Monday, February 05, 2007

What Makes Sports Fans So Nuts?

I love football. Have since I was a kid. But I made a point of not watching the Superbowl last night. I couldn’t bear to watch it.

I grew up in Baltimore, a Colt fan, the child and grandchild of Colt fans. When I was two, I carried Earl Morrall’s playbook at training camp. Growing up, I asked that my room be painted blue and white. I was at half of the home games in ’84 and still can’t figure out why Marchibroda didn’t have them run the ball right against the Giants to put them on the grass to kick what should have been an easy winning field goal. To this day, I can still see the image of those Mayflower moving vans against the snow in the dark, illuminated by the artificial camera lights as clear as if I were in my parents’ living room in my pj’s looking at the tv at this very moment.

That was 23 years ago and I’m now an adult with a wife and kids, a career, and a country mired down in an ill-conceived, incompetently executed war. Yet, the thought of the god-damned Colts, the Indianapolis Colts taken by Robert Irsay (may he rot in hell), winning the Superbowl still makes my stomach churn. On the one hand, it is absolutely absurd. On the other, it is soul-wrenching. The only comparison I can draw is that I am very happily married to someone I adore with every ounce of my being, but if my ex-girlfriend who cheated on me and broke my heart were having her wedding televised, I would rather stick an ice pick in my eye than watch it. It’s not that I would wish that were me there with her, I’m glad it’s not – my life is much better without that relationship. It’s not that I wouldn’t get some perverse joy if she had been left at the alter. I probably would have. I’m perfectly happy with my life, I just don’t care to have to watch her happy and I would spit nails if I had to see Payton Manning holding up the Lombardi trophy with the stupid Superbowl champion ball cap and the confetti falling all around.

What is it about sports that could make an otherwise rational, sensitive, empathetic person feel this way? I was less affected by the games I actually played as an athlete. (I did have a bit of a temper if I, personally, played badly, but if I played well and we got shellacked it would roll off my back.) What is it about being a fan? What leads to soccer hooliganism and the riots that often follow championship victories? Is it the marriage of hope combined with the lack of control? Is it the sense of a need for identity, but a sense that the meaningfulness of that identity is in the hands of someone else? Why do we invest so much in meaningless games and why are those games so emotionally powerful?