Dear Crabby, Well, it’s over. All the hype. All the excitement. I speak, of course, of the Super Bowl. I just don’t get it. Not just that game, but the whole football thing — and even more broadly, sports in general.
You are a sports fan. Perhaps you can explain it to me. Why does this matter? Why is it important? I guess I get the Circus Maximus aspect but personally speaking, watching sports bores me to tears. I try to keep myself busy in the back of the house whenever someone is watching them on TV. It seems to me that this is such a massive waste of time, energy and money. What IS the point?
I anxiously await your response. Now if I can just get through the Olympics.
No ESPN Fan
Dear No ESPN Fan, I’m glad you asked your question, and I’m glad you asked it with a tone of genuine inquisitiveness rather than one of condescension. On the spectrum of sports fandom, there are two groups I dislike equally: the stereotypical meathead fans, who call in to “Jock Talk with Wolfman and the Coach” on AM radio, and the vocally dismissive nonfans, who act as though they’re above it all. The latter don’t want to understand the appeal of sports, because feeling superior to others is more fun. The former are the reason the latter feel superior.
So, to be clear, it’s fine if you don’t like sports, as long as you don’t look down your nose at those who do. That said, there are many legitimate reasons for people’s sports fandom.
The most elemental is the simple appreciation of genius. That’s the intrinsic value of spectator sports: watching people who are the very best at something explore the limits of what being the very best means. It is essentially human to marvel at what the very best among us can do. This is similar to the appeal of, say, a world-class tenor, or a sculptor or a writer or any human endeavor in which genius can be made manifest. (For further research and a window into the sort of physical poetry that sports can provide, Google “Barry Sanders highlights” or “Lebron James dunks” or “Ozzie Smith top plays.”)
But there are other, in some ways much deeper, reasons people are sports fans. For one, sports serve as a prism through which virtually any aspect of society can be viewed — not just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but the struggle for racial or social equality, the ongoing shift from celebrity hero-worship to tabloid culture, the way we view violence and traditional gender roles. You can ignore that stuff and just watch the games, if you want to. But, to me, it’s endlessly fascinating.
Beyond even that, there’s the appeal of community (or tribalism, if you want to call it that). It’s fun to cheer for things with other people who are cheering for the same things. I know that if I see a guy at a bar, wearing a Michigan State shirt and watching a game, that I will have a friend and ally at least as long as the game is on, regardless of whether he and I have anything else in common.
This sense of community doesn’t require much of an investment, as any bandwagon Seahawks fan can tell you. But if you have been invested, if you’re part of a community that has suffered together, if you were a Hawks fan back in the Rick Mirer era, then the spoils of victory mean that much more. It’s just a matter of shared experience.
I wrote a couple of years ago about how the Detroit Tigers represent a common language for my loved ones and me, a group that has spread across the country and beyond. Here’s how I explained that: “I knew, as I watched the games on TV, that my brother in Illinois, my sisters in Ohio and Kentucky and my parents in Michigan were doing the same. All my old buddies, too. Aaron in Detroit, Mike in Los Angeles, even Jamie all the way in Tokyo. ... Knowing they’re all experiencing the game just as I am makes me feel close to them. And I know that may seem irrational. But when your community is spread thin, you take what you can get in terms of communal experience.”
That’s the best thing about being a sports fan for me. I know, when I call him, my dad will always want to talk about the Tigers’ bullpen or the Lions’ lousy secondary or the Michigan State basketball team’s chances in March. Those are conversations that may seem insubstantial to a nonfan. But they’re not. They’re our way of remaining connected.
Hope that helps.