take this game to a higher level, but your average racquetballer will play at a level that allows dilettantes to join in with little or no drop in play.  Back and forth rhythms allow for conversation, and the fact that it must be played at a club ensures that any game is sandwiched between opportunities to talk, bond, and shower together. 

Why Should I Play It: Once seen as a winter sport for the tennis player, racquetball has since the 1970s become a ubiquitous sport in athletic clubs.  It is a breezy game that still allows your inner jock to shine.  Unlike handball, racquetball seems to attract more-casual players, which may fit your speed or lack of aggression.

The prep-school game that adults love to play.  Squash is as British as its name suggests.  The name comes from “squashable ball” used in play, and one can only imagine the game looking and sounding a little different if it had been invented in this country.  A more-refined and skill-based racket game, squash has an elongated racket, a slightly smaller ball, and a series of lines and rules that favor precision and technique over raw power and athleticism.  Squash is a perfect example of a game with cachet.  No one just picks up a squash racket and starts playing.  One takes lessons and learns the various shots and strategies that enable one to engage and win the round.  Since not everyone plays the game, squash is a sport that will endear you to other players who are desperate to get a round going.  These fellows likely share similar backgrounds (“You went to Choate too?”), taste, and sensibility.  Babbitt, by definition, need not apply. 

Why Should I Play It: One of CB’s college professors illustrated the value of a sport as esoteric as squash.  He admitted that the only reason he was initially hired from a pool of equally qualified candidates was because he listed squash on his résumé.  The head of the English Department had been desperate for a squash partner and hired the young professor with the caveat that he would be devoting his coming lunch hours to squash play.  It was a small price to pay for advancement.  Now, the chances that you will find yourself in a similar situation are slim, but the rarity of players makes playing squash a commodity in and of itself.  Of course, squash does have a lot to recommend itself.  It is a rare racket sport that pays wide dividends to lessons and study.  The more you practice and the more you refine your technique, the better you will be able to dominate this sport—even against better athletes.

Anyone for Tennis?  Once a sport that held itself to the aloof nature that squash enjoys, tennis has become the fast food franchise of British club sports.  Finding a tennis court is no harder than finding a park or school.  The point is that just about everyone has played tennis.  Few play it well or with any semblance of technique, but everyone has picked up a racket and swatted the yellow felt ball over the net.  Moreover, tennis, like its corollary, golf, has won a large base of fans for the professional version.  God knows why, but millions of people enjoy watching this sport on television or at live matches.  Associating yourself with tennis is like saying that you enjoy oxygen.  You are sure to find others that agree and are willing to play.  Tennis is a safe bet.

Why Should I Play It: Tennis is the best all-around sport for those that want to join a club, play a game, but do not want the hassle, frustration, or expense that comes with golf.  Tennis is a game that still requires athletic ability and rewards such with a basic competence that can overcome deficiencies in skill.  It is also a competitive sport with plenty of amateur tournaments and opportunities to play with others. 

3.         Green Grass Sports

Playing sports, for some, is their sole opportunity to get out and enjoy the world.  After ten or twelve hours in an office or windowless courtroom, few attorneys want to stay inside.  The lure of the following sports is not the least from the opportunity to be outside and enjoying “nature.”

Is there any sport with a wider following than golf?  Among professionals, it has become the single most popular go-to-sport.  It is almost impossible to go anywhere in this country that is not a short drive (or walk) from a golf course.  This is an amazing idea.  Golf courses use a great deal of land and require expensive maintenance.  Yet, even the poorest communities seem to have at least one municipal course or more.  Golf is king, and some respect must be shown.  Out of all the sports here, golf is the one that is guaranteed to mingle you amongst the greatest number of people, allow you the chance for social exercise, and keep you occupied every minute you can spare.

The allure of golf is elusive to some, but it comes down to this: golf is not an athletic game.  Certainly, you can play golf like an athlete (a friend of the CB runs nine holes every morning in the summer, stopping only briefly to whack at the ball with one of the three clubs he brings on his jogging stroller), but you need not to be good or athletic to enjoy the game.  Golf is a sport of skill.  You have to train your body to follow an unnatural ark in order to get a lengthy metal rod to hit a small, dense ball at the proper angle.  Add an infinite variety of “lays” and distances, and you have a sport that no one can master but only slide up a scale of proficiency. 

Why Should I Play It: Seriously?  If you have to ask this question, rent Caddyshack or Tin Cup or watch one of those endless and interminable tournaments that seem to dominate Saturday afternoon television.  At this point, everyone has an opinion about the sport, and you either crave the taste of second-hand herbicides ingested from rolling a wooden tee in your mouth, or you spend your vacations scowling in dissent as your spouse’s family drags you off to yet another set of fairways.

