Sports Are Stupid... And I Love Them
Michigan and Trumbull
On an unseasonably hot day in the spring of 1992, I walked up a concrete tunnel painted a drab blue clutching my mother’s hand. I remember feeling distinctly vulnerable in the overwhelming sea of strangers surrounding us. Suddenly, this little outing didn’t seem like a very good idea, not a very good idea at all. On my right, two men were calling each other a few names that I knew I wasn’t supposed to say, and I was shocked at how aggressive they were acting toward one another. I stepped on some gum and smelled stale beer and cheap cigars. A large man bumped into my mother with nothing more than an indecipherable grunt. She brushed it off and clenched my hand a little tighter. As we neared the top of the ramp, a few golden rays of sunshine penetrated the vast network of fluffy white clouds overhead and darted across the horizon. I could see a few seagulls swirling overheard; they seemed so out of place. In that moment, I wanted to join them in the sky and hightail it home.
Then, from the bowels of this massive structure, a chorus of cacophony sprang up for no apparent reason. My ears were assaulted with raw, unfiltered noise from seemingly every direction. The sound reverberated through the very core of my being. In my confusion and anxiety, I clenched my eyes tightly closed and tried to convince myself that everything was okay.
Stomping blindly forward, we reached the summit of the ramp at last. My mother bent down and whispered that I should open my eyes. I did, and the fear disappeared instantly. It felt as if the whole world had arrived on my doorstep. The massive grandstands of old Tiger Stadium (formerly known as Briggs Stadium), with their often imitated, never duplicated overhang porches, stood above the greenest and largest swath of grass I’d ever seen. My hero, Lou Whitaker, stood in the on-deck circle; Ricky Henderson disinterestedly paced back and forth in leftfield; and the stands were packed with hot-dog shoveling, cheap-beer guzzling slobs. As I stood there holding my mother’s hand, I had the sneaking suspicion that my life would never be the same. I knew that these were my people and that this was my sanctuary.
Sweet Lou hit a homer over my head into the upper deck in right that day, but the Tigers lost to the Oakland Athletics by the score of 10-6. Yet for the last 22 years, my memory insisted that the Tigers won the game. Not only that, but I was convinced that my MoTown Bengals has stomped the A’s 14-2, and that the stands had been so full and so chaotic that it wasn’t even safe to walk through the main concourse. After scouring the Internet, it seems as though this was nothing more than the fantasy of an impressionable seven-year-old boy.
The Tigers never beat the A’s at home by that score during the 1992 season, and the only instance of Whitaker going yard at home against the A’s that summer came during a late afternoon game before a meager crowd of 9,906. This was the game I attended. Not as exciting as a high scoring sell-out, but doesn’t this illustrate the beauty of sports and, I suppose, the beauty of life as well? There’s always another game to be played, and the crowds will always show once the home team starts winning. The final score doesn’t matter; the attendance doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is the feeling, the emotion tied in with the event. In hindsight, the game itself was completely meaningless, but the effect it has had on my life is immeasurable. Regardless of the stupidity of professional sports, professional athletes, and amateur fans, these moments of transcendent passionate investment always serve to validate my ridiculous fandom. To my close friends, this rationale seems perfectly normal. To my girlfriend, these are the ravings of a lunatic.
Criminals and Crybabies
I get it. Sports are stupid. Watching sports is even more stupid. And watching professional sports is the stupidest thing possible. No one should bother to invest any interest whatsoever in a collection of whiny, spoiled, pampered, entitled, unethical, immoral millionaires playing games designed for teenagers. These people have nothing to do with the rest of us. We have no relationship with any of these adult children. I’ve sequestered a few at various airports for autographs, and I shook hands with Pete Rose and Dwight Gooden (among other criminals) at the Baseball Hall of Fame ten years ago, but I don’t know any of these people. Yet, I care about them. Or, at least, I care about how they represent professional and collegiate teams that I root for based solely on geographical coincidence. What I can’t figure out, though, what keeps swirling through my head, is why?
I’m engaged in a toxic, one-sided relationship that I just can’t escape. In a strictly tangible sense, sports have done nothing for me. Calvin Johnson is yet to write me a check for rent, and Jimmy Howard has never volunteered to dog-sit for the weekend. In an emotional sense, they’ve broken my heart 99% more often than they’ve given me cause for celebration. For instance, the Detroit Lions have won exactly one playoff game in the last 56 years, and it will likely be another 56 before they win another one. Despite this staggering statistic, I tune in every single Sunday during the fall to watch them get embarrassed on national television. To be a sports fan, especially one of the Detroit persuasion, is to be mired in a perpetual nightmare of utter mediocrity.
Another mark against sports fandom: I spend far more time complaining about my favorite teams and athletes than I do admiring them. And this is only getting worse. Athletes’ antics, both on the field and off of it, are becoming progressively more nauseating. It’s become run-of-the-mill for batters to show up pitchers every time they hit a home run, for defensive backs to celebrate after nearly every tackle (despite giving up a big play in doing so and being penalized on the play), and for basketball players to flop on the court like displaced fish whenever an opposing player grazes their arms. On top of this, criminal activity, performance enhancing drugs, and domestic disputes have superseded civic responsibility, honesty, and honor as the status quo behaviors of the modern gladiator.
In 1965, Al Kaline turned down a $100,000 contract because he didn’t feel that he deserved that kind of money after struggling statistically the year before. By his standards, he thought that a six-figure contract was too much considering his poor performance. Now money isn’t everything, but the integrity in Kaline’s actions speaks volumes when you compare them with the modern landscape of professional sports. There’s not an athlete in any one of the four major American sports leagues who would turn down a free lunch. In fact, players’ morals are disintegrating at an alarming rate. Lance Armstrong and Ryan Braun have been exposed as both cheaters and liars, Aaron Hernandez is likely only a few months away from being convicted of at least one murder, and apparently, Floyd Mayweather loves punching people in the face outside of the ring just as much as he does inside it – especially when those people happen to be women.
