Did I play sports growing up? Yes.
Did my family host super bowl parties every year? Yes.
Do I appreciate and enjoy athleticism and a competitive spirit? Yes.
Have I worn sports apparrel and attended games, matches, and events? Yes.
Do I understand the general American dedication to watching sports on tv, having sports on in the background, and the popularity of fantasy sports?
As long as I could remember, I had to make sure I was sitting on the appropriate side of the booth at friend gatherings so that my companions were unable to see the television. In general, it didn’t matter specifically whether or not the game on was their favorite team, favorite sport, or even relevant to their interests. Only that it is on a television, and within the peripheral scope of sight. I remember from a very young age wondering, “why did we both come here so I could stare at you, and you can stare at the television?”. I had no trouble maintaining eye contact, and managing my schedule such that my favorite television programs did not overlap with intentional hangout times with friends. Of course, I don’t mind eyes flicking up to glance at motion–that’s a primordial instinct. But even to glance down at my own food when someone is speaking to me gives me the sense that I’m not meeting their eyes in a way that is respectful to honor that they are sharing with me.
When it comes to the strange behavior around sporting events, the popular acceptance of this behavior removes the collective responsibility to scrutinize or criticize it in any way.
As a man, why am I expected to have a whole host of sports knowledge in order to have an introductory conversation with other men in public? Why is a concern for number of yards and the recent jersey wardrobe change of a 24 year old athlete in a different state prerequisite course material for my matriculation into a casual interaction?
To say I don’t find sports or following sports to be very interesting is perceived as some sort of veiled condescension or pretention that doesn’t exist (or it didn’t initially). I am not opposed to any person having a particular hobby or interest, and enjoying it with others. The idea that anyone who doesn’t share the interest is somehow weird or strange in some way is oppressive, especially when it is paired with social equity.
In order to connect with men who were in powerful positions at work, school, church, or in family situations, I found myself watching sports ahead of time to make connections, and learning what jokes to make that would insinuate an inflated knowledge of scores, patterns, and player statistics. In fact, I remember distinctly during high school that a friend would tell me all about the day previous’ sports between periods 1 and 2, so that during the first break and lunch I would be able to parrot what he had said to be included in the conversation. Even as a high school boy (an almost universally understood representation of immaturity), I was frantically trying to survive the sports talk to remain included.
Aside from sports, some friend groups I engaged with in high school and college enjoyed activities like, drawing, painting, music, drinking boba, volunteering, or working on school projects together. Is there anything unique to sports that sets it apart from these activities? In the practice of allocating memory to sports facts, are there other virtues being developed? Defenders of the enjoyment of sports often cite the community and the camaraderie involved with watching together, enjoying together, spending money on experiences and memorabilia, etc. But if we could choose the activity to strategically include all of those things, would we return to sports specifically?
As a thought experiment, imagine that citizens of cities and nations took pride and collectively funnelled their money to something besides sports which gave them a sense of belonging and camaraderie. What if the under seven year old league we encouraged on the weekends was a sustainability measure wherein young children engaged with an appreciation of our planet, and began to understand climate change and environmental ethics? What if our heroes were educators, mentors, or advocates? This is not even counting the oppurtunity cost of the extremely harmful narratives of toxic masculinity, violence, and parental pressure that surround youth sports.
In 2016 Americans spent over 100 billion dollars on sports. Economically, what could be the impact of 100 billion dollars spent toward some of the most vulnerable people in our society, for projects like access ramps, school counselors, and clean water? What if we simply saved it for a rainy day and had a fund dedicated to communities impacted by national crises? What if instead of your local sports team, you had a shirt bragging and representing how many poor citizens had housing and healthcare in your home district? What if instead of exclusivity, you bragged about inclusivity? “The power of my home team is that no matter who comes, they are welcomed, celebrated, and provided for. We’re not just a team, we’re family.”
Somehow the tribalism in sports conversations never pointed to the magical and redeemed qualities fans claim exist therein.
Somehow the gatekeeping regarding sports fact knowledge didn’t magically or immediately garner an inclusion or allaged camaraderie.
Somehow, I never felt as though I had become the better version of myself in the context of sports shows, commentary, or discussion.
Even in the best possible case scenario, has a sports conversation ever led to increased relationship that goes beyond simply occupying the space adjacent to another physical person? Have you initiated or honed the skills of empathy, compassion, listening, or emotional safety after agreeing that an umpire’s call was bullshit? What more have you learned that you did not already know? Was your time more than simply reciting scripts curated for you by sports commentators?
If in fact, the conversation was simply those shallow transactions, and that was enjoyable to you, is there no desire for more depth and connection? If not, is that not deeply terrifying?
It is my distinct fear not that we as a society would engage in suboptimal behaviors, conversations, and narratives, but that we would engage in them completely absent-mindedly, and even have the audacity to enforce our habits as default.