Sports Fan

You know, I could never imagine buying Sunday Ticket. When I lived near Chicago, the only thing I cared about was the Bears, and so football was a sport that only engaged me for about 3 hours a week during the season. A great game here and there might capture my attention, but I didn’t really love the sport so much as I loved my team. That’s how I used to approach most sports. Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, not F1. Jordan, Pippen, and the Bulls, but not basketball. I think one reason I never got into baseball is that the Chicago teams were mediocre to disappointing throughout my childhood.

Yet MK and I just paid DirecTV over $300 without hesitation, because football has become such a part of our lives that we can easily, happily spend nine hours on Sunday watching the games. Fantasy football has certainly changed my relationship to the sport (I’m in two leagues now, and have to track about forty players), but it’s deeper than that. Sports can surprise us in ways that few things can anymore. There’s no script to anticipate. Watching Tony Romo melt-down against the Jets in the 4th quarter is dramatic, but not inevitable. He might be redeemed someday, or perhaps the NFL will turn its back on him as a talented but fatally flawed player. I don’t know what will happen, but it’s become one of the league’s ongoing storylines.

Cam Newton had a career game against the Cardinals on Sunday, but I will remember how angry and solitary he was on the sidelines near the end of the game. You’d think a man would be thrilled to have silenced his doubters and secured his position in a single game, but I got the sense that Newton didn’t care about that. He seemed like someone who had merely affirmed what he already knew: he was a good quarterback and the right person for the job. That decided, he lives and dies with his team’s fortunes. On Sunday, people kept patting him on the back and he accepted their praise uneasily, his body-language screaming, “But we still lost.”

I think it is the reality of sports, and the beauty of the contest, that draws me to them. Careers are at stake. People are living out their life’s ambition, or still trying to realize it. Along the way they push themselves closer to the realm of the superhuman. Jenson Button driving at the Canadian GP, coming from last place to take the victory away from Sebastian Vettel in the last, rainy laps of the race. Tom Brady’s savage dismantling of the Dolphins on Monday as he passed for over 500 yards, working in perfect harmony with his receivers and linemen. Devin Hester breaking the NFL record for touchdowns on kick-returns with two of them in a single game. The Blackhawks almost willing themselves back into championship contention as they took three straight games from the Canucks.

I suppose I am just a bit tired of being told stories, either through filmmaking or writing. I know the tools, I know they usually adhere to formula, and even “twists” follow their own set of traditions. With sports, the stories emerge from earnest contests where the outcomes are never certain, and the process is the payoff. Years later, documentarians might arrive and tell a story that everyone can understand, and people might say, “I had no idea there was this great drama behind the scenes.” But those of us who follow sports know exactly that, and our lives and memories are richer for having watched it happen.

  1. Nice article, Rob. I’ve recently gone through the same transformation, only in reverse.

    I, too, grew up near Chicago, and still have my copy of the Super Bowl Shuffle to prove it. My mother was the football fan in the family and celebrated the Bears each weekend. I would watch to share in her excitement.

    Shortly after we moved to Maryland, Baltimore got their own franchise and went on to win their Super Bowl. My girlfriend (now my wife) adored football and I watched to share in her excitement.

    My roommate at UMass had Pats season tickets and I felt I had never truly seen a football fan until I had met him. I was always happy to play the next game of his season in Madden, no matter the team I had to control, and no matter how much he punished me with Bledsoe and Curtis Martin. Of course I only watched the Patriots with him when they were away, but I would work my way through the games and a case of beer to share in his excitement.

    After school I was back in Maryland and worked with season ticket holders. My wife and I eventually moved into Baltimore and football became more a part of our life than ever. I went to games and watched in bars to share in the entire city’s excitement.

    Now I live in a small town in North Carolina, hours from the Panthers’ base of operations. Nobody I know has season tickets. Most sports talk is about college games around here, anyway. In this relative NFL-free zone I’ve been able to make peace with the fact that I just don’t care what happens in those games. If anything, I’ve only cared about the people around me who do care about what happens in those games.

