It didn’t occur to me that solitary chanting, talking to the television, changing hats, knocking your knuckles on the floor, then crossing eight fingers while jiggling both knees and saying, “Please please please please please,” kicking walls, or screaming profanities at the indifferent stars were in any way out of the ordinary until the week I moved in with Liz and her sister, which coincided with the 2010 NBA Finals. I watched game seven from an ottoman pulled to the middle of their living room floor, being too nervous to sit in a normal chair and also concerned that any relaxation on my part might impact the team’s sense of urgency. The game ended with purple and gold confetti pouring from the rafters and me lying on the floor beside the ottoman. Liz wisely waited for the bellowing to subside before trying to console me, but it was still too soon, so I rolled away from her, pressed my face into the carpet, and continued moaning.
When I was finally ready to talk about it (several days later) Liz asked me to explain what had happened. This was when I understood that watching your team blow a twelve-point lead isn’t like watching your dog get hit by a car, or your parents deported to another country, or a sinkhole opening up and swallowing your house. Despite being a cliché, the agony of defeat is not a universally intuited form of grief.
“It’s only a game,” my father told me last January, minutes after the New England Patriots had lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the American Football Conference Championship. It’s a phrase that manages both to make the point precisely, and miss it completely. In my father’s case, it was also utter B.S. What he meant to say—and what he did say the next day in a family email chain—was: How could New England do that to their fans? Then he asked a follow-up question, which I believe he meant rhetorically. It’s a question Liz has been asking me, more or less, for the last three years, one I’ve never been able to answer. Why do we put so much into our teams that their fate determines ours?
It’s a question that feels particularly urgent this October. The Red Sox are in the World Series, which means I’m clearing my schedule for the fourth week in a row to make sure nothing prevents me from sitting in front of the TV for four hours of pure stress.
When we see the obsessive sports fan leaping off his couch, spilling his Lays potato chips and sloshing the foam on his Bud Light to high-five his multi-cultural bros, or rising to his feet along with seventy thousand body-painted peers in an exhilarated, stadium-rumbling roar, the allure of sport is obvious: primal joy, shared. In his 1912 book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that communities create symbols—the flag, the cross, the Flying Elvis—because we have such powerful feelings about being part of a group and we need to unleash them on something concrete. In the midst of an assembly animated by common passion, we become susceptible of acts and sentiments of which we become incapable when reduced to our own forces; and when the assembly is dissolved, and when, finding ourselves alone again, we fall back to our ordinary level, we are then able to measure the height at which we have been raised above ourselves.
Durkheim calls this “collective effervescence.”
In Interaction Ritual Chains, Randall Collins applies Durkheim’s work to a definition of sports: The leisure time of modern societies… has become dominated by this species of deliberately invented ritual, designed to provide moments of ritual solidarity that previously would have been provided by religion, warfare, or political ceremony. Collins points out that most league rule changes have a common denominator. The ten-inch pitcher’s mound, the three-point shot, the two-point conversion, the four-on-four overtime: all create more opportunities for collective effervescence.
But claiming that celebration is the reason we watch sports is like explaining language by saying, “words stand for things.” When you dig deeper, the most obvious answer becomes woefully inadequate. By definition, half the fans in any game will not experience the ultimate effervescence of cheering a victory, and only a tiny minority will find themselves rooting for the team that wins the championship. Every sport has a select handful of elite teams, and even if you allow those teams an inordinate number of bandwagon followers, the majority of fans experience mediocrity at best and futility at worst, year after year.
For fans in places like Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, rooting for your team is a form of numbing punishment, a blood curse passed down from parent to child. And yet. The Detroit Lions won a total of zero games over the course of the 2008 season, but more than 376,000 fans still came to their eight home games. Almost 50,000 people showed up to watch the Lions get a forty-two to seven licking from the New Orleans Saints in the final home game of the most abysmal season in NFL history.
Liz and a few billion other significant others would certainly agree with Collins, though, that sport has come to dominate their leisure time. It isn’t only the time spent in direct observation of the game, time that could be spent engaging directly with her, or at least time that could be spent with something better on TV, it’s the funks, the tears, the depression, the rage. I have hit a friend in the face because he disrespected Pedro Martinez; lied to my Kenyan mama as a Peace Corps Trainee to spend the night at a shady bar watching the Red Sox; abandoned Liz at a wedding reception to watch the Celtics at the hotel bar. To access games on cable TV, I’ve shamelessly imposed myself on friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers on multiple continents at hours ranging from six p.m. to six a.m. in reckless disregard of their team allegiance, interest in sport, or the presence of small children trying to sleep. I closed down a Superbowl party two years ago by rising without a word from the chair I’d placed two feet from the TV and leaving without saying goodbye, to anyone, including Liz, punching our hosts’ wall on my way out. I spent the next hour riding my bike through the frigid city screaming “Fuck” and sobbing hysterically, all over something I will freely admit is entirely meaningless.
