merry.


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.

jazz, the utah kind.


If you're interested, I'll be writing more frequently here, about young men who try to make a leather ball go into a metal circle. A sampling from a recap of tonight's game:

The fourth quarter was probably the most entertaining part of the game for Jazz fans, as a lineup of Eric Maynor, Wesley Matthews, Ronnie Price, Andrei Kirilenko and Kyrylo Fesenko looked like the only players with "Utah" on their chests who gave a crap.

Of course, by then, the conversation in the Game Thread had turned away from the basketball game and onto such thrilling topics as "Peanuts: Not Actually Nuts At All" and "I Have Too Many Vowels On My Scrabble Rack."

Honestly, there may be other insights to glean from this game, but I don't have the energy to try right now. I'm serious. I had observations in the first half. At least I think I did. I mean, there they are in the Game Thread, with my name beneath them and everything, but the rest of the game was so boringly depressingly terrible that I think it deprived me of my ability to remember things I actually said.

So, you know, there's that.

on sports, part one.


It's kind of odd, when you think about it.

Why do I care so much about the young men running around the court or field, chasing after a spherical object of one kind or another, attempting to score as many goalunitbaskets as possible?

The fact remains that I do care, and probably always will, though recent events have shown me that the nature of that caring may change. And I think I'm okay with that.

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Sports were a mostly solitary activity for me as a child. (Despite growing up in a family of five children, I seemed to be on my own most of the time, whether voluntarily, or to avoid being given chores, or because I was just that absorbed by my own imagination.) I know my father, an excellent natural athlete, had much to do with my interest in football and basketball, but it seemed that even from an early age I had a personal and abiding passion for both playing and watching games of all kinds.

When I arrived home from school I would immediately retrieve whichever filthy basketball had the most air remaining inside it from the blue storage containers stowed beneath my father's workbench in the garage, and I would shoot, sometimes for hours on end. I would practice moves against invisible opponents, fictional and professional alike. (I took a particular, strange enjoyment in defeating video game characters in these self-conceived battles. Somehow beating Imaginary Link was more satisfying than beating Imaginary John Stockton, and I'm not sure why.) I would stand at the chip in the cement driveway that just happened to be almost the precise distance for free-throw shooting, and fire off fifty straight, running to retrieve misses and delighting when the perfect spin on the ball and the snap of the net returned the ball to me without forcing me to move my feet. I would shoot and dribble and spin and jump until the nubs on the ball were worn smooth from a million caroms and a billion bounces.

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Sports are a horrible thing to dream about, because it becomes readily apparent at a very early age that those dreams will never be reality. Even at 25, it's possible to fantasize about being a best-selling novelist, or a famous musician, or any number of things that can bring fame and glory. But I knew before I hit puberty that I would never be a professional athlete. (And if my 12-year-old self could have seen my 25-year-old self back then, he'd probably be simultaneously amused and horrified that he'd ever dreamed about it in the first place.) That's a harsh sort of disillusionment to face.

Maybe that's why I dedicated myself instead to being a fan. I have often commented to peers that, were I to never use my sports knowledge to somehow provide for myself financially, there is no way I could justify the amount of time and resources I have spent as a spectator.

But that's not really true. I don't regret a single dime I've ever spent on a ticket to a sporting event, regardless of the outcome. And while I am now a journalist, and do indeed employ my comically-vast knowledge of sports in my daily work, that's still not the reason I remain a committed fan.

What that reason is, I don't know that I'll ever be fully able to identify.

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I can make a couple of guesses. Solitary childhood aside, sports is still the best way I can connect with my father, and when we combine his first-hand knowledge of how games are played with my memory for facts and facility for strategic identification, we really make an unbeatable commentary team. (If I had a nickel for each time one of us made an astute observation five seconds before the announcers on television made the exact same comment, I would be a very rich man.) To deny his influence on my continued fandom would be silly. But nowadays, when I see him at most once a week, it's hardly the main cause.

Beyond that, I think it is easy for sports to become a source of catharsis for fans. A place where yelling at the top of your lungs, expressing joy and outrage and despair and hope and satisfaction all at once, is not only allowed but encouraged, is priceless in an existence too often bogged down by ennui and routine and drudgery.

Being a sports fan goes even further, though, and this is one of the hardest things to explain about the value of being one.

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In Nick Hornby's excellent Fever Pitch, the memoir about his obsession with English soccer team Arsenal (which was later adapted for American audiences by the Farrelly brothers and became that absolutely execrable Red Sox-centric Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore chick flick), he explains that being a fan gives one a sense of belonging, an instant kinship with thousands of complete strangers, not to mention the athletes themselves. To be a fan, he explains, is not to share in some sort of vicarious victory, but to actually participate in the battle itself -- not by running up and down a soccer pitch, but by making a conscious decision to support, to follow, to read, to watch, to learn, and to love. It takes a unique kind of commitment, one that bears as its fruit a joy that is qualitatively different from that of the athletes who determine it, yet no less valid or real or joyous.

Perhaps it is even more so. Who is happier, the athlete who gives of himself physically over the course of a season to help deliver a championship to a team long bereft of one, or the fan, who has sat through countless unsuccessful seasons, braving inclement weather and inclement fortune, only to be rewarded with that moment of victory? To whom does the title of "champion" mean more?

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I'm romanticizing the notion here, but I think that's kind of my point. Sports can and should be romanticized, even in the age of multi-million-dollar contracts and shoe sponsorships and Gatorade and bling and body ink. At least, I'll never feel guilty for being romantic about them.