“Chess isn’t a sport,” I protested. “The article shouldn’t be in this collection.” I was referring to an article titled The Day Bobby Blew It in the 2000 edition of The Greatest American Sports Writing about the famed champion chess player Bobby Fisher we had been assigned to read.
“Why isn’t Chess a sport?” the professor asked.
“There’s no physical exertion,” I responded.
To be fair, the above exchange is somewhat fictional due to spaces in my memory. What I can recall follows. Our class was assigned to read that aforementioned article by my freshman Introduction to Journalism professor and I did claim that chess wasn’t a sport, but I don’t remember the exact exchange. Additionally, many more students were involved in the discussion, with the majority agreeing with the side I explicated. Regardless of the exact details of the exchange, the core dispute remains, is chess or is chess not a sport?
The list of disputed sports holds more games than chess. Cheerleading, poker, curling, ballroom dancing, rhythmic gymnastics, billiards, these activities are all off the top of my head and are adamantly looked down upon as mere games by some. There is, however, one element that links all these activities together. Someone loves their competition enough and participate in it with enough passion to want it to be classified as a sport.
Competition is not my estranged sibling or quiet neighbor who I never see. Soccer slept with me and woke up with me every morning from the second grade on. Nothing fulfilled me more than what the world calls “the beautiful game” until I discovered wrestling in the eight grade. The best description of the appeal of wrestling was by former Olympic Gold medalist and WWE wrestler Kurt Angle, who claimed it as the most pure form of sport by saying nothing tested you more mentally or physically . Angle is right. There is something very primal about being on the mat with no one (and no tools) to depend on but yourself. The purity of wrestling was one I thought unmatchable until I discovered another sport, Survivor.
For those of you with a cocked eyebrow and a sense of dissonance within your heads, yes, I am referring to the CBS television show that airs Thursdays at 8 PM Eastern Time. You know how excited you get for the football games on Sunday in the fall? I get just as excited for Thursday when Survivor is airing. You know that passion I was referring to? I have that passion. And so what? I’m one person who needs a better hobby, right? Maybe so, but at least I don’t watch poker. Well, that may have been an unfair shot at poker aficionados, but I think I can make a better case for Survivor being a sport than the aforementioned aficionado could for his game. And if I can make such a case for Survivor, Survivor, shouldn’t the bar for classification as a sport be raised a little higher?
Survivor is life boiled down to its core elements (remember the purity I referred to?): food, water, shelter, and people. Biologically speaking the first three elements I mentioned are the only things necessary for survival, but who could live without personal relationships? Isn’t that why The Sims made a social meter beside the hunger and energy meters? And finding that much desired social interaction in life isn’t exactly easy. There’s a whole (unwritten) list of things you’re not allowed to say (Ex: “You’re mother’s a whore.”) and do (Ex: Jump ahead of someone in a line, unless you’re bigger than they are). Now, let’s take this paragraph and turn it into a game.
On Day One, 16 players (two seasons had 18 and one had 20) are stranded in some random location (aesthetically pleasing, of course) with either a few tools or only the clothes on their backs. They are forced to survive off the land with no aid from anyone who may be following them with a camera or who may have stranded them there to begin with. They can form a society or work as 16 individuals. The choice is theirs. But how is surviving off the land a sport? Here comes the twist. Every three days or so they must go to Tribal Council and cast votes. The player receiving the most votes will be removed from the group. The two players left in the group face a jury. The player who receives the most jury votes wins a million dollars.
There are twists to these rules, but one basic truth holds, Tribal Council will continually be attended until only one player remains. So far the game has always begun with two tribes (All-Stars had three tribes from the start) competing in challenges for rewards (food and creature comforts) and the right to not have to attend Tribal Council. Later, those tribes merge into one tribe where the challenges become individual. The “traditional” merge is at 10 players. The final nine players in the game comprise seven jury members and the final two that must face those jurors on the 39th day. Survivor is about excelling at enduring physically and mentally in extreme conditions of nature and humanity.
You see, it’s all about the light you cast the game in. Nowhere in my description of Survivor did I mention that only one source broadcasts the game, controlling the viewer’s perception of the players and storyline (a concept I will return to later). In traditional sports, the media writes the storylines in newspapers and web pages. Survivor’s creator Mark Burnett signed an exclusivity deal with CBS. CBS is the only station that may broadcast the game and Burnet’s team films and edits all the action so it may be broadcast in the form they desire. What if James Naismith signed a similar deal with TNT (had the technology and station been around in 1891), would that make basketball less of a sport? I didn’t think so.
