Dan Rydell from SportsNight: “I’m starting to get a little cheesed at people telling me the reason I don’t like soccer is that I don’t understand it. I think I do understand it. I think I understand it just fine. I just happen to think it’s a mind-numbing bore, and that any reasonable person would rather be playing it than watching it.”
SPORTS, RELIGIONS, AND FETISHES
Sports are a lot like religions and fetishes: The ones you’re into are fascinating to the point of obsession. You spend money, time and resources on enjoying them. Yet… the other ones seem weird, seem stupid, seem like a colossal waste of time.
Today, there are professional video-game-players. In the same way that professional skateboarders were essentially unfathomable just a few decades ago, to many, pro-gamers is a ridiculous thing.
To me, professional sports is like that. It doesn’t affect me, I don’t really understand it, and I just can’t make myself care.
I WISH MY FAMILY WAS PROUD OF ME
They’ve told me they’re proud many times. They say the words.
Graduating from university with a pair of bachelor’s degrees was a big day in 2002. My degrees were not wussy degrees, either: not underwater basket weaving, not physical education, not drama (although I’d been a drama major for three weeks, when I got there and found people… actually… speaking in a… halting… Shatner-esque… manner… I couldn’t run from the Drama Building fast enough).
My dad kept saying how proud he was, so often in fact, I’d ultimately roll my eyes from having heard it so often. Not cool, Sebastian.
At graduation, I was one of the few who had to decide which college I wanted to walk with: the college of Social and Behavioral Sciences, with my philosophy department peeps, or the straight-up Science college with my psychology department peeps. Getting to choose which department I would ‘walk’ with… felt like an additional honor, in a way.
I remember the Dean of the SBS college interviewing me prior to graduation. His closing words were, “I don’t know if you realize what you’ve accomplished here.”
I always liked that.
The thing is, I’ve always tried to be humble about my college work (especially the philosophy degree) despite how proud I am of it. I earned a psych degree mostly with work in what was called biopsychology but is now called neuroscience. I earned a philosophy degree mostly with work studying artificial intelligence… only it was mostly by accident.
I was aiming for a philosophy minor, but the different classes were so interesting, and I’d procrastinated my pre-graduation audit for so long… that I’d long passed the point of getting a minor, and the counselor told me with just a little more work, I’d have a double major. Two degrees.
I remember walking down the aisle. I remember my name being called. I remember knowing roughly where my family was sitting, and I specifically remember breaking a rule, pausing on the stage with my arms in the victory V stance, aimed at about where my parents were sitting.
I remember thinking, “that’s funny. I thought I would have seen the flashbulb go off.”
No one remembered to bring a camera.
There were many pictures later, there was food and people and gifts and everything. They made a big deal.
They told me they were proud of me.
And, to be fair, my family has never been anything but supportive of me in every way. I feel very lucky most of the time. Some friends of mine have parents who died many years ago. Others are estranged from one or both parents. Still others aren’t estranged but don’t have much contact or support or caring, maybe they don’t visit for holidays, and so on.
Yet my family’s into sports now, which leaves me on the sidelines.
ON THE AIR
I began in radio in 1992, as an intern at a news/talk radio station in Tucson. I’ve worked in Arizona, Kansas, and California, in small, medium and major radio markets. I’ve done thousands of news stories, traffic reports, weather forecasts, special reports, national television, local television… but I’m most proud of having had my own radio program.
It was on 960am in San Francisco. If you’re not from San Francisco, that sounds supremely cool, and it was. But 960am is not a big or powerful radio station, in fact, there are college stations with a larger reach. In the past fifteen years, it’s been a big band station, the hyperliberal Air America Network affiliate, a hyperconservative station, I think now it’s a Bloomberg affiliate… it’s a station with such low power and such small reach that the corporate owners keep shifting the format, hoping to stumble onto a way to make its 5000 watts into a gold mine.
That will never happen.
But, for nearly five years, every Saturday from 2009 to mid-2013, I had my very own radio program.
It was originally going to be a team effort. I was going to be the nerd, the reserved, logical science officer if you like, and my buddy Justin was going to be the outraged guy, who lived-and-breathed sports, but was also super serious about local news. He was going to be the lead anchor, and I was going to be the sidekick, the correspondent, the lead reporter.
I was okay with that. It was still going to be half mine, and I was going to get the chance to tell the stories I wanted to tell, the stories that weren’t otherwise getting told, the stories I felt were important and the stories that made me smile, frown, laugh, and/or cry.
