Most sports come easily to me. Not that I am the greatest athlete, far from it, but after a few years struggling with competition something clicked and I became a competent and clever athlete. As a teen I viewed myself as a scholar-athlete. As an adult I’ve come to realize that in the eyes of most I was the nerdy kid who wasn’t bad at sports. Without going all “Al Bundy”…that makes sense of Phil Vivenzio being so sure he would humiliate me in basketball…and why he “had to go home” when I was up 19-1 in a game of one-on-one we had decided would go up to 20.
Most of my closest friends weren’t athletes and weren’t into sports. We played Avalon-Hill games (D and D didn’t exist) and liked to talk about economic theory, theology, and comic books. My best friend would tolerate football talk. He was a Patriots fan. As was I. They were terrible.
Fast forward 35 years and I find myself in a similar, if somewhat more self aware, situation. So many of the blogs I read and the public intellectuals I respect are anti-sports. Their two go-to tropes for what is wrong with America are Kim Kardashian and the Super Bowl. And I understand why. The crass commercialism, tribalism, nationalism, militarism, narcissism, exceptionalism, and overall excess of the Super Bowl are symptomatic of a culture in denial regarding everything from the state of the planet to the role we play on the world stage.
But that is not the fault of sport.
All culinary art is not invalidated because McDonald’s is a by word for bad nutrition. Twerking does not make ballet any less an art form. All drama does not lose its value because some films are nothing but CGI. Sports, at every level, can provide moments of exhilaration and inspiration in spite of the corruption of modernity, celebrity, and commercialism.
As a society, for good or for ill, we share so very little. In academic terms, we have different individual narratives and our world views are as different from one another as we want them to be. We don’t share a religion, or lack thereof (thank god!), we’ve gone from 3 television channels, to 500, to a nearly infinite selection offered by narrow-casting platforms like YouTube. We’ve gone from 1 or perhaps 2 or 3 newspapers per metro area to a blogosphere where high school Spanish teachers can publish weekly columns on urban issues.
For the most part we share Christmas, at least in its secular guise (this atheist had two Christmas trees and at least 4 crèches in his house), Thanksgiving, July 4th, and the Super Bowl. At the local level here in Springfield we share the Pancake Breakfast, the Parade of the Big Balloons, perhaps the Symphony (that’s a bit hoity-toity), and the Falcons. Springfield was in the American Hockey League from the beginning, the league offices are here, and Springfield has won 7 Calder Cups. I was at one of those Calder Cup winning games in 1975 with my late father and my brother.
At a Falcons game we remember how enjoyable it can be to leave our homes, to stop staring at screens, and to be together as a community and root on our surrogate representatives. We shout, we groan, we even laugh together. We behave. Much better than we used to by the way. There was many a colorful phrase I heard uttered for the very first time directed at referees, linesmen, and opposing players at the coliseum, and later at the Civic Center. I didn’t hear one vulgarity all last night, even after a mysteriously disallowed goal.
On Falcons nights the restaurants are filled, the sidewalks are (relatively) crowded, and there is a positive energy in the air downtown. Like in a healthy community. We know the world does not revolve around the result here. No one will question whether or not the pucks were properly frozen before the game. But we came together as a community. We watched young men trying to perfect their craft. Our team lost. We know that worse things have happened to better people. We’ll get over it. And we’ll remember how to come together and behave as a community.
We may need that in the future, who knows?