My dad took me to my first St. Louis Cardinals game right before my fifth birthday. The memory is so old that it’s dreamlike, but I recall the sea of red T-shirts, the taste of the peanuts, and the incredible roar of the crowd whenever one of the Cards made it to base, struck someone out, or caught a fly ball.
When my family moved to Chicago a couple of years later, I was introduced to basketball right as the Bulls—with Michael Jordan—entered their glory years. They dominated the sport for most of the ’90s and “three-peated” (i.e., won three championships in a row) twice. Some of my fondest grade-school memories are the school nights on which I was allowed to stay up late with my dad to watch Jordan make a spectacular slam dunk, defeating Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the last few seconds of the fourth quarter.
Oh, and the Olympics! Like the rest of the ENTIRE world, I was captivated by that special event, relishing the two-week binges of figure skating or gymnastics, depending on the season.
I tried actually playing all of these sports. Gymnastics was fun, but after repeatedly falling on my head trying to learn handsprings, I realized that I was never going to be Mary Lou Retton, my favorite Olympic champion of the ’80s. While I liked playing a casual game of basketball or baseball with my cousins, team sports were ruined for me in sixth grade gym class. I was short, I was not a big fan of running, and I couldn’t really conquer the impulse to duck rather than catch the balls that were being hurled at me. This resulted in teasing and bullying by my classmates, especially the guys who groaned whenever they got stuck with me on their team, and intentionally threw, kicked, and hit things at me as hard as they could. So my engagement with sports was limited to the fandom I was raised to embrace. Until I hit junior high.
By seventh grade I had decided I was a punk-rock-artist-type, and that because of this, I could obviously no longer like sports. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding, reinforced by television and movies, that jocks hated anyone who was arty, weird, nerdy, or otherwise unathletic. On the flip side, the punks, artists, and weirdos were supposed to act like sports were stupid, boorish, and totally beneath them.
So I ditched the mandatory pep rallies and constantly complained about the way my school seemed to prize “violent caveman activities” over the arts and actual learning. I chose a college that sold T-shirts proudly declaring the fact that they hadn’t had a football team since 1929. Apparently, my artsy friends were suppressing their fandom, too—I know this, because now my Facebook stream is dominated by their updates about playoffs and lockouts.
I came out of the sports-fan closet in my early 20s. I started bartending and had nothing to do on slow summer afternoons but watch baseball on two big-screen TVs. I found myself cheering for the White Sox, jumping up and down when Paul Konerko hit a home run, just like I did as a kid when Frank Thomas did the same. At first I thought my renewed interest was just nostalgia, but then I realized: it’s fun to be a fan. And here’s why:
Sports are a reliable source of entertainment.
Fun fact: in America, there are usually only two days per year that a professional sport is NOT being played (the days before and after the MLB All-Star Game). Aside from that, chances are you can find a baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or soccer game to watch. When you’re reaching that point in the summer when doing nothing is starting to get to you, baseball season is heating up. When you have the Sunday blues and can’t bring yourself to do your homework yet, football can help you procrastinate.
Contrary to what I preached during my punker-than-thou days, sports do not constitute mindless entertainment. Even though I have no idea what “third down” means, I trust my friend Jeri when she says, “Football has got the strategic and intellectual aspects of chess.” Learning the rules is just as fun as acquiring a new skill, so even if you’re a latecomer to a certain sport, like me and hockey, it’s all about discovery. And there is plenty of trivia to learn, which can be deliciously seedy. For example, in 1919, the Chicago White Sox were dubbed “the Black Sox” after eight of their players were banned for life for intentionally losing games so that they could profit from gambling against their own team.
There are ways to care about sports, even if you don’t really care.
Speaking of gambling (but not in the big, bad, losing-lots-of-money way), one of the reasons I got back into baseball was because I entered a pool with my brother. Basically, you pick 13 guys from different categories who you think will hit the most home runs over the year. My brother did this by analyzing statistics, but it’s basically the luck of the draw, because players can get injured or experience a slump, so yes, you can also pick them based on whose names you like. It makes the baseball season, which is admittedly quite long, more interesting. Plus, one year we actually won $350!