Then, before our debut, Justin accidentally swore on the air.
It happened twice, on a Friday. Justin got fired. I retooled the show format, and in January 2009, I launched a show I was truly, truly proud of.
The first major story I covered was the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by police officer Johannes Mehserle, and the resulting protests and riots. Serious news that needed to be seriously reported.
Because it was my own show now, it was completely up to me to decide what was important enough to go on the show.
Things voters need to know. Medical and technological breakthroughs. News of justice, traffic and transit, natural resources and conservation, and abuse of power by law enforcement and lawmakers. Field reports where I could find time to get out of the radio building.
And… absolutely no sports, no entertainment, no fluff. Nothing unimportant, and sports and entertainment may be interesting, people may want to hear about it, but it’s not truly important and the people who think so are either not listening anyway or, if they are listening, they need to get educated on real journalistic priority.
I wanted to singlehandedly fix the news media, on a weekly, weekend radio show on a weak radio station that no one really listened to. I was pretty idealistic in those days. (Anyone who’d later watch HBO’s The Newsroom would see definite parallels in what I was trying to do, which is why that show now scratches me _right_ where I itch.)
The occasional opinion piece would follow, by my boss, by me, or by the occasional guest commentator. I reported from Florida for the final Space Shuttle launch. I softened my rules on features and interviewed Rita Moreno one time, the MST3k guys another time, and pioneered my “Sports For The Non Sports Fan” segment where I covered the San Francisco Giants winning not one but two World Serieses (with the help of my two friends and awesome producers, Robert Costa and Jon Woo).
I was so proud of the show. I’d tell my family how to listen online, I’d send links to the radio station, and even provide instructions on how to listen to the recorded podcasts, on their own schedule, at their own leisure. On the computer, iPad, or phone, day or night, weekday or weekend.
They pretty much never did, or if they did, I’d have to attach the actual audio file to an email and spoon-feed it to them, and I’m not sure they ever listened to that.
I remember thinking for years, I wish my family was proud enough of me to listen. Here, I have my own radio program every week, stuff that’s important, stuff that’s relevant and powerful and on and on… complete with a web site and a chat room and live video links to me inside the studio.
I don’t know if it’s right to feel that way. But just as in childhood, when my sister the rodeo champ and high school athlete got attention and resources and praise while I the computer geek was left mostly alone, it felt like my family was going out of their way to say, “yeah, yeah, that’s really great Sebastian,” but when I’d ask innocuous-yet-specific questions to see what they liked about the show or what they thought of this story or that… I don’t remember ever getting an answer that indicated they gave a shit that I had my own show or was trying to do good journalism, singlehandedly.
BEING A NERD
It’s not easy being a nerd.
I’ve had to avoid all sports events and discussions… all my life… at all costs.
When people talk about sports, there I sit, trying to look comfortable, examining the potted plants.
When I had no choice and was forced to participate in sports, like during high school… you really don’t understand the trauma.
When you’re no good at basketball, or baseball, or soccer, or tennis, or wrestling, and you’re forced to do it anyway, in front of other boys, with other boys… to call it “traumatic” is the Understatement of the Millennium.
As a kid, I had one or two friends who were boys. We did things like play with Star Wars action figures, or computer games, or program computers, or reenact Star Trek episodes. I never felt like I was deprived, like I was missing out, or like there was something missing.
We weren’t a sports-intensive family when I was super young. I never played in any little leagues, I never had boys in the neighborhood where I lived at all (much less guys who wanted to play sports with me), and the athletic activity in my family during childhood was mostly equestrian stuff. Instead of little league, my parents had me in 4-H. I won an award here or there in the 4-H horse project, but I was never very good at any of it.
I remember playing one-on-one soccer with my mom’s friend’s son, a year or two older than me. I looked up to him, I felt like he was my friend… but I wasn’t his friend. Asymmetrical relationships like that are very confusing for kids. At least, they were for me.
They still are.
Mom and her friend would hang out, smoking cigarettes and talking endlessly, while James and I were supposed to play together. James didn’t explain soccer to me, and he didn’t tell me what was going on in our one-on-one game. He never told me I was supposed to prevent him from kicking the ball into the fence which was his “goal”. He never told me the other side was my goal. He never let me practice, he didn’t explain the rules, and then he loudly made fun of me when I got things wrong.
I got everything wrong.
I remember him kicking the ball into the fence on one side and going “woo hoo, I just scored a point.” So I mimicked him, kicking the ball into the fence, and going “woo hoo”.
