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An argument, according to the time-honored art of rhetoric, is a line of thought developed in a logical and persuasive way. A good argument is a thing of beauty, and, since its goal is persuasion, the best arguments end with agreement, harmony, and a common resolve. Today, though, the word argument has become synonymous with fighting, quarreling, and discord. This shows how bad we have become at the art of arguing.
One of the many cultural functions of sports is to give us something to argue about. While politics and religion are deemed unsafe topics, sports can be discussed between perfect strangers. Sports debates can be emotional and personally involving, but since the topic does not really matter very much, they only rarely create hard feelings.
Sports talk, at its best, brings the art of argumentation back to life. ESPN's Pardon the Interruption sets two outstanding sports pundits against each other, with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon sparring on a list of topics complete with time limits and a buzzer. The two are brash and funny, as well as knowledgeable, and they remind us of what the Greeks and the Romans knew, that argument is a satisfying spectator sport.
I, Max, from Fox Sports Network, takes arguing about sports to a new level. The loudmouth young sports commentator Max Kellerman not only argues with opponents, he does so before a judge, who rules on who won the argument.
Max argues with his partner Michael Holley, with Bill Wolff awarding the bout to one or the other. (Should Arizona trade Randy Johnson? What's the problem with the Lakers? Should NASCAR discipline drivers who get in fights?) Then, in another segment of the show, Max gets into an argument with a guest athlete. Then he takes on quotations from sports columnists across the country. Then he argues with e-mails from the audience. (If he wins that round, the audience has to hear complimentary fan letters. If he loses, we get to hear some of his hate mail.)
The debates are high-energy, humorous, and, while on the loud side, they remain good-natured and friendly. Having a judge, though, reminds us that one opinion is not just as good as another. There are standards of truth, logic, and judgment even when it comes to sports. Now if we could just make the transfer to politics and religion.