The comparisons between traditional sports and Survivor are more numerous than you think. The NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS, NHL, PGA and the myriad of other assorted leagues you can name are recognized as the place where the cream of the crop bring their skills. On the path to these leagues, you have to excel and such excellence is often publicized. Once again, Burnet and his team have a stranglehold on the path to their league. Contestants must first have their audition tape be one of around 800 picked out of a pool that can be as large as 40,000. Then they must excel in several rounds of interviews, physical tests, and psychological tests. No one is allowed to play the game that can’t sustain the physical and emotional damage it inflicts (and possibly thrive or excel under it). You certainly can’t compare the players to professional athletes who have dedicated their lives to a sport, but that doesn’t mean the players aren’t the cream of the crop either.
Let’s get specific. Basketball has Michael Jordan. Hockey has Wayne Gretzky. Women’s soccer has Mia Hamm. Men’s soccer has Pele. Survivor too has those players that are recognized as the upper echelon by its fan base. In its short history, players have come along that have redefined the game. The main two that are widely agreed upon are Richard Hatch, the winner of the original season Survivor: Borneo, and Rob Cesternino, who won third place in the sixth season Survivor: Amazon.
Hatch earned the million dollars by approaching the original incarnation in a different perspective than his 15 opponents. Everyone else was focused on one goal, making life on the island as easy as possible, social Darwinism. They assumed that the strongest would win the million.
Mario Lanza, a former internet columnist who is widely respected for his strategy discussions and fan fiction seasons by fans and contestants of the show alike, described Hatch’s differing approach in an e-mail exchange with me, “He saw right away that this didn't HAVE to be survival of the fittest at all. No matter what the designers intended, there was one thing they hadn't planned on and that was the concept of alliances. So Richard just showed up on day one and basically told people ‘If four of us stick together and always vote the same way, we can't lose!’ And that's exactly what ended up happening.”
While everyone else scurried about building fires and climbing trees he created friendships and positioned himself socially so that he would always be in the majority all the way until the final jury vote that he won 4-3. It wasn’t until season five that another player as calculating emerged in the form of Survivor: Thailand winner Brian Heidik. But while Heidik was a dominant force, he still curtailed to what had become a basic Survivor truth, as Lanza described it, “Get in an early alliance, ride your success as far as you can, and then all hell breaks loose when you get down to the end. Whatever happens at the end will happen, and that was pretty much the way it worked.”
Survivor: Amazon, the sixth season of the show, was highlighted by a 21 year old bikini model, one of America’s 50 most eligible bachelors (as declared by People Magazine in 2002), and a 24 year old computer projects coordinator former frat guy who declared himself as a student of the game. Jenna Morasca, the bikini model, won the jury vote by a margin of 6-1 over Matthew Von Ertfelda, the eligible bachelor, but it was Rob Cesternino, the self declared student of the game, who was the star of the season. On the way to his demise in the final three at the hands of Jenna, Rob implemented a strategy that had me scratching my head and asking myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Loyalty was tossed out the window and at every Tribal Council Rob organized (unionized if you will) the apparently weak and powerless players in the minority against the player that currently appeared strongest and most powerful. The clutter provided the perfect cover for Rob, who emerged as the true power player as the traditional definition of power in the game was no longer relevant. His disregard for alliances made him the Amazonian villain and culminated in host Jeff Probst declaring him the smartest player to never win the game.
Lanza defines the strategy as the “jumping ship” strategy. “Basically instead of being in one alliance... you now had the option to be in ANY alliance. Your alliance would no longer be defined by having people around you that you could trust. It was no longer defined by people, period. It was now solely defined by numbers. All you had to do was stay in the majority at all times, you had to make yourself important to people with power, and from there the sky was pretty much the limit. From there you could jump ship and change alliances as often as was needed.”
The waves of Cesternino’s strategy resonated into the depths of the game. A season later (Survivor: Pearl Islands), the greatest villain in the history of the gameJon Dalton akaJonny Fairplayemulated the strategy (up to and including losing at the final three). When asked about his preparation in a post game interview Dalton replied, “I purchased every season and every Early Show interview off eBay, watched every season twice and watched Amazon three times.” Loyalty has never been a rarer commodity in the game than the Cesternino era and the players that allow themselves to be pawns by intentionally withdrawing themselves from the forefront of island activities (often referred to as the “Under the Radar” strategy) have never been more dangerous. The passive nature of the strategy (though Pearl Island’s winner Sandra Diaz-Twine was known for being outspoken) allows such players to easily slip into any voting block that may form with few questions asked. The disloyal atmosphere has also mandated a heightened awareness from all the players, as alliances are not as stable and thus a player’s position is not as secure. Strategy is often overt and those who utilize the Under the Radar strategy hide in the shadows of the “more threatening” players who utilized the Mastermind strategy. In the first five seasons only one Under the Radar player took home the million. Three have won in the subsequent four completed seasons, including the All-Star edition.
