in Ideas

Pondering the frivolity of sports fandom

In a world beset with important problems ranging from hunger to climate change, stateless people seeking a better life for themselves and families, how is it that we can spend so much time and attention on the sheer uselessness of professional sport?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, because I have an often uncomfortable relationship with sports fandom. People can take it too far, much like they can take anything too far. But an entire set of industries borne around an industry we don’t own, but take a modicum of ownership in, seems useless when we think about al of the ways that we could be benefitting our communities and society at large if we didn’t have so much invested in games that have become bigger than life itself.

When I first saw the tweet above, I thought “well, what separates an athlete making millions from an actor or a hedge fund manager?” Sports are games we play on our own, so it’s easy to look at someone playing a kid’s game and believe that we’re a lot closer to them than a person locked inside a windowless office staring at a computer screen for 14 hours a day. We relate to athletes in ways that we cannot with someone who willingly gets on stage and bears their soul in a song or performs dramatic works in a moving theatrical performance.

So what is it about sports? Can you both abhor the NCAA as an entity and root for the athletes and/or the universities they represent? Is it a massive contradiction to watch gridiron football, hockey or baseball when teams willingly bear caricatures on their uniforms; often with owners, management and players who have retrograde views not in lockstep with a forward-thinking society?

Or should we just be spending our time in better ways? The biggest criticism of sports fandom is how it can consume people’s lives to the detriment of all other things. I find this most offensive when considering how much time we spend in the US on youth sports, when decades ago, kids mostly played with people in their neighborhoods in unsupervised games with always needing adults to mete out the winners and losers.

We’ve surely lost something in a world of millionaire athletes, billionaire owners, subsidies for stadiums and tens of thousands of screaming people who feel entitled to a piece of people for having paid scrip to watch the circus perform. But I’m not sure that sports are the symptom or the remedy for what ails us.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means not just to be an American, but a citizen at large. Amidst this thinking is pondering precisely what responsibility comes with citizenship, how that intertwines with community and whether the collective good is something attainable and how we define what “good” is.

For me, sports are a way to connect with people I’d probably never talk to otherwise. When I find myself, a borderline teetotaler at a bar, knowing I can talk intelligently about all of the other things that interest me, as well as the historical origins of most sports — because I’ve just always been interested — is exciting to me. Sports is a vocabulary no different than my passion for shoegaze records, Star Trek or preference for coming-of-age indie films. I used to be too good for television shows, too. A winter in a rural town fixed that for me, because there were only so many things I could do on the computer.

Participating in an unequal world means making a lot of compromises in order to function day to day. Sports is just another of them. Fandom doesn’t excuse us. We should be cognizant of our complicity in the structures that inhibit progress, even unwittingly.