March Madness–It’s Opening Day

This is a happy time of the year, when March madness meets Opening Day. Both feature endless hopeful possibilities, especially for underdogs. Will Cornell bring down Kentucky? (Ooops, no luck.) Will we beat the Yankees? It’s possible.

Even in this springtime of hope I wonder why I care. I do, deeply, as do all sports fans. For the next six months, the success or failure of the Oakland Athletics will play a significant role in my daily cheerfulness. Since there are no undefeated seasons in baseball, I will be in the dumps quite a few times. Why? I don’t know any of those people. Really?” asked the wife of one sports fan. “Really, the reason you have been in a nasty mood all day is because your fantasy football team did poorly?” And what can anyone say to that?

I just finished Fever Pitch, in which novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good) tells of his own fanatical fandom of British football, specifically the London team Arsenal. He has a far worse case of the disease than I do.

The book contains far more information than any sane person wants to know about literally hundreds of games that Hornby can play back in his head. It was good to read an articulate and intelligent person owning up to his own madness.

Here are a few quotes:

On sports talk: “And yes, I am aware of the downside of this wonderful facility that men have [for finding easy comrades through sports fandom]: they become repressed, they fail in their relationships with women, their conversation is trivial and boorish, they find themselves unable to express their emotional needs, they cannot relate to their children, and they die lonely and miserable. But, you know, what the hell?” [23]

Yes, listening to sports fans talk to each other is excruciating if you do not happen to share their fantasy. Unlike talk of politics, religion, technology, or even traffic and home prices, sports offers no sign of intelligent life that an outsider can appreciate. But, you know, we can’t help ourselves! It goes down like ice cream to us!

On loyal fandom: “I had discovered after the [horrible] Swindon game that loyalty, at least in football terms, was not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with.” [35]

I’ve marveled over this: whereas non-sports-fans think we choose our teams, in reality we are chosen. In many cases we are born into the elect, because we cheer for the team we happen to live near, or the team associated with the college we happened to attend. But in my case it isn’t even that. I have no idea why I like the A’s better than the Giants. I actually admire the Giants, I follow them and would be happy to switch to their side. But I can’t make myself do that. Not even close. When the A’s win I am happy. When the Giants win…. Eh?

On whose triumphs these are: “One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure…. When there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team’s fun, even though they are the ones that get to score the goals and climb the steps at Wembley to meet Princess Diana. The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others’ good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity…. The Wembley win belonged to me every bit as much as it belonged to [the players], and I worked every bit as hard for it as they did. The only difference between me and them is that I have put in more hours, more years, more decades than them, and so had a better understanding of the afternoon, a sweeter appreciation of why the sun still shines when I remember it.” [187]

It is a remarkable human attribute, that we can live our lives through other people, even (especially?) people we don’t know. And we work at it. It is such an emotionally engrossing passion, it leaves us drained. It satisfies us, and leads us to hope, and makes us dream. It also distracts us from life and relationships, it regularly makes us grumpy, and it costs us money. For real sports fans this is not entertainment, as the word is conventionally understood—it is not relaxing, fun, diversionary. Rather it is almost too serious to allow breath to anything else. We care, so much that it hurts. How do you make sense of this?

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