Sports, from "The Boxer," a song by Simon & Garfunkel
Paul Simon matches the difficult life of a poor boy in the big city to the batterings a boxer suffers in the ring. Blow after disappointing blow lands, like on the boxer, but the young boy still remains, because what are his meager choices, and what are his dreams? The sports metaphor introduces several subthemes.
I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know
Asking only workman’s wages
I come looking for a job
But I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue
I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there
[musical interlude, then refrain omitted]
Then I’m laying out my winter clothes
And wishing I was gone
Where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains
Listen to The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel.
Errors and Losses: As the song says, boxers sometimes drop their hands and take punches or the gloves cut him. Contestants in sports are human, and no matter how practiced and experienced they are, they make mistakes. Sometimes the swing, pitch, or speed of your opponent overcomes you; but you stumble much worse if you commit a so-called unforced error (a mistake in play due to your own failure rather than to the skill or effort of your opponent): the routine volley is botched, the tight end drops the easy pass, the distracted bowler scratches, the forward double dribbles, or the shortstop fires wide to first on a plain vanilla infield roller. Such mistakes especially frustrate athletes when they misfire under pressure. The truth is, sports is a mental game at the upper levels where everyone has strong abilities so both our heads and our hands sometimes betray us.
A misplay is a small loss; commit enough of them, however, and the game or match is lost. Playing a sport inevitably means learning to live with being on the short end of scores. Even stars lose, sometimes, and everyone else who enjoys a sport must scope with the pain of defeat.
Rankings or Analytics and Records: Boxers climb into the ring to win, and hopefully to keep winning and rising in the rankings until they wear the belt or hoist the trophy. Rankings proliferate in sports: number one in woman’s tennis, number three in NASCAR points, wild-card games back, All-Star votes, NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball standings.
Every sport also overflows with statistics – earned run average, yards after catch, service aces, shots on goal. Improvements in filming, image recognition, and software have proliferated advanced metrics that could not have previously been calculated, such as exit velocity, percentage of catch likelihood, speed of service, and others. Ever since the book Moneyball, coaches, managers and players have incorporated increasingly sophisticated metrics into their analysis of how best to play the game.
Related to tracking all aspects of play, sports have led to record books. Hundreds of pages list the record holders of each sport and who trails them on the listing (no-hitters, 300s in bowling, centuries in cricket, triple doubles in basketball, Kentucky Derbys entered, and on and on).
Evolution and Change: The rules of boxing and all sports are codified. In serious competitions, judges, umpires, or referees make calls, determine whether a player has violated a rule, and sometimes impose penalties (such as for nudging a ball in golf before swinging). Periodically the governing body of a sport, such as the International Olympic Committee, revises the rules. They add the three-point arc in basketball, have a player start on second base in extra innings of baseball, specify tire changing protocols in NASCAR races, limit the frame of a tennis racket to 29 inches, move back the point-after-touchdown kick, or set the number of clubs permitted in an LPGA event. Then there are sports strategies that change, such as shifting infielders in baseball or playing without a classic center in the paint. Sports, in other words, evolves with technology, with regulatory changes, and with views as to what works best.
The song compares the struggles of a poor young man in a brutal city to the painful endurance of the fighter by his trade who carries the reminders Of every glove that laid him down. Both the youth and the boxer forge on, but the cost is high as the ugly side of a sport is bared.
If you are interested in other thoughts on the concept “Sports,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”
We invite you to read about other rock songs discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:
- Alcohol: Margaritaville
- Beauty: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
- Birds: Free Bird
- Chance: The Winner Takes It All
- Death: Honey
- Decisions: Do You Believe in Magic?
- Destruction: My Hometown
- Friends: You’ve Got a Friends
- Sailing Ships: Sloop John B
- Silence: The Sounds of Silence
- Time: Turn, Turn, Turn
- Trains: City of New Orleans
- Work: Proud Mary