    My wife is still a Ravens fan, and she’s already begun brainwashing our 7 month old. But she understands I’m just a fan of them, and not the players on the field. I still understand the game enough to cheer at the appropriate times and occasionally call a penalty before the flag is thrown, but I no longer feel a need to feign an interest in what’s happening on screen. And when I’ve grown weary of the hullabaloo each Sunday, she smiles and forgives me as I go and take the dogs out for a very long walk.

      • Flitcraft
      • September 16th, 2011 2:03am

      That’s an interesting point. My sports renaissance came when I moved to Boston, a city that eats and breathes sports like nowhere else I’ve lived. The focus is very much on the major leagues, the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL, and Boston has a credible team in each sport. So no matter where you go, you’re surrounded by people who are keeping one eye on the score. And I’ve become one of them. At a friend’s birthday party at Eastern Standard, a cocktail bar on Commonwealth, one of my dinner companions and I basically split off from the group as the Bruins went to double or triple overtime.

      That excitement is addictive, but I wonder if I’d be as glued to the TV on the weekends if I were in a quieter part of the country, where the first words out of a stranger’s mouth aren’t, “You catch that game last night?”

        • Dan
        • September 16th, 2011 6:58pm

        The relationship between fans and college sports is stronger in the South than the fan/pro league connection is in the Midwest. I don’t know how the south and their fans compare to Boston and their pro fans, but I saw a guy in Nashville get up and smash a chair during the NFL draft because his team didn’t take any players from U. of Tennessee.

        Auburn and Alabama hate each other more than they hate Yankees. LSU fans have a nasty reputation of fighting everyone. In fact, the only time in my lifespan I’ve ever been afraid of fan violence was at a bar watching an LSU game that the Tigers were losing badly. My theory would be that the southerners use up all their emotional investment in college sports (particularly SEC football and ACC basketball) and have nothing left to give to pro teams.

        I would love to get the NFL package so that I could see the Lions every weekend, but there is no way Mariel would ever let me. She doesn’t particularly love football (might even be growing to hate it) so she doesn’t want to cede the living room to me for nine hours every Sunday. Too bad, because there would be a lot of football watching in my diet.

        I just got back from England, where I watched some soccer and talked to people about the difference between American football and the European variety. One is that we have generally better fans (knivings are quite rare and there isn’t nearly the level of racism that exists in Europe), but the other is that I think football is a game that takes much smarter players and coaches (alright, so not every single position, but the intelligence and team coordination needed to play certain positions or in certain schemes far exceeds what is necessary out of soccer players). I think that last aspect is why I like football more than any other sport. All of the players have to work together as components in a precisely calibrated machine. I don’t care that whiny soccer fans think that they shouldn’t stop running and don’t get the down and distance thing. Whatever. Your star player Wayne Rooney sounds like his IQ is probably 6. A Tom Brady or Payton Manning has to be a genuinely intelligent person and scholar of the game instead of just running around and relying on instinct.

          • Flitcraft
          • September 17th, 2011 2:31pm

          Yeah, I’ve heard similar things from friends in the South: life revolves around the Saturday college games, and the NFL doesn’t really have a big constituency. It makes sense. The NFL has ready-made rivalry regions in the North. The cities clustered around the Great Lakes doing battle on Sundays. The steel towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The East Coast cities. Those have always seemed like the strongest places for the NFL, and I don’t think it enjoys the same situation in the South. Whereas more rural regions have more local rivalries and connections. The Carolina Panthers don’t seem to belong to anyone, but the Tar Heels do.

          Hey, if you can’t sell Mariel on Sunday Ticket, maybe get NFL Rewind? You’d have to watch some games late, but they’re all up by Tuesday. And it’s pretty cheap.

          I’m definitely with you on the differences between soccer and football. The NFL is one of the most sophisticated leagues I’ve ever seen. Hell, even the step from college to pro is huge. You ask me, the smartest guys on the teams have to be offensive linemen and defensive backs. Some QB’s just take calls fro the headset and throw, but O-linemen have to make last-second decisions and adjustments without anyone telling them, and without even a chance to really look around and see what’s happening. D-backs also need to be able to anticipate a play and break it up legally, which requires so much trust between players.

          Seeing that three-dimensional chess on every down? It really makes other sports seem kind of brainless by comparison. And as your point out, so do some of their players.

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