on sports, part two.


FACT: being a sports fan is one of the easiest ways to establish an immediate connection with someone you've never met before. That can either be a Good Thing or Bad Thing, depending on the nature of the connection.

Case in point: I'm sitting on the couch, watching tonight's dismal Utah Jazz performance in Atlanta. Comes a knock at the door -- it's a friend of my roommate's. I've exchanged maybe two sentences with him in my life. He enters, strolls past the television.

"Who's winning?"

"The Jazz are getting killed."

"YES!" He triumphantly clenches both fists.

I raise an eyebrow. "What, are you from Atlanta or something?"

He grins and ignores my question, walking down the hall.

"Ah, so you just hate the Jazz."

Laughter. Still not a word, just the grin as he looks back over his shoulder at me. Then he's gone.

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This part, I don't get. I don't have it in me. I can't muster the requisite rage, the ignorance, the belligerence, whatever it is.

And that's not an indictment or judgment on those that can and do, by the way. I've known plenty of completely rational, intelligent, sensitive men (and women) who, when faced with playing or cheering against a rival, become... well, not really any of those things.

And maybe that's the point for them, that channeling that kind of aggression and passion, venting it in a (mostly) harmless fashion, allows for a more peaceable and kindly existence outside of that sphere. Much better, you would think, to hate a rival sports team than, say, another race or religion or gender or profession or person of any kind. 

But I can't do it.

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Oh, I feel outraged and frustrated and angry when things are going badly. But it's because of the game, not the opponents, or the opposing fans, or anything else.

I think this is, again, the influence of my father, in large part. He taught me to be a student of the games, to appreciate fine play no matter where it occurs, or by whose hand. And I do, and though I have my favorite teams, I will always enjoy a singular performance by an athlete at the top of his game.

It's also because I've mellowed as I've gotten older (all of 26 years, as of Thursday), and my personality was never predisposed to that sort of thing no matter my age. I guess I don't get the allure of being deliberately obnoxious in order to provoke a reaction. (Okay, I do get it, I just don't want it.)

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It's a combination of all those things, added to my current profession as a journalist. When you cover, for example, a BYU football game, you sit in the press box (which is its own little microcosm of strange that I'll have to write about sometime). And in the press box, there is no cheering. Of any kind. This is to maintain, even as a college student, the (mostly fictional) idea that the journalists are impartial and covering both sides with an equally analytical and discerning eye.

(I have since come to find out that different press boxes in different locations have vastly different standards regarding this principle, a fact that simultaneously amuses and annoys me.)

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Here's another factor related to my profession: one of my current duties is to periodically monitor and moderate the user comments on each website article. There are a variety of ways that newspapers handle this feature, but because of the responsibility my employers have to their owners and their audience, we rule things pretty tightly.

But even so, the amount of rubbish that gets through is highly noxious stuff, and has contributed in large part to an alteration in the way I watch sports. It's the heady combination of the anonymity of the Internet, the socially-acceptable outlet of sports hatred, and a healthy dose of insecurity -- a recipe for remarks so irrational, so spiteful and mean, and (probably) so unlike the actual personalities of the people involved that it would be laughable if it weren't so horrifying.

Whatever the cathartic benefits of fandom, that cost is getting to be far too high for my liking.

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Last month I attended the yearly rivalry game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and for the first time in four years I was there in an unofficial capacity. The ticket was a gracious gift from my uncle, who also brought two of his sons. We sat in the west stands, away from most of the boisterous students and among the more taciturn, older crowd. (Note: I say "more taciturn," not "entirely taciturn," because some of the old men in the west stands are as irascible as any young hothead.)

I expected to yell. I expected to relish the opportunity to be free from the oppression of the press box and the pressure of deadlines and note-taking. I expected to cheer and clap and exult and despair and be a fan again.

I didn't.

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I couldn't, somehow, at least not outwardly. I ended up watching most of the game silently, pumping a fist at a big play, sharing observations with my uncle, taking cell phone pictures and tweeting. I of course thrust my arms into the air and punched the sky in victory as the winning touchdown was scored, but that was about as exuberant as I got.

For all the reasons and explanations discussed above, my fanship has changed. But I think it's been for the better. While my outward observances have diminished, my inward love for the game has never been stronger or more personal. I think I like the fact that I appreciate sports in my own unique way. There is room yet for the passionate but reasonable sports fan, and I'm glad.

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The problem is, not everyone sees it that way. Too often, to be considered a "fan" you have to conform to a set of stereotypes and shared assumptions that just don't fit. (Then again, this sort of thing has been a hallmark of every restricted societal group since civilization began, and it's part of why the pantomime hatred of the sports fan is dangerously congruent to the real thing.)

I headed home to my Salt Lake City apartment after the game, and as I traversed I-15 amid a sea of blue and red bumper stickers and car flags and barely restrained fervor and antagonism, I couldn't help but turn on the post-game radio shows. I flipped back and forth between the flagship stations of the two schools, listening to the different viewpoints and weighing them against each other -- I seriously can't turn off my even-handed journalist side any more, not even a little -- until I heard the discussion of a certain player's comments in a post-game interview.

I listened as he spelled out his avowed hatred for his opponents, an all-encompassing pathos that spared no aspect or individual associated therewith. Of course, my first thought was, "There's a week's worth of extra work for us at the office." But then I considered the ramifications of these statements, not for the player in question, but for the teams, schools, and each person who associates himself with them.

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See, too often in sports fandom, there is no middle ground. There's no place for the moderate, the bipartisan, the non-absolutist. You're with us or you're against us. Friend or foe. That's the nature of competition. But it isn't my nature. Nor, I suspect, is it the nature of many of the people on either side of a rivalry.

I guess that's life, though. And like a true sports underdog, I'm going to keep fighting for my own little scrap of fanhood the way I see fit. Because I'm still far too passionate about, and derive far too much enjoyment from, the consumption of sport to ever give it up. It is mine, no matter what anyone else thinks.

1 Response to on sports, part two.

  1. Eliza says:

    I tried reading all of your sports stuff but I'm just not into sports. Please forgive me. :)