It would appear that not only do I predicate a large part of my existence on arbitrary strangers, but that these people also happen to be pretty despicable on the whole. Everyone has faults; I get that. But the point here is that the ratio of poor behavior exhibited by the professional athletic community is shockingly disproportionate to the rest of society. Just this past weekend, four Ohio State University Buckeye football players were arrested. Four. In two days. (Full disclosure: Actually this is probably a poor example since, as a Michigan fan, this actually gives me more reason to smile than frown.) Yet, despite this knowledge, here I sit, getting excessively anxious/excited for the 17th annual BSFL fantasy football league draft on August 30th. I can’t help it. I am a sports fan, for better or worse. I’ve contemplated the nature of this interest a lot recently, and I think that my attachment runs much deeper than the games themselves.
Life is full of obstacles: loss, grief, financial problems, relationship issues, etc. These things add up and can swallow us whole, if we let them. Sports fandom represents a way of deferring these burdens – not ignoring them entirely, but allowing for a temporary reprieve from the chaos. They can do this because they are constant in a way that little else in life is. When you sit down to watch a game, you basically know almost exactly what you’re getting into. Your team may lose, and your team may win, but three strikes always equal an out and a touchdown always adds up to six points. In no way does this diminish the excitement and anticipation of the event; it’s always fun to watch my teams (the aforementioned Lions in particular) invent new and interesting ways to lose. But it is comforting knowing that, as much as the names and faces may change, the rules remain relatively consistent. It’s much easier to identify with something when the essence of that something is permanent, something that endures. For instance, while in Norway, I actually bonded over an episode of SportsCenter with a few fellow Americans who also happened to be traveling abroad. It's amazing what a few highlights can do for the homesick heart.
Mathematics may be the universal language, but sports are the transcontinental signifier.
Free agency has eliminated the possibility of growing attached to the athletes. Whereas rosters used to remain largely intact for years, individual players are constantly on the move from team to team. They’re almost nomadic at this point. Individuals are no longer bought, they are merely rented, and this has largely affected the essence of franchises. Five years ago, the Tigers went to the World Series for the first time since 1984. They made another appearance last year, and there were only a few players who happened to be on both rosters. In the span of only four years, there had been nearly complete personnel turnover.
Change is inevitable; it just seems to happen a little more often in the modern setting. Because of this transience, I struggle to identify with players; the only thing that I can truly identify with is the idea of the team. But that idea remains strong, mostly because of the historical aspects of sports.
There’s a sense of pride involved in rooting for the same team year after year, even if that team looks nothing like any previous iterations of itself. It’s comforting knowing that I can wear my Detroit Pistons t-shirt with pride because I’ve been there for the good times and the bad. They’re an illustrious, dignified franchise that has been through some tough times over the last few years, but everyone knows the legacy of the Bad Boys and the workman-like mentality of the 2004 NBA Championship team, led by the ultimate hustle player, Ben Wallace. It’s this historical pedigree that instills a sense of pride in me as both a Michigan resident and a lifelong fan of our sports franchises. I live and die with my teams, regardless of the changing faces, because my fandom transcends the names on the back of the jerseys. Despite what the Vicks and Bonds of the world would have us believe, sports are magical because of the unity created by the sum of the players. Kobe can drop 50 every night if he wants to, but the Lakers are still a joke.
The best way to sum things up is that I am a sports fan because I always have been. It's just who I am at this point. I couldn't stop even if I wanted to. My favorite teams are literally like family. I could care less about the personnel, but when I see that block "M" or that Olde English "D," I immediately relate. They're an extension of me as a person. I know that this probably makes me weak or deficient on some level, but so be it because it's also taught me valuable lessons about loyalty, humility, and respect.
Not only that, but my obsession has actually molded me into a more creative person. I was never any great athlete, but I loved playing Little League baseball and Pop-Warner football when I was a kid. The rare moments when I would actually get an at-bat, I’d pretend that I was Ty Cobb or Mickey Tettleton. On the even rarer occasion that I would get some garbage minutes in basketball, I suddenly transformed into a shorter, weaker, slightly less-talented version of Joe Dumars. Sports served as just another playground to stretch my imagination. These sorts of things stick with you over time. They might not make much sense as an adult, but it’s refreshing to know that I’ll always have a bit of my childhood to carry with me.
Initially, there was the purity of that first wide-eyed trip to Tiger Stadium. I began eating, sleeping, breathing, and dreaming sports. Then, they tore "The Corner" down, and moved into a new luxury stadium with a corporate name and far too much advertising signage. Comerica Park offers a better view than Tiger Stadium, and the amenities are top notch, but it’s not a baseball stadium; it’s an amusement park, purely a money-making machine. Ironically, the timing of the move from Tiger Stadium to Comerica coincided almost exactly with alarmingly increasing salaries, which allowed the inmates to officially begin running their respective asylums. As I've said before, money comes with a warped sense of power, and it has rotted the sports world from the inside out.
The temporal relationship between my introduction to sports and the corresponding skyrocketing salaries of professional athletes (which led to this) leaves me feeling duped in a way, hoodwinked. I was given a glimpse of the last gasp of the integrity of professional sports, just enough to get me hooked - not unlike a crack addict, I suppose. I know sports are bad for me, but I can't stop. I can't stop, because I remember when the love of the game was palpable. I remember when players and fans alike held a great degree of reverence for competition itself. The money was an afterthought; it was the pursuit of excellence that really mattered. That time has long since passed, but my passion remains, no matter how stupid that sounds.