I have never in my life followed professional sports. If you’re like me you may or may not be aware that (American) football season is now upon us. Grocers and big box stores hawk jumbo bags of chips, sodas, and other snacks to celebrate the season. Even the most casual fans don’t hesitate to get fired up during football season. Deck out your car, yourself, even your entire basement in your favorite team’s logo and colors. Rivalries heat up and excitement surrounds new players and seasoned favorites. Football ranks with the weather for top small talk topic in American offices.
I’ve always enjoyed the junk food accouterment to watching professional sports; I’m a salty snack person and there are plenty that pair so well with football: nachos, potato chips, potato skins, dips galore. But aside from the accompanying food offerings, I’ve been thinking about why the majority of Americans truly enjoy watching other people play a game on TV, especially in our current political climate.
Firstly, sports teams offer a kind of collective identity that isn’t easy to land on in adulthood. Some folks identify strongly with their city or state; other folks (myself included) identify themselves with their sexuality or political views. However, in these divisive times, identifying yourself as a Cowboys or Bengals fan is a much more lighthearted way to introduce yourself to a potential new employer, a date, or friend of a friend. It feels personal to share your favorite team and it’s still considered polite to jab or tease if a new acquaintance's team is performing poorly this year, or congratulate them on their team’s recent win.
More importantly, sports fandom offers a welcome bridge for people to bond over. My partner regularly chats with people wearing gear with logos for his favorite hockey or football teams. Though they may have little else in common, mutual hatred of the same rival teams, and enthusiasm for their star players creates an immediate warmth that seems so fragile to me, a non-sports person.
Do sports attract the vaguely patriotic among us or vice versa? The ritual of a sports game, which always includes both the national anthem and a round of applause for servicemembers (either general or a few specific ones in the crowd who appear on the jumbotron) is certainly calming to many folks who feel that American Pride (caps intentional) is waning.
We particularly see this in the vitriol that emerges when professional athletes use their platform (televised sports events) to take actions like kneeling during the national anthem. I’m baffled that dedicated sports fans maintain that sports be some kind of “safe space” devoid of the frankly terrifying and disturbing political times we live in.
The most obvious way that sports offer a refuge are the fact that unlike in life and politics, there is a rulebook and officials. Every game produces clear-cut winners and losers. The feedback loop of Team A’s action, then Team B’s reaction, is tight and swift. In the era of cable news, we are frequently left with the pundits to decipher nonsensical actions and reactions from political figures and groups.
Nothing, no matter how outlandish or disturbing, DJT does produces the logical conclusion of impeachment. Despite his lack of regard, many in his party still support him and his policies. This week in particular: a confident and cogent woman can testify that a raving, irrational man is not qualified to be a lifelong appointee to the most important judicial role in our country and that many political leaders still stand behind that candidate, simply does not make sense.
However, in sports, things always make sense. Team A tries a maneuver, and either they are successful or Team B counters with something smarter. There is no grey area for interpretation or wondering why. Team B is having a terrible season, so they swap out a low performer from their roster. Fans of that player might be disappointed, but they’ll join the celebration when the team’s record improves. Team A’s star player is traded to a rival team, and fans will collectively agree to destroy their jerseys with his name and boo him when he comes to play their team wearing his new team’s jersey.
This collective agreement stands in contrast to the stalemate of not knowing with whom and where it’s safe to express frustration, fear, and a range of other emotions about our political climate and the impact of Trump/Republican policies. We don’t want to muddle in the grey area where our boss or our in-laws might say that anyone was a better choice than Hillary Clinton, so instead, we stick to sports. Even if they think we should build a wall and keep immigrant children and families in detention centers, we can agree that the nachos are great and that the final play of the game was brilliant.