If my 25 year-old self and my 48 year-old self met in the same hotel bar on Rolling Rock Beer and Wings night in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, or Cleveland, they would have so much in common (or explode space-time). But they would have one hell of a disagreement about the quality, purpose, and feeling of being a sports fanatic. We’d both be ex-baseball fans, courtesy of the sports’ over-inflated view of itself, its long history of racism, exclusion, and paternalism, and George Will’s ludicrous books on America’s so-called pastime. We’d both watch NBA basketball, NHL hockey, a fútbol match or a tennis tournament or a golf major here and there. But the reasons for watching, the rationale for whom to root for and why, the purpose for either of us to indulge in such athletic delights? We would be at an obtuse angle, at least 120 degrees apart.
My history of sports fandom began pretty much in middle school, even though I’d been exposed to all of New York’s underdog teams from the womb. Mets, Jets, and Knicks (Mom still doesn’t watch or understand hockey, by the way) were her teams by the time she and my dad conceived me. But me being me, I reinvented the wheel between the end of ’81 and the spring of ’84. I watched/listened to Yankees and Mets games, as well as the Knicks and Nets, the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils, and the Jets and Giants.
I picked my childhood teams based on low expectations, the balance between them being underdogs and being doormats, the players I’d most likely would want to emulate if I ever wanted to be a professional athlete. And, mostly important, based on that team’s ability to help me forget about all that was wrong in my world, for at least three hours per day (in baseball), or six hours a week (between the other sports combined).
That gradually began to change once my teams started winning championships, or at least, regularly competing for them. The change accelerated once I left the New York area for Pittsburgh and its Western Pennsylvania ways. Between my Mets winning a World Series and my Giants winning two Super Bowls between ’86 and ’91, I found myself no longer a fan of hometown underdog teams. Sports weren’t an escape from my reality anymore. Especially as I began regularly working out and playing sports myself.
But I still saw sports fandom as a good thing, something that could unite people and cross the barriers of racism, classism, and even sexism (depending on the sport). That was my next phase of fandom, beginning around ’93. This view was what fueled my divorce from baseball after the ’94 MLB strike and lockout, and what caused me to begin watching more golf and international soccer, and not just falling asleep to it.
I still rooted for my Giants, Rangers, and especially the Knickerbockers. Too bad only the Rangers broke through in the ’90s, although the Knicks had their chances between ’93 and ’99. With living in Pittsburgh, though, I also began to cheer for the Steelers, the Penguins (except when they played the Rangers), and sometimes the Pirates.
But even in this phase of my fandom, I recognized the basic truth. I was cheering for athletes and their talent and will to shine in competition. That they happened to be a linebacker for the Giants or a pitcher for the Mets was a bonus, but I would’ve enjoyed their talent on other teams and in other athletic contexts anyway. I recognized this already with Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield in the ’80s, and I saw another glimpse of it in ’96, when Dwight Gooden, at this point with the Yankees, finally threw a no-hitter. I wasn’t even a baseball fan anymore, but I was so happy for the diminished Gooden to achieve this feat.
I think that’s why I started rooting for Venus (who does not get nearly enough credit for being an elite athlete and tennis player) and Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and so many others while they were still in their teens. I’m sure that’s why I stopped putting up with cockamamie excuses from other fans about too much money in professional sports, about free agency, about the difficulties of running a franchise, when I’d see the same teams losing year after year. It didn’t help that the athletes I rooted for growing up or in the ’90s began to retire, often with a vocal and unappreciative fan base trying to shove them out to door.
Most importantly, I saw the greed and narcissism and conservative politics and racism and misogyny and homophobia that is embedded in the ownership of teams and in the building of franchises. That sports are no more divorced from the politics and malignancies in society than our choices in food and clothing, or the decision of most Americans to berate the poor for their poverty. That sports teams and franchises are about as “clean” and “merit-based” as legacies in college admissions (the ultimate form of affirmative action) and the American election process at any and all levels. Despite this, a hundred million people still entertain this naive view that sports fandom is an essential good, a form of escape, a place for camaraderie. It is not. It’s escapism, a form a narcissism that allows millions to feel a bit better about their lives without doing anything to change their lives and the lives of untold others for the better.
Maybe my jadedness comes from nearly two decades in the DC area, where I regularly root for the local teams to fail, because I love it when the fans here are disillusioned. Maybe it’s because of the poor quality of most of the sports I watch (or in the case of the NFL, have stopped watching for going on three years now). Or, maybe it’s because my Knicks haven’t a title since Nixon was president! Whatever it is, I will continue to root for athletes, but not for teams. Especially those who take a stand, those who have a purpose beyond their athleticism, those whose bodies make me a bit envious, but only envious enough to keep working out, to keep running, to keep draining Js. Also, the NFL is still blackballing Colin Kaepernick!