Leaving Fandom: Why I Gave Up Sports, Why You Should Consider It, and How to Start
Ever since I can remember, sports have been an important component of my life and, to be frank, of my identity.
When I was still in elementary school, I prided myself in my robust baseball card collection, surprised others with my ability to rattle off starting lineups going back several years for most major league teams, and looked forward to Little League practices and games. When I moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex in middle school, I found it was easy to transition that appreciation for baseball into an immersion in the football culture that the state is known for, and I quickly developed a love of college football, the Texas Longhorns, the NFL, and the newly-resurgent Dallas Cowboys (I can probably count on one hand the number of Dallas Cowboys games I missed between 1989–2014). In my teens I also started watching professional and college basketball with regularity, took interest in the NHL, studied sports histories and strategies, and otherwise made sports my primary hobby. Despite my small frame and short height, I even dabbled in playing football for a year in high school, ran track as a pole vaulter, and took part in plenty of intramural and pick up games in any sport I could.
Given my strong interest in sports but hampered by my relatively lackluster athletic prowess, in my late teens I chose to focus my energies on becoming a professional play-by-play announcer and applied to Syracuse University with the intention of transferring into their famed S.I. Newhouse School of Communications and becoming the next Bob Costas or Marv Albert. A year into my studies at Syracuse, I sized up the market for sportscasters and, providentially, ended up abandoning that particular goal. Instead, I stuck with a major that focused on the theories behind and research of human communication and have since been able to parlay that into a very rewarding career.
All through college and graduate school, though, sports continued to be a primary area of interest. I held season tickets for Syracuse Football and Basketball. I attended NFL, MLB, and NHL games whenever I could, tried to hit a minor league game or two a year, and frequently travelled to marquee games up and down the East Coast and (later) across the Midwest. I visited Cooperstown several times, checked out the birthplace of hockey and the Hall of Fame in Nova Scotia, and tried to build something sports-related into the itineraries of most trips that I took in my twenties. I had an annual subscription to NFL Ticket for more than a decade and frequently purchased subscriptions for NHL Center Ice, MLB Extra Innings, and the ESPN College Basketball Gameplan. I blocked off Saturdays and Sundays in the Fall for football, ran several fantasy leagues, and bought Madden and MLB The Show pretty much every year. I loved SportsCenter and so-bad-they-are-good shows like PTI and First Take.
I have lots of great memories from these years. Ricky Henderson got mad and pointed at me at a Rangers game in Arlington, TX when I was heckling him like the idiot 12-year old I was. My track team went undefeated and won our conference championship. The Cowboys won Super Bowls when I was in high school. I had the surreal experience of teaching some of the best college athletes in the world during the same semester that they were winning national championships, conference titles, and major bowl games. I won some nice pots in a few fantasy leagues over the years. My Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series on the same day that I found out I was expecting the birth of my first son.
Last year, I decided to drop all of this cold turkey: I decided to give up sports.
Unsurprisingly, I still regularly get the question: “Why?”
This essay is an attempt to answer that question, to explain what I’ve found in the time since I gave up sports, and to encourage you — should you be a sports fan — to ponder whether this choice might be one you should pursue.
A Triple Whammy
As a sports fan for more than thirty years, I’ve have had to weather my share of major controversies. I stuck with baseball through the steroid era, I stuck with the NFL through lockouts and realignments, I stuck with the NBA through strikes and eras of excruciatingly boring play, I stuck with the NCAA through periods of wildly inconsistent rules enforcement and money-driven conference shakeups. None of that, however, prepared me for the kind of self-reflection about my own support for various teams and leagues that several events from 2011–2015 would provoke.
Probably the first thing that a sports fan might need to know about why I am no longer a sports fan is that I had the unfortunate distinction of considering myself a huge fan of three teams in particular: Penn State football, Syracuse University basketball, and Dallas Cowboys football.
In November of 2011, the Jerry Sandusky story about sexual abuse at Penn State broke. A few weeks later, the Bernie Fine story about sexual abuse at Syracuse University broke. About a year later, on my birthday, Dallas Cowboys player Josh Brent killed teammate Jerry Brown by flipping his car while driving drunk; within a few weeks the Cowboys made public their commitment to keeping Brent on the team throughout his time in the criminal justice system (he served only six months in jail). A couple of years later, Jerry Jones and company signed the violent abuser Greg Hardy for $11.3 million a year to play for my favorite team. That same month, Syracuse University was hit with a deluge of sanctions for years of academic dishonesty and various other violations.