Okay this one is a little bit off the beaten path.  The last time you were in a scrum was probably college, law school, or that wild night at Hef’s, but there are enough adult leagues that make this sport worth listing.  Rugby is known by some as the game of thugs.  Victory is usually punctuated with beer, copious amounts of beer, occasionally served from someone’s shoe.  But sport is partially about tribes, and lawyers are always seeking out underserved groups.  Someone has to make the connection.

Why Should I Play It: Rugby is a rough game involving mud, scrambling, tightly-packed huddles of flesh, and occasionally violence.  As a professional, this may be the release you need to keep sane during the week.  If so, you may want to rethink things on a broader scale.  Still, if you can find a league, and if your body can keep up with it, there is a certain “charm” that comes to work with a split lip earned in sport. 

4.         Loner Sports

Some of us must walk (or run) alone.  The following sports are examples of sports that are done primarily alone, but can be done in groups and may offer the best opportunity for one-on-one social connection.

Scientists tell us that this is the Ur-sport.  We are bred long-distance runners.  Many of us, wheezing to catch up with somebody on the street would not go that far, but running is still the easiest, cheapest, and best sport out there.  Most of us run alone—at lunch, in the morning, on the weekends, or when we feel guilty for consuming an entire carton of Little Debbie snacks.  Yet, there are groups of runners everywhere.  Running is great in that nearly every sport listed here benefits from such cross-training.

Why Should I Play It: Running is not really a sport.  Sure some runners compete and race, but basically they are just trying to run really fast for a set amount of time.  Running is about yourself, and as such it tends to be an introspective activity.  Running is good for you, and if you can get over the bland taste, you should do it everyday.  Experience shows, however, that notwithstanding science, not everyone is a runner.  Running is pure exercise—no tools, no gear, no distractions.  If you do not enjoy it, though, doing it more often will not make you a better person.

The ultimate individual sport, swimming is not only the best exercise possible (none of the impact on the body of running and total body workouts) but also the most isolating.  When you are in the pool (or lake) swimming laps, you are alone.  No voices, no music, no others, just the antenatal sounds of water swishing by your ear.  A good swim will leave you tired, worked out and mentally refreshed.  It can also trap you inside your head, leaving you to confront every fear, deadline, or mistake of the last 24 hours as your mind wanders away from the activity.  Still, for such a great sport that can be done in winter, it is one of the great mysteries as to why Vermont does not have more pools.  Compared to other states, we are a wasteland for swimming.

Why Should I Play It: Swimming is a sport of technique.  The most common complaint from non-swimmers is how exhausting and tough swimming is.  Watch these people swim.  Chances are they are floundering in their strokes and fighting their progress.  To really enjoy swimming, you should know what you are doing.  Swimming is also a solitary pursuit.  Do not expect to make many friends in the pool.  Most swimmers are there to swim, and talking to them is an annoyance that will not win many over.  Still, a swimmer will tell you that there is no greater activity than to enter a pool and immerse yourself in motion.  As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim.  All that borrowed meat does the writing.  In the water I am beautiful.”

I do not know who started it, but at some point in the 1980s, every young lawyer got a bike.  Maybe it was some promotion or one-ups-manship between the firms.  But you can count on most of the senior partners—attorneys of a certain age—being cyclists.  Judicial college, that Bohemian Grove of the third branch, often looks like a low-key tour de France after the day’s activities as members take advantage of the location’s trails and country roads.  In others words, cycling is in some ways the smartest sport for the ambitious young attorney to take up.  What better way to engage your boss than to show up with a racing bike on a Friday in May and ask if you can leave a little early to take advantage of the weather for a short sprint down to Vergennes and back.  As a way of keeping in shape, cyclists often take spinning classes at the gym.  This is a social exercise with a room full of stationary bikes, comrades, and the occasional VBA Director.

Why Should I Play It: See above, this is the sport of choice for fifty-something attorneys in Vermont.  While conversation is usually limited, it has the quality of making you “one of them” and sharing in the activity. 

Not a sport of groups, but on a weekend at a local slope, it is hard not to run into friends and neighbors out for the day.  We all have our favorite mountains, and we form communities around them.  At the lodge before and after, watching our children take lessons, the ski slope is the social center of the winter.  Informally, it seems that enjoyment of winter is directly proportionate to one’s winter sport activity.  If you are not skiing, you should be sledding, snowshoeing, or looking at real estate listings in Virginia.

Why Should I Play It: It is Vermont.  Winter is long.

—The Cultured Barrister

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