I don’t watch a lot of sports. I don’t check scores online, don’t keep current with the standings. I’m from Massachusetts, but I don’t, generally, care all that much about what happens to Boston’s über-beloved grip of teams. I do not identify with them. Maybe if I were from Boston I would, but I’m from Amherst, a Western Mass. college town whose icons of pride are people like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Eric Carle, and David Foster Wallace, not Bobby Orr or Larry Bird or David “Big Papi” Ortiz. In Amherst we root for nuanced turns of phrase. The New England Literary Elite is #1! Hope is the thing with feathers, all the way, baby.
But when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series last week I was actually watching, and I found myself hooting and high-fiving the two guys I was with, even though they were German and had zero affiliation with the sport of baseball, let alone a specific team. One of them, visiting from Stuttgart, had never seen a game before and needed a complete explanation of the rules, all the way down to: “they are trying to score what are called “runs,” which they do by advancing players around those three white bags, which are called “bases,” and then back to the place where they bat from, which is called “home.”” It was a fascinating practice in defamiliarization, actually. Reflecting in his bewildered eyes I saw a vision of baseball as a particularly alien endeavor.
So, if I don’t care, and these German guys definitely don’t care, why was I hooting and high-fiving? Maybe I feel like I’m supposed to. Maybe it makes me feel like an insider, somehow connected to the win—as if the success is partially mine, that by rooting on my couch I have contributed to the team’s performance and deserve to reap some of the glory. Maybe I just like celebrating, making noise and zestfully slapping hands with my fellow humans. Maybe sometimes I look at sports fans and feel like I’m missing out—that they, thanks to their devotion, are having a richness and depth of experience that I, at my usual remove, cannot have. l know there are reasons to care. In these moments of temporary fandom, I am trying to locate them within myself.
Because my investment doesn’t naturally take the form of devotion to a team, I suppose I often look for these reasons elsewhere. The most important thing to me when I watch sports is that it is exciting and inspiring. I want to see spirited, fair-hearted competition; a visceral push and pull; the suspense of a close match; the cathartic inspiration of watching beautiful, impressive, and thrilling displays of physical prowess; groups of humans working together to make something dynamic and elegant happen within the confines of their game.
Sports are entertainment. I don’t draw this equation with any intention of reducing the significance of either sports or entertainment. Entertainment is probably the most powerful mediator of our collective sanity, which is manifested in the phenomenal popularity of its various forms. But, as Spider-Man’s uncle Ben once sagely said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Whatever has the power to keep you sane, also has the power to make you lose that sanity. I would venture to say that when we let our entertainment become something that makes us truly upset, makes us turn on our fellow humans—whether as a fist-fight with rival fans in the parking lot, or as a hurtful short temper with our family members at the dinner table—I think we need to stop and reflect.
Last year, the bombings at the Boston Marathon brought the realm of real trouble into the world of sport, and last week I watched uneasily as Boston fans used that narrative to give their World Series win more weight and importance. David Ortiz, in his MVP acceptance speech, made a direct link between the bombing and Boston “deserving” to win, and most players and fans on TV enacted some variation on the can’t-nobody-crush-our-spirit trope—the victim-turned-hero by overcoming loss and defeating outside threat.
Of course, it’s good and natural that a group of people who live through a tragedy together will bond and find strength as they heal and rebuild in the tragedy’s wake, but we have to admit that in the cases where the tragedy is perpetrated by a specific other, this process can be dangerous. 9/11 knee-jerked us into a messy and unfounded war in Iraq, and on the home front we saw a whole lot of racism against anybody in a turban or a head scarf, which, in the name of “homeland security” and “freedom” (subtext: revenge), we mostly turned a blind eye to as a nation. I’m still haunted by the grotesque celebrations we saw in the streets after Osama Bin Laden was killed.
Geez, how did I get here? I was just talking about sports, right? Just games. But I think this is what I’m trying to realize: that fandom is essentially a kind of smaller-scale patriotism. In fact, more and more, sports fans are referring to themselves as “nations”—the Red Sox most visibly. A fan is now a proud member of the “Red Sox Nation.” And because I know that one of the most common qualities of intense patriotism—the love of one’s own—is genuine ill will toward the outsiders, I have a hard time getting behind that mentality, even in the realm of entertainment. Supposedly, to be a true Red Sox fan is to hate the Yankees, and vice versa. Of course, they would never go killing each other over the game (well, not usually, anyways), so it’s not remotely comparable to war in its real-world gravity, but does not the part in some ways reveal the whole? We can learn a lot about a nation from its obsessions, and sports is one of America’s biggest.
And we do compare our sports to war, all the time—battle and military metaphors are, by far, the most readily employed analogies among coaches. It’s not a coincidence that “Boston Strong,” the slogan that was coined in the wake of the marathon bombings and quickly became the stoic self-affirmation of every Boston sports team and most of their fans, unmistakably shares its odd syntax with the jingoistic slogan of another organization—the US Army. If we liken our beloved sports to war with such regularity that we don’t even realize it, or just think it’s a natural and apt association to make, what does that tell us about what else we love?
Last Sunday I had the pleasure of lining up along the sidewalk of a street in my neighborhood in Brooklyn to cheer on hundreds of athletes as they ran by me, none of whom I knew or had any specific loyalty to. My neighbors and I were just out there hooting for, and high-fiving, these people because they were halfway through the New York Marathon, which we thought was deserving of commendation and encouragement. In a rather wonderful twist of meaning, while the original marathon runner ran this distance to bring news of the Greeks’ defeat of the Persians in battle, these runners ran with no us-and-them in mind. Winning or losing weren’t the stakes. No favoritism, no rooting for one then booing at another. Granted, it didn’t have the same kind of thrill and charge of a true competition, the sharp, exultant pleasure of a buzzer-beater or a big win, but it was joyful. This joy was not the prideful, righteous joy of winning, but the nourishing joy of collectivity, of being in this wild world together, of recognizing that we have miraculous bodies and minds that allow us to do gloriously absurd things like run marathons and use wooden clubs to smack exquisite stitched leather balls into the air over the heads of our opponents, who, in the end, are really just our fellow players.
Sam Beebe writes from Brooklyn, and teaches expository writing at NYU.