With the exception of perhaps Jerry Sandusky himself, in all these cases the most egregiously guilty parties were given the legal equivalent of a “slap on the wrist” or let off the hook entirely (often for reasons that can rightfully be considered technicalities). In all of these cases, the more that we learn about the details of the charges, about the actions of the people involved, and about the team cultures that were cultivated in each respective instance, the more damning the stories become. In a few short years, two men who I spent much of my life looking up to and respecting as immensely ethical and effective leaders — Jim Boeheim and Joe Paterno — were rightfully and swiftly revealed to be vile enablers at worst or shamelessly combative apologists at best. To say I had become disillusioned is putting it mildly: my worldview — one in which sports stood for traditions such as fairness, safety, equity, and mentorship — had been rocked.
During the period I outlined above, I briefly pondered switching affiliations: making the traitorous decision of picking new teams to follow.
“You went to Iowa for graduate school,” I told myself, “maybe you could start rooting for the Hawkeyes!” I had thoughts along the lines of “The Steelers have always seemed like a respectable franchise that a lot of your friends like, and you do live in Pennsylvania, so maybe you should root for them!” and even “Maybe you should just stick to baseball and hockey.” It quickly became apparent, though, that many of the same problems that I found with Penn State, Syracuse, or Cowboys fandom existed to varying degrees in almost all other teams that I considered. The Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was twice charged with rape and faced league sanctions relating to at least one of the incidents. The Hawkeyes had their own history with sexual assault, and many of the people in power from that time were still there when I was shopping for teams. I discovered, much to my surprise and chagrin, that Major League Baseball’s record of dealing with sexual assault is even worse than the NFL’s. The NHL has only recently started to address many long-running problems on the same issue, but the topic had recently impacted the team that I traditionally root for and to be honest, I was then (and remain today) pretty skeptical of meaningful changes to sports culture coming to any of these leagues any time soon.
Beyond coming to terms with the issue of widespread sexual assault in sports, with just a little more introspection I discovered there were many other reasons to despair about the sports I had devoted so much of my attention to. For example, the sport I loved most — pro football — had also been roundly criticized during the early part of this decade for a number of scandals that I found increasingly hard to look past. I’m pretty sure the Patriots, for example, were more or less allowed to cheat en route to two Super Bowls because they are a major source of revenue for the league. Here was the (mostly stream-of-consciousness) rant I posted to Facebook in May of last year, when I finally realized how many things had been working against my ability to enjoy the NFL:
And really, that is the larger problem I discovered when looking for alternatives: the culture in and around sports at all levels is consistently one of violence without consequence. Players from high school through to the pros seem to have a much higher chance of committing an over-the-line personal foul against another player in a game and suffering a suspension for a game or two than they do of committing an over-the-law offense against another human being in the real world and suffering any kind of meaningful legal consequences. Time and again, I found that every team in every league had more than a few “skeletons in the closet” concerning acts of violence that had seemingly escaped justice. These weren’t problems with just my teams, they were problems with virtually all teams.
After much research had been completed and after lots of reading had been done about enough piled up incidents, something hit my conscience with the necessary critical mass, and my fandom broke.
There’s long been plenty of high quality research on this issue, of course, much of which I knew about years before I made my decision to stop watching sports. I knew that sports contributed to problems of toxic masculinity, that the greed and corruption which pervades its highest levels often led owners, athletic directors, and coaches to treat players like livestock at all levels, that significant problems around issues of race, class, and gender persist in all sports at all levels, that substance abuse and other illegal activity is found at high rates amongst elite athletes, that sports too often functioned as an opiate for the masses to distract them from actual consequential geopolitical events, that all the worst trappings of a celebrity-obsessed culture are found in college and pro sports. It didn’t matter: I had found a way to bracket these problems as a case of “a few bad apples” instead of as problems that are endemic to and exacerbated by modern sports culture as such.
To be completely honest, though, I had chosen to exercise purposeful, willful ignorance and indifference on all of these issues. Despite the fact that I had very personal reasons to find the abusive behaviors of so many in professional and college sports especially abhorrent and despite the fact that I had professional reasons to stop supporting institutions who made a mockery of academic integrity, I chose to look the other way for a very long time in the name of indulging my favorite pastimes. It didn’t matter. Watching sports and participating in sports culture was too much fun, it was too much a part of how I understood myself and my relationship to others, it was something I valued as a significant part of my own history. I liked tailgating, I relished a great Monday Night Football game, I got butterflies before playoff games that featured my team. Sports provided many things: participation in a culture, regular adrenaline rushes around moments of high drama, the comfort of routine.
