Monday, January 27, 2020

The sadder but wiser sports fan

I’m a lifelong student and teacher of the humanities, and I also happen to enjoy watching many professional sports. These areas are not mutually exclusive nor even entirely at odds, but they mostly are. I know that as a former English professor it is my sacred duty to rail at the money shoveled into college athletics while liberal arts majors are being beaten for daring to ask for another meager spoonful of gruel. This is tiresome and pointless, and I prefer coming up with creative ways the two can meld. This is fun but also pointless, as, for example, my idea that the Seattle Mariners become the Seattle Ancient Mariners (their mascot could be an albatross! they could recite stanzas of the Coleridge poem instead of singing “Take me out to the ballpark” during the seventh inning stretch!) has not gone over well so far.

I owe a lot of this duality to my father. Saturday mornings he’d take me and my sister to the library so we could haul home stacks of books taller than ourselves; Sunday mornings we watched football. If you follow the NFL and you live in Hawaii, you sometimes have to get up very early in the morning to catch a game. This is what my father used to do back when I was a kid: turn on the TV, get out the ironing board and his shirts, and cheer on the 49ers while he pressed wrinkles out of sleeves. When my sister and I finally got up we'd join him, sitting on the floor with a box of Corn Chex cereal between us. The ‘niners had been my father's team ever since his college days in the Bay Area, so my sister and I rooted for them too. They continued to be her team even after a half-dozen relocations to different regions over the years, and to this day even though she lives in the greater Seattle area, she remains loyal to San Francisco. She was ecstatic this season when her team beat the “Seaslugs,” as she calls them derisively.

I have had a similarly transient life, but for me logic ended up winning out over loyalty. Like my dad, I went to Cal Berkeley, and it was a lot easier to cheer for a team that I at least had some regional connection with, but after I moved away, I had a hard time caring. The truth is that proximity is really the only connection most people have with a professional football team. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, you’re really only rooting for the uniform. It’s extremely rare for any of the players to have grown up in the area—more common is the story of poor puppy-eyed Aaron Rodgers who dreamed all his life of playing for his home team the 49ers but had to settle for playing against them last weekend and watching the ecstatic fans cheer for a quarterback from the Midwest. Even if a team does recruit a local boy, he might be playing across the nation next season in a trade. And these are the fairly neutral aspects of the sport; I haven’t even started on the ugly stuff. There’s a lot of that, and boy is it ugly.

Football at the pro level is brutal. That certain teams were discovered to have been giving financial incentives to players for deliberately injuring their opponents is not exactly shocking—the only surprising thing is that anyone would be surprised. That there are drugs, crime, cheating, violence, and obscene amounts of money involved can’t be news to anyone any more. Even the more innocuous aspects are controversial and unpleasant—why oh why do the Kansas City fans have to do that godawful “Indian war cry”? Why can’t they take up my suggestion that they become the Kansas City Chefs? Their mascot could wear a toque and apron, and they could make a name for themselves as serving the best stadium cuisine in the league. Who cares if the team loses; we’re eating well tonight!

My father once told me the story of the Edsel. Before its creation, its makers polled Americans by asking them, “What do you want in an automobile?” The result was famously a disaster. Subsequent carmakers who polled Americans asked something different: “What do you think Americans want in a car,” and were much more successful. The reason, he explained, is that people often either don’t know what they want from one minute to the next or else aren’t able to articulate what they want, but they can far more easily be objective about what other people want. I can tell you why Americans love football but I can’t easily tell you why I do. The simplest answer is that it is still, for whatever reason, a memorable part of my childhood. I still have a love of books encouraged by my father, I still have the irreverent and nerdy sense of humor I share with him, and this Sunday I’ll know exactly which uniform to cheer on to victory.