The fervor. The despondency. The joy. No, we are not talking about the final games of the NBA conference finals. We are talking, instead, about the Scripps 2016 National Spelling Bee. I can already imagine the outrage from our readers. The Spelling Bee, they will rant in the Comment Section, is not a sport. It is the domain of eggheads that couldn’t throw a two-yard out pattern if they tried. After throughly enjoying several hours of the contest (rooting for Sylvie Lamontagne), let me play the contrarian and make the affirmative case.
For starter, the National Spelling Bee gets major league broadcast coverage. The Spelling Bee has announcers, corporate sponsors, and a contract with the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN). Does that sound a bit like a sport to you?
Furthermore, sports offer “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” When Sylvie Lamontagne nailed words like comitatus and ptyalism, you could feel the momentum as she seemingly soared towards a first place finish. However, when she misspelled the word ‘chaoborine’ (type of gnat, according to The National Spelling Bee’s Twitter page), the air went out of the room. It was like a double fault on match point or a crucial missed free throw as time is winding down in the close of the fourth quarter. It was very bit the thrill of victory and, sadly for Sylvie, the agony of defeat.
Success on the playing field, you say, requires practice. The Spelling Bee is no less demanding. According to a Denver Post article, Sylvie “said she would spend hours studying on a computer program called Quizlet — sometimes testing herself for as long as 12 hours on a Saturday [while] obviously making exceptions for the times I have a lot of homework.”
What about celebration? While I hail from the quiet Bjorn Borg school of celebration where one let’s his game speak for him, there is no doubt that end zone dancing and other revelry are commonplace in modern sports. Yes, you guessed. The Dab was as frequently seen at the 2016 Spelling Bee as uniform changes by the Oregon football team.
The Spelling Bee does have one fatal flaw. Fittingly, it also is a permutation found in major sports. As the great Frank Deford has written, “A tie has no place in sports. It is like not finding out the ‘who’ in whodunit.” It has been calculated that 30 percent of all soccer matches end in a draw. Likewise, the National Spelling Bee ended in a tie this year for the third consecutive year. It is a tragedy —in spelling and sports alike.
Simply put, the Spelling Bee is a competitive sport that is as demanding as anything one encounters on the playing field. ESPN made a brilliant decision to broadcast at it. Viewers that were lucky enough to tune in saw a NBA Playoff-quality treat.