Arriving at a decision to give up sports was still, after a lot of considered thought, a very pained one. I won’t lie: it was tough for those first months to not check scores or try and catch highlights of the games that I had struggled mightily to avoid watching. Things got easier with time, though, and now, a little over a year removed from that decision, I feel (mostly) comfortable on the other side of fandom. Let me explain a little bit about why…
The Other Side
What has been most surprising about leaving fandom is how quickly you forget rosters, statistics, schedules, and historical tidbits. I can’t tell you anything about the Dallas Cowboys starting roster this year (I guess Romo was hurt again? Is Dez still any good? Is he still a Cowboy?) or who exactly they will play this year and when. I don’t remember the number of touchdowns or running yards that my all-time favorite player (Emmitt Smith) retired with. I don’t know if the MLB postseason has started yet or who will likely be in those playoffs (I guess the Mets are in the running? I do know the Phillies aren’t.) I don’t know who the Phillies had in any starting lineup this year or who a likely Cy Young candidate is. I watched some of the NBA Finals this year because I wanted to allow myself an opportunity to see what all the fuss around the Cavs/Warriors rematch was about, but I can’t name one player for either of the teams involved beyond LeBron James and Steph Curry. I don’t know who either team beat along the way to the championship. Two years ago, not knowing these things would have been unconscionable to me; now I don’t care at all.
Not keeping up with sports and not watching games has been a tremendous freeing up of my time, a much needed boon to my intellectual and creative development, a benefit to my psychological and physical health, and an overall worthwhile decision at this stage in my life.
In the last year I have written more than I have probably written in any year of my life, which is important when writing is part of your livelihood. I discovered a new hobby (Geocaching) that pushed me outdoors and engages my interest in games and puzzle-solving in compelling new ways. I’ve found more ways to be productive in my professional work, put in concerted effort to try and be a better colleague and friend to many of the people that I interact with daily, and have become a partner and father that doesn’t hide away on weekends (and some weeknights) yelling at the TV, eating junk food, and drinking too much soda and beer. I’ve taken day trips to visit new places and better appreciate fall foliage on weekends in the fall.
I’ve learned to sleep in more and go to bed at a reasonable hour on those nights that I used to stay up watching west coast games. I’ve spent more time kayaking, subscribed to a couple of new magazines, and rekindled an interest in vinyl records. Heck, I even cobbled together a bizarre album of ambient and moog music that, even if I am the only one I know who digs it, allowed me to scratch a certain kind of artistic itch for the first time in fifteen years.
I certainly could have done many of these things with or without the presence of sports in my life, but I sincerely believe that, over the years, spending so much of my free time focused on sports came at the expense of developing other interests. I was fine with that arrangement when I could feel good about the time and money I spent supporting my sports fandom, but as the problems outlined above mounted and the unease I felt in supporting certain teams and leagues grew, I started looking for other ways to spend my free time. It didn’t take long to discover just how preferable it was to indulge in activities that were free of the heavy moral and ethical baggage that surrounds sports culture, and it soon became increasingly easy to step further and further away from fandom altogether.
As an ardent news junkie, of course, I haven’t completely escaped sports news. I have followed the Kaepernick story with great interest, read about and weighed in on some of the Olympics controversies, and know that the Philadelphia Eagles are doing well from headlines in the local paper. I also still learn about stuff like what happened at Penn State last weekend from social media and elsewhere.
The recent Penn State story is a good example of how being on the “other side” of fandom has impacted my worldview. The years I spent ensconced in sports culture has allowed me to appreciate something about the juxtaposition of perspectives espoused by people who are die-hard fans of their teams and the perspective of people who have never taken much interest in sports at all. So, at a certain level, I can understand the mentality of people like Joe Paterno apologists and can understand what would lead Penn State to plan an official celebration of Joe Paterno. Likewise, I can easily follow the line of thinking that views Kaepernick’s actions as potentially destructive to his team, I can see the motivations that drive someone to want to adopt Ryan Lochte’s version of the events around his arrest in Brazil, and I can kind of sympathize with fans willing to pay exorbitant prices for a chance to see a dream realized (even if it seems absurd to the non-sports fan). That is, even if I can no longer wrap my head around those positions or espouse them myself, because of the time I spent in sports fandom I can at least understand the rhetorical frameworks and social pressures which may drive someone to do so. I have found that perspective to be valuable in ways that I probably would not have appreciated when I was myself deep into fandom, and it is yet one more benefit of giving up sports.
There have been a lot of tangible benefits to my giving up sports. I don’t feel like I’ve lost a single important thing. That’s why I think you should try it.
I will never be able to entirely escape sports, nor do I think it would be healthy to do so. For better or worse, I buy the argument that sports culture reflects a lot of American culture generally and, as both a professional critic and a citizen who attempts to remain informed, I consider it my responsibility to keep up on those instances where sports and other aspects of our world collide — such as on issues of human rights or politics. In any case, live games and SportsCenter will still be on when I go to a bar or restaurant, I’ll still be inundated with print and video advertisements almost everywhere I go, I’ll still scroll across social media stories about various players, teams, and leagues, and I’ll still hear about how important game X or player Y is in any given week from others I know who still enjoy sports. But I won’t be paying attention to scores, stats, schedules, or specifically sports news.