He doubled over with laughter.
“You just scored another point for me.”
Yeah, it’s funny if you know what’s going on. But sadly, this was one instance of dozens where something was going on that I didn’t understand, people expressly refused to explain, would ridicule me if I didn’t want to participate, and then would ridicule me when I tried and fucked it up.
I remember my first basketball free throw, in P.E. class in high school. To this day, I cry remembering the experience. It scarred me.
It was at the special high school for gifted students. The problem was, the school shared a campus with a regular troglodyte high school, and the physical education classes at this school were combined with the troglodyte kids.
I may have seen Hoosiers by 1989, and living in southern Arizona, if you don’t loudly support the holier-than-thou U of A Wildcat basketball team in a full-throated manner, you are ridiculed. I tried to fake it as best I could.
But I’d never had a basketball in my hand, I’d never tried to make a basket, and when I did, I didn’t know how to make my hand move in the right way to make the basket. No one had ever shown me, I’d never played before, and the P.E. teacher apparently didn’t know or care, and couldn’t fathom a boy that didn’t know how to do a free throw.
When the time came for me to try, the result was an extremely effeminate motion that made the entire class burst out in raucous laughter, teacher included.
“Nice, uh, technique.”
No one showed me how to do it right. To do that would have meant an end to their entertainment.
I don’t remember if it was during the summer recreation program or an actual P.E. class, in fact I think it was both, but in the same way no one had shown me soccer or basketball or told me the rules or let me practice, the same was true of football.
I have a vague recollection of people laughing wildly, and trying, through their laughter, to explain downs, sacks, blitzes, and scrimmage lines.
The problem is, when you’re laughing at someone while you’re trying to explain this sort of thing… all I was ever able to hear was the laughter.
I was trying to process why it was funny. I was trying to figure out what I’d done wrong, and I truly didn’t understand why someone not understanding the rules or having practiced or even handled a football before… was funny.
It was hurtful, and it hurt.
I didn’t understand the rules, I didn’t understand why no one would explain the rules to me, and I didn’t understand why people found it so funny.
I was mocked, ridiculed, laughed at, and worst, prevented from improving by cruel people who liked having something funny to laugh at.
I’d cry every night, praying for clarity, yearning for someone to stop the humiliation, wishing I could join in and belong, hoping the next day would somehow be different.
Just today, a U of A football star was cited for a post-victory DUI. A handful of charges, caught with weed along with six people in the Camaro he was cruising around in, following a massive win by the Wildcat football team over the ASU Sun Devils.
Yet we all know such athletes can do no wrong. Nothing will happen to him.
I went to a few classes with guys like this. We all know they’re treated like gods among men. They get the fattest gifts from all the nicest companies. They get their pick of all the hot women they want (if they’re into that). They’re heaped with praise, they’re constantly fawned over by sportscasters on national and local tv, interviews on the radio, photos in the newspaper and online, and as if all that weren’t enough…
Yes, they get preferential treatment by instructors and professors, they get preferential treatment by administrators and the cops (when applicable), and some of you who cheer “WE WON” in their honor actually think they deserve to get paid money also, because the university gets coverage and revenue and donations off their backs, and you think they should get a slice of that.
Fair is fair, right?
“’WE WON!!’ No, no… A bunch of guys who would hate you, if they knew you, won. YOU didn’t do anything.” -Bill Maher, genius, comedian, realist
FAIR WEATHER FANS
Now, my family has developed this fair-weather appreciation for football. It was never there before. It has happened without me, and I again feel left out. They talk about football games, and teams, and players, and I have nothing to contribute.
They joke and laugh and have opinions on football-related issues, but like most sports fans I’ve known, they don’t play and never have, and they’re not qualified to criticize or praise, yet they have no problem in espousing all kinds of opinions on who’s doing good and who’s a star and who’s injured and who’s a bad seed.
They’ve been supportive, they’re communicative, I get to come home for the holidays just about every year (unless I have work stopping me), yet when I come home now, they want to watch and discuss football, and they don’t MEAN to leave me out of it… yet they know I have no interest in the game, and since they do… I’m kind of left behind.
I wish I could sign up. I wish I could care. I wish I could watch, and understand, and generate blowhard opinions I have no right to.
I would like to join in and belong.
But there I sit, trying to look comfortable, examining the potted plants.
And all I can think of is… gee, I guess if I’d only been a football player, I’d be interesting to my family.