Not a sports fan? Oh, the joy and pain you’re missing

Bill Gates was taking questions at Microsoft headquarters from an audience of the company’s top female executives. The first question came from a woman who wanted to know how, with three young children, Gates was able to balance his personal and work lives.

“Well, I don’t watch television,” Gates began. “And I don’t follow sports. So I can’t participate in those conversations.”

He said it matter-of-factly, as if it were no big deal. As if time spent watching and reading about sports would be better spent on … well, almost anything.

“I don’t watch television and I don’t follow sports.” I found myself actually feeling sorry for the world’s richest man.

So what if he is the most respected philanthropist in the world and has generously used his wealth to take on some of the world’s most difficult problems. So what if he is a brilliant visionary whose innovations have improved the quality of our lives. So what if he has a beautiful family and he always seems so comfortable in his own skin.

“I don’t watch television and I don’t follow sports.” Clearly, Bill Gates doesn’t know what he’s missing. His comments back in January 2006 got me thinking about what life would be like without sports. I decided that while the competition, new product breakthroughs and financial victories of big business and high technology must certainly be exhilarating, the things I would miss most about sports are not easily replicated in other arenas.

I am grateful to my dad for introducing me to sports at an early age. Because for all its imperfections, sports at its best enriches our lives in many special ways, starting with forging connections between the generations.

My dad took me to my first Major League Baseball game on Aug. 26, 1965 – the Orioles vs. the White Sox at Comiskey Park. A little more than 40 years later, we sat down together in my sister’s house in Chicago to watch the White Sox — our White Sox — beat the Astros in Game 1 of the 2005 World Series. In the intervening four decades, just about every conversation we had included some reference to our teams — the Sox, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bears and Purdue Boilermakers — and whatever big news was transpiring in the sports world. He always told me to keep the faith, that next year would be better.

My friend Ann Smeltzer tells me her family remembers her sister’s wedding day not as Oct. 25, 1986, but as the day the Mookie Wilson grounder went through Bill Buckner’s legs and the Mets beat the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Ann can’t tell you the exact date her future husband met her parents, but she can tell you it was the same day that the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson hit the limp-off homer to beat the A’s in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I’m not sure anybody remembers that her first date was the same day the Exxon-Mobil merger went down.

Sports also provide the most compelling human drama and the best stories. I can’t wait for the Vancouver Winter Games because I know there will be great stories — there always are at the Olympics. People who have not thought about snowboard cross for one second since Torino will tune in to see if Lindsey Jacobellis can win gold, four years after losing a big lead when she showboated unnecessarily, fell on her last jump and, embarrassed, settled for silver.

But the best part is that in sports we don’t know where the great stories will come from. We don’t know in advance that the Appalachian State football team will win at Michigan or that journeyman Geoff Blum will hit a pinch-hit, 14th inning homer to become a White Sox World Series hero. Prior to the Sydney Olympics did anyone predict that heavyweight Greco Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner would end up doing a cartwheel on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” set after defeating the invincible Russian Alexander Karelin? Does unexpected human drama lurk at software development conferences? I don’t think so.

Brian Cazaneuve covers the Olympics for Sports Illustrated. When asked what he would miss out on if he didn’t follow sports, he cited the “feeling of possibility” that comes from unimaginable upsets like the USA’s “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey win over the Russians in 1980 … and the inspiration that comes from seeing unfathomable feats such as 80-year-old Robert McKeague finishing the Ironman Triathlon in 2005.

Someone who doesn’t follow sports has never heard the story of auto racer Alex Zanardi. The Italian star lost both legs in a crash in 2001. Two years later he was racing again and by 2005 was back in the winner’s circle. Nonsports fans don’t know about Manhattan College basketball player Kevin Laue, who was born without a left hand.  Read about Zanardi and Laue — and then see if you can still feel sorry for yourself when the dry cleaner loses your pants or you accidentally drop your BlackBerry in your swimming pool.

The unfortunates among us who don’t follow sports also miss out on the way sports provide common ground among strangers, and adversaries, and have the power to bring communities together. They miss out on the life lessons learned from sports about fair play, winning gracefully and losing with honor. They miss out on the lessons about leadership, accountability and unselfish teamwork that could easily be applied to America’s executive suites.

But what strikes me most of all is that not being a sports fan is simply much easier than being a sports fan. Nonsports fans miss out on the emotional strain and painful character building that comes from standing by your team year after year, decade after decade through good times and bad.

They also miss out on the fun.  And the unforgettable moments of unbridled joy, shared with friends and family, that I can’t imagine any successful product rollout or strong earnings announcement comes close to matching.