Corona has triggered a great hunger in the land. Symptoms of sports deprivation are widespread for good reason. The usual calendar of sporting events has been wiped clean –basketball’s “March Madness” vanished as has the NBA season. Ice hockey left us, and the regular baseball season never got under way. Ditto soccer. The Kentucky Derby was postponed, and it’s unclear whether the Japan Olympics will ever take place. We’re told pro football might be back, but who knows? Same with college football. It’s tough enough sheltering in place, but without sports, what’s a fan to do? Watching games and rooting for our teams has always consumed so much of our waking hours. So did talking about sports – what’s there to talk about these days?
What follows is surely no substitute for the games, but merely an effort, since we have the time, to examine why they mean so much to so many people. It is a given that fans, often so passionate, rarely are asked to explain their preoccupation. But in the absence of live sports, let’s step back and try to account for this enduring attachment.
• For many, it all began during the years in which they were growing up, especially for boys, and more recently for girls as well. Whether in school or afterwards, they played sports formally or otherwise. Many a suburban driveway featured baskets and backboards attached to garages. Informal pick-up games with friends were common. Out in the street fathers could be seen playing catch with their kids. If tennis courts were nearby there’d be many an occasion to play. Back inside the TV often was tuned into a game, sounds of joy or anguish erupting periodically as it progressed. Family outings to sports arenas and stadiums were events eagerly awaited, whether for football, baseball, soccer, basketball or hockey. Bottom line: whether as participants or spectators, sports activities were a joyful component of growing up in America. Fathers took the lead here, and even when mothers were not involved directly, most all were properly supportive.
• To be into sports almost always means you have favorite teams. The origin of fan identification and affiliation can at times be a mysterious process, but by and large it is linked to hometown loyalty. Of course Americans do move around a lot, so you may end up rooting for a team linked to a previous residence. Fans, however upon relocating, are capable also of switching loyalties. Of course, areas with more than one team can complicate matters, but also enliven the sports scene. In L.A., for example, the Clippers and Lakers contend for support; in the New York area it’s Giants and Jets, Yanks and Mets, and Knicks and Nets. Fans just don’t simply support their teams, but live and die with them. It becomes intense once they immerse themselves in the minutia of each team, viz. players, managers, owners, trade rumors, past history, future prospects, etc. They listen to hometown sports shows, pay close attention to the “experts” and analysts and to other fans calling in to voice their views. Being a fan confers identity, produces pride, introduces purpose, offers occasional exhilaration, but is not without its disappointments. Fandom means continually riding an emotional rollercoaster.
• People often become sports fans because they’ve come to idolize a particular player, often a star performer. They will declare their loyalty, demonstrate their familiarity with his record, and defend him against those who might question his achievements. They will confirm their connection by wearing a uniform or a jersey that bears his name and number, or collect memorabilia related to his career. We could mention such players as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Pele, Messi, Tiger, LeBron, Trout, Serena, etc., but it could also be countless others that fans for one reason or another are drawn to, welcome into their extended family.
• All sports have become immersed in statistics, each one generating an ever-growing cascade of numbers that drill down into and evaluate performance. Sports fans have been drawn into this often numbing numerical universe. As a result they’ve become conversant with “records” of all sorts and are quick to cite those that substantiate whatever sports debate may be underway. They may, for example, insist that DiMaggio’s 56-game batting streak will never be broken, or that no one will ever play more consecutive games than Cal Ripken, Jr. Don’t expect anyone to win more majors (14) than Jack Nicklaus, or collect more Olympic medals (22) than Michael Phelps. Remember when the Boston Celtics won eight consecutive NBA titles (1959-1966). Can any team ever top that? It need not be record setting numbers that trigger debates. Fans now recognize that you can’t talk sports these days without statistical corroboration. The numbers don’t lie; do they?
• Of course the essence of all sporting contests is what actually happens on the field of play. For fans the outcome of each game is of principle concern, but along the way there is much to cheer and savor. Each sport has its distinctive and essential elements and moments of high drama. In baseball it may be a disputed call leading to a heated jaw to jaw standoff between a red faced umpire and manager, or an outfielder stretched out fully, glove extended to snare a long fly ball. In football thrill to a reverse, the running back, a phalanx of blockers in front, speeding ahead or a wide out weaving his way downfield, gaining a step on the defender and looking back as a long arcing pass heads his way. In basketball, a fast break is a thing of beauty, the ball whipped from player to player streaking down court, defenders unable to divert or slow down this offensive thrust. So is a series of snapped passes that finally arrives at an open man positioned in the corner, who gets off a three pointer that barely disturbs the net. In tennis there’s the moment of truth when a player, following up a looping shot deep into the corner, charges the net, hoping for a put away, or in hockey when forwards swarm around the net peppering a sprawling goalie with shot after shot at close range.
• No sport contest is without its dramatic moments. Can a boxer, backed into a corner and pounded by blow after blow, survive until the bell? What about no score, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three and two on the batter, or fourth and a goal from the three yard line with seconds remaining in the game, six points separating the two teams? Consider shootouts in hockey or soccer and the emotional rush and excruciating tensions they produce. In any sport there’s much to savor; every fan understands such rewards await him time after time.
• And for every man (less frequently woman) the world of sport is a place they can enter comfortably and find camaraderie, a common vocabulary, a space to congregate, debate and share vicariously in the athletic achievements of their heroes. It is an alternate universe where much can seem to be at stake, where victories can be celebrated and losses mourned, but in time forgotten. Always, there is hope – so long as there are games to be played.