I don’t mean to come off as “holier than thou” in this essay, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their fandom nor would I cast aspersions on people for following their passions and interests. I think that there is a lot of great work to be done to fix the problems of sports culture from within sports itself and I value the opinions of current and former players, coaches, executives, and various commentators who use their positions of power and connections with their sport to make genuine attempts to do so. I think playing sports offers a lot of benefits. My son plays youth soccer, and my girlfriend’s son plays junior high football, so I still go to sporting events with some regularity and do my best to get in the spirit and cheer on their respective teams when I am there.
I do worry that if they continue to play sports as they get older, though, that they will encounter more and more of the toxic culture that ultimately pervaded so many of the teams that I grew up following and that ruined the lives of so many both inside and outside of the sport. I am bothered by the fact that several local high school teams have themselves been embroiled in cases surrounding assault and cheating and bothered about what the outcomes of those cases (and the community reactions to each of them) means about the sports culture where I live. I ultimately believe it is my job to support both boys in their pursuits, but also to let them know why I won’t share their potential interest in an NFL game or the World Series.
All of that said, if the idea of giving up sports is intriguing to you, I’d love to help you give it a try. I’d like you to know that it is better, for me at least, on the other side of fandom and that if you have any misgivings about your own enthusiasm for sports, it might be worth at least trying to go cold turkey. A few things to do and not to do that helped me:
- Get rid of Satellite and Cable TV. The main reason I had kept DirecTV (or cable) over the years was because of the access those services provided to live sports. I still watch plenty of TV and movies through services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, but it is a lot easier to give up sports when you can’t turn the channel and find them. If, like me, the reason you have one of these services is for sports, cutting the cable is the most important thing you can do if you are serious about going cold turkey.
- Stop following and frequenting sports-related media online. Unfollow the teams you’ve liked, get rid of your ESPN account, remove sports stuff from your bookmarks, turn off sports alerts on your phone, and drop out of fantasy leagues. Like with #1, the main idea here is cutting out those outlets that feed into your fandom, and nothing does this more pervasively than online media. Like an addict going through detox, those first few days and weeks without your daily dosage of boxscores and trade news might be tough, but if you can perserve early on you will find it gets easier in time.
- Reconnect with old hobbies and discover new ones. This is especially a great idea if you can do hobbies that coincide with seasons of the year and/or times of the week that you might typically be watching sports. I started doing a lot more outdoor stuff in the Fall, for example, when I stopped watching football on the weekend. Take giving up sports as an opportunity to take up something else — hopefully some pastime that is relatively free of those reasons that made you want to give up sports in the first place
- Get rid of sports clothing, paraphanelia, etc. The less often you are wearing jerseys, hats, and t-shirts that show support for a team, the less likely you will find yourself engaged in conversations around those teams. I’ve opted to keep a Phillies hat I quite like and some Syracuse and Iowa hats that remind me of the University rather than its sports teams, but I think this goes hand in hand with the other suggestions above. If you are trying to go cold turkey, your local thrift store is a better place for these items than your own closet.
- Don’t make a big deal out of it. Some of the people in my life who are reading this essay will likely be surprised that I’ve given up sports, and until now — aside from that one post on my Facebook page from last May — I have typically tried to avoid bringing up the topic and having a long conversation around my reasoning unless people specifically ask. I think that there’s a risk that you can come off as smug, aloof, privileged, or antagonistic when you proclaim to that you have decided to stop doing that thing that your friends and family still do. I have some misgivings about whether this post sounds that way, but I have tried to temper that tone with lots of specific context around my own decision and a genuine offer of support that comes from some time spent in my new position. I don’t think I could have done either at first.
- Don’t stress when you do encounter sports. As I said above, you will still run into sports discussions, sports news, sports advertising, etc. even if you try to cut it out of your life. You may find that you still enjoy going to an occasional game or following one specific sporting event closely (e.g. the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup). It is essential that when you do find sports in your life — either by mistake or on purpose — that you are able to contextualize it, moderate it, and retain your long-term resolve. Make a conscientious effort to not exhibit the kinds of behaviors that you associate with past fandom, try to leave the encounter in the moment instead of dwelling on it afterwards, and otherwise retain your critical edge.
- Don’t worry if you don’t succeed the first time. Go back to #1, repeat these steps, and try again. The more enmeshed in sports you are, the harder it will likely be to break away. If you really are serious about giving it a try the first time, though, keep trying.
At this point I’m sure this concluding portion of the essay sounds much like a list of things to do when fighting addiction. I never really considered sports to be that for me, but I know that I certainly exhibited signs of unhealthy obsession from time to time. More than that, though, increasingly this was an obsession with a culture that I couldn’t condone in any way, didn’t want to support with my time and money, and wouldn’t want to be affiliated with any longer. In any case, I have found these to be things that helped me when I decided I wanted to give up sports, and maybe they’ll help you if you think you’d like to try too. Good luck.
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- top photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/augustbrill/3395988500