Are you awake? Thanks for indulging my pundit fantasies, but I am not without a point (at least I hope). Just as Chris Berman and company can break down the Xs and Os on NFL Primetime (read that in Berman’s gritty almost bark), I can break down the Xs and Os of Survivor. But are the play calls and strategies of the coaching staff the reason we as a nation return to the NFL every season? Sure, we exalt the “genius” of Bill Belichik, but don’t we get more excited when Terrell Owens takes a sharpie out of his sock and signed a football he just caught for a touchdown? Football is essentially the same game every season, but there have been 39 Super Bowls. Why are we so captivated?
“Wait a minute, how many seasons of Survivor have there been?” I bet you asked yourself that question during your reading. If not, you should have, so ask it now. No, I’m serious, right now. Ok? Good. Wow, what an insightful question! As I write this essay, the tenth season of Survivor is currently airing, Survivor: Palau and I ask myself the same question I ask football fans: Why do I, and the same core audience, return to the game even though it is basically the same. Maybe it’s because in season nine, Survivor: Vanuatu, Chris Daugherty was able to break apart the first ever female alliance and take home the title of Sole Survivor. Maybe it’s because I wanted to see if Ami Cusack was a skilled enough player to hold together the women’s alliance and was disappointed when she was voted out. Maybe it’s because of the storylines.
What I think makes Survivor unpalatable to a large portion of the nation is the leap of faith one must take when watching. There is no possible way any of us has the time to watch every moment, every challenge, and every confessional of a game that is always on for 39 days in a row. Instead of expecting us to shoulder such a burden, Burnet and his team edit the show into 12 episodes that are 40 minutes long and one episode that is 80 minutes long. They extract what they feel are the most compelling storylines and entertaining confessionals in order to portray the players as heroes (Rupert Boneham) or villains (Jonny Fairplay) and the game in a certain light. Additionally, with their control over the casting, how are we to believe an honest game is being attempted? (I can name more than a few players I’m sure we cast because of how poor they were at strategy.)
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I sit back and ask myself “How could this show possibly be real? How could the Ulong tribe possibly win no immunity challenges ever? (As occurred in the season currently airing)” But sometimes I also sit back and ask myself, “How did the Patriots make it to and defeat the Rams in the Super Bowl to earn their World Championship?” To me, the rare occurrences in both the game of Survivor and the sport of football are moments I eagerly anticipate like in that old metaphor of a kid on Christmas morning. I don’t watch Survivor or the NFL to call Rob Cesternino or Terrell Owns a villain, even though they may be edited that way by Burnet and company or ESPN. I watch to see Cesternino weasel his way through the cracks of the relationships he’s built and to see Owens defy the critics by shutting up and playing football well when it matters most.
And yes, you read correctly, I did refer to Survivor as a game and differentiated it from the sport of football seemingly contradicting the point of my entire essay. I’ve talked to my friends and confidants and I’ve come to one conclusion, the characteristic the majority of people want to use when defining sport is that the main criteria the participants are judged on is athletic ability. The castaways of Survivor are not athletes and the game is not an athletic contest. In fact, Lanza conceives of the game as almost an anti-sport, “Survivor is the kind of contest that negates athletes, mocks religious people and turns athletes into obstacles to be destroyed. It's a contest almost completely without honor. The one with the snarkiest comments, most screen time, and nastiest confessionals is the one who wins (ie, the star of the season). The weak and the outcast will always gang up and take out the strong. In many ways it's like the opposite of high school. So in my mind, it's more like some disenfranchised revenge-fantasy sport gone wrong. ‘Haha, popular kids and jocks, take this! This is our sport now! The weak shall inherit the earth!’ It's like what football would be if football had been invented by the Trench Coat Mafia kids from Columbine.”
What’s my point? Let’s narrow the scope of the definition of sport a little more…or next I’m going to make you respect Big Brother (and even I have disdain for that abomination).