Two friends of mine are into fantasy football for similar reasons. They draft mock teams with real players, compete against family and friends, and keep track of their points via ESPN.com. The site converts the players’ stats into points, the team with the most points wins, and as a coach, you can bench or trade players at whim. My friends told me that they could not have cared less about football before they got involved in fantasy leagues. “Fantasy football hasn’t changed the fact that, unless a touchdown is made, I have no idea what is happening on the field,” Amber says. “The most fun part to me is the shit-talking when you beat your friends.”
And of course, you don’t have to care about football to enjoy the Super Bowl. The half-time show and the commercials are just as entertaining as the game, plus there are all kinds of snacks!
Sports provide a break from reality.
I’ll be honest: for me, the initial appeal of hockey was the fights. Yes, it totally contradicts my pacifist nature, and this is exactly the kind of machismo I railed against in high school, but when you’re having a bad day, cheering on a hockey fight is a great way to get it out. (And, after a certain amount of bloodshed, the refs break it up.) Hell, screaming at your team on the TV in general is a great release.
But you don’t even have to be a yeller. You can be absorbed by a game in the same way you would a book or a movie. I find myself getting as invested in the Blackhawks’ and White Sox’s seasons as I do the latest season of The Walking Dead. There are ups and downs. I get as frustrated with the players as I do with Carl when he won’t stay in the freakin’ house, and instead gets other people killed by zombies. But it gives me something to look forward to—and unlike The Walking Dead, there are way more than 13 episodes! Sure, your team might let you down in the end, like my White Sox definitely did this year, but it’s just a game, and there’s always next year. Just ask Chicago Cubs fans—or maybe don’t. They might be pretty bitter after 104 years without a World Series trophy.
Cheering—and healthy ribbing—is a bonding experience.
As a St. Louis Cardinals/Chicago White Sox fan, I had to make that Cubs joke. That’s part of the fun.
The coolest thing about getting back into sports is that I’ve met so many cool and interesting people while cheering with them for “our” team. When I started bartending, I met a Sox fan named Dave who works some corporate sales job that I still don’t fully understand. We went to the same high school, but he graduated before I got there, and even if we had been the same age, we never would have hung out. He was on the baseball team, so I would have thought he was a jock, and he might have thought I was a freak. I’ve also befriended a carpenter who is the same age as my mom, a former Marine, and a couple of people who won’t be voting the same way as me in the upcoming election. I let sports be divisive for me in high school, but now they’re a way to connect with people.
There are so many different types of sports, from tennis to roller derby, and you’re likely to make friends by cheering for the one that interests you. And, as I mentioned earlier, there are always worldwide bonding moments like the Olympics and the World Cup. If you were as excited about Gabby Douglas and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team as I was, you could find entire Twitter and Tumblr feeds devoted to them. There is something exhilarating about experiencing the highs and lows of a sporting event with millions of other people.
Hot dogs, peanuts, and scorecards are cool.
Seeing your favorite sport live is probably the most fun part of being a fan. Suddenly there are these awesome added elements, like hot dogs and peanuts and ice cream and hot chocolate. And whenever I see baseball with my dad, he’s all about filling out a scorecard to keep track of how each player did at bat. I’ve always loved those, because it’s like being privy to a secret code. For instance, you write “K” either forwards or backwards depending on whether a player struck out by swinging, or just staring dumbly as the ball whizzed by.
Even if you aren’t paying close attention to the game, there’s the energy of the crowd. Folks go all out with their gear, they paint their faces and make crazy signs. The Chicago White Sox have awesome theme nights, the best of which is Mullet Night.
The one downside of pro-sports games is that they can be expensive. Be on the lookout for cheap dates (often Mondays), and check out women’s leagues and minor league teams. As we know, the women play just as hard as the guys, but since the WNBA doesn’t get as much publicity as the NBA, the games are far more affordable—and they are a blast.
It’s an opportunity to shake up gender roles.
Sadly, female sports fans, like female teams, still don’t get the respect we deserve. My friend BethEllen knows more about baseball than most of my guy friends, but one day she came into the bar after a Sox game, and this guy asked the people in her group to tell him about the game. BethEllen started to speak and he cut her off, saying, “No, I want to hear it from someone who knows what they’re talking about.”
Yeah, it was infuriating. We all called him a troglodyte. But despite my anger, I was really proud of BethEllen, and I know that the more of us there are out there, screaming at the TV and celebrating in the stands, the sooner we will drown out idiots like that guy at the bar, and anyone who thinks that sports are out of our league. ♦