- Give Sports a Chance
By Holden Karnofsky 4 min read

Give Sports a Chance

Give Sports a Chance

Around now, the Most Important Century series is going to be getting a bit dryer, so I'm going to try making some of the other posts a bit lighter. Specifically, I'm going to try something I call "Cold Links": links that I like a lot, that are so old you can't believe I'm posting them now. I think this is a more useful/enjoyable service than it might sound like: it's fun to get collections of links on a theme that are more memorable than "best of the week," and even if you've seen some before, you might enjoy seeing them again. If you end up hating this, let me know.

Now: a lot of the links I post here will be about sports. "Boooo I hate sportsball!" you're probably thinking, if you're the kind of person I imagine reading this blog. But try to keep an open mind. I'm here to filter out all the "My team won, be excited for me!" and "Isn't this player incredible, check out [stats that are basically the same stats all top players have]" and "Player X isn't just an athlete, they're a LEADER [this roughly just means their team is good]" and "Player Y might be talented, but they never come through when it counts [this roughly just means their team isn't good]," and get you the links that are truly interesting, inspiring or just amazing.

For someone who doesn't care about who wins, what do sports have to offer? High on my list is getting to closely observe people being incredibly (like world-outlier-level) intense about something. I am generally somewhat obsessed with obsession (I think it is a key ingredient in almost every case of someone accomplishing something remarkable). And with sports, you can easily identify which players are in the top-5 in the world at the incredibly competitive things they do; you can safely assume that their level of obsession and competitiveness is beyond what you'll ever be able to wrap your head around; and you can see them in action. A few basketball links that illustrate this:

  • Kobe Bryant's "Dear Basketball" poem that he put out when he retired in 2015. Very short and seriously moving. I wish I felt about any activity the way he feels about basketball. This was turned into an animated short that won an Oscar (but I'd recommend just reading the poem).
  • LeBron James in a rare informative interview, claiming that he watches "all the games ... at the same time," rattling off 5-6 straight plays from one of them from memory, and glaring beautifully as he says "I don't watch basketball for entertainment."
  • The memory thing is real: here's Stephen Curry succeeding at a game where they show him clips from basketball games he played in (sometimes years ago) and ask him what happened next.
  • There are a lot of stories about how competitive Michael Jordan was; my favorite one is just his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. (For those of you who don't follow sports, just think of Michael Jordan as "if Jesus were also The Beatles.") At a time when anyone else would be happy, peaceful and grateful, MJ is still settling old scores and smarting under every imagined insult from decades ago. Highlights include 6:20 (where he reveals that he's invited the person who was picked over him to make the team in high school, to reinforce that this was a mistake); 12:00 (where he criticizes his general manager for saying "organizations win championships," as opposed to players); 14:40 (where he thanks a group of other players for "freezing him out" during his rookie season and getting him angry and motivated, then admits that the "freeze-out" may have been a rumor); and 15:35 (an extended "Thank you" to Pat Riley for ... basically being a jerk?). That's the most competitive person in the world right there, and maybe the one person on earth who's above not being petty.

What else is good about sports:

  • I think it's fun when people care so deeply about something so intrinsically meaningless. It means we can enjoy their emotional journeys without all the baggage of whether we're endorsing something "good" or "bad." (My wife also loves this about sports - her thing is watching Last Chance U while crying her eyes out.) My next sports post will be a collection of "heartwarming" links and stories.

  • There's a lot of sports analysis, and I kind of think sports is to social science what the laboratory is to natural sciences. Sports statistics have high sample sizes, stable environments and are exhaustively captured on video, so it's often possible to actually figure out what's going on. It's therefore unusually easy to form your own judgment about whether someone's analysis is good or bad, and that can have lessons for what patterns to look for on other topics. (My view: academic analysis of sports is often almost unbelievably bad, as you can see from some of the Phil Birnbaum eviscerations, whereas average sportswriting and TV commentating is worse than language can convey. Nerdy but non-academic sports analysis websites like Cleaning the Glass, Football Outsiders and FiveThirtyEight are good.)

I'll leave you with this absurd touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch (if you haven't watched much football, keep in mind that usually when someone gets tackled, they fall down), and Marshawn Lynch's life philosophy. If you didn't enjoy that pair of links, go ahead and tune out future sports posts from this blog.

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