Last year, after the Patriots stomped the Houston Texans in an important regular season game, my father, a frugal man, told my stepmother (as he later recounted in one of his sermons) that he was going to order “a navy blue Tom Brady t-shirt from the online team store with Patriots logo on the front, ‘Brady’ across the shoulders and number twelve in large numbers on the back.” As recounted earlier, he put on a good front in the immediate aftermath of the Patriots’ eventual playoff elimination, but his feelings of betrayal spiraled quickly. He ultimately resorted to a Biblical allegory, with Jesus representing Tom Brady and my father as the hometown crowd in the Gospel who started by cheering Jesus on his first return to Nazareth and ended by trying to throw him off a cliff.
This was the year Tom Brady finally broke my heart, my brother wrote in one of the long family email chains that only sports ever seem to provoke. Fool me once Tom (’07 Superbowl), shame on you. Fool me four more times (’09 to present) shame on me.
My cousin Ben was more philosophical, raising the second great explanation for why we let sports break our hearts: Through this largely meaningless performance, regardless of the outcome, I’m connecting with family and friends… sharing this fictionally critical portion of our identity that nevertheless comes with real shared grief (and occasionally celebration) and brings us all together. Sports do connect people, and not just in the anonymous, ritualistic thrill of collective effervescence. My father and his two brothers live in three different countries. My brother, my cousins, and I are in Minneapolis, Richmond, Golden, and Nouakchott. As Ben wrote, This is why I keep putting myself through it, because I know all of you guys sat in a similar position, in a similar non-blinking stare as our beloved team dropped out of the playoffs.
The connection isn’t just with the living. After the Red Sox won their first World Series in eighty-nine years, my Uncle Doug sent out an email about watching Pete Runnels hit a walk-off home run on a trip to Fenway Park with my father and their father in 1959, just a few years before their father died in a car accident. I have shed a lot of tears today for something that I always hoped would happen in my lifetime. Sorry you are not here to celebrate Dad. How sweet it is…
Just a few weeks ago, I found myself shedding some unexpected tears when Big Papi hit a second-inning home run against the Tampa Bay Rays. There was something so familiar in the sequence: the smooth violence of his swing, how he rocked back on his heels to not-quite-impassively admire the diminishing ball before he eased into his trot, how any second the phone would ring and I would hear my grandmother’s excited voice at the end of the line, “Can you believe Big Papi?” Except I wouldn’t. The Red Sox were in the playoffs again, but she was dead, three years now. Buried in Westborough, Massachusetts under a Patriots blanket.
Despite this, my question remains unanswered. I have no doubt that if sports didn’t exist, we’d invent something else to bring us together. If not religion, opera, or politics, then bootleg Dead shows, competitive jigsaw puzzling, celebrity gossip, Oscar parties, scrapbooking, massive multi-player online games. People find ways to connect, and most people don’t choose pastimes that make them miserable.
There’s something about the thing itself. The experience of rooting for a team. Watching the Celtics’ playoff run in 2008 was one of the most epic emotional experiences of my life. It was a team of veterans so eager and unselfish, so desperate, they froze up like rookies in the first two series, faced elimination twice, but advanced each time. They played twenty games in forty nights, and I watched all of them. I had been rooting for Paul Pierce for more than a third of my life, and it was a privilege to witness the intimacy of those games between ten men, the psychological laws of momentum that ruled each possession, the will to win that had existed from the first game of the season now slowly, finally being matched by the understanding of how to win when it mattered most, how to dominate another team physically and mentally, how to transform your will to win into a physical fact in the world, getting your bucket and forcing the other team to miss theirs, culminating in a title-clinching, thirty-nine-point blowout in which the second half was one slow-motion joy explosion until the horn blew and KG started screaming “Anything is possible!” A few months later, Paul Pierce looked like this when they gave him his ring.
I can only compare those forty days with Celtics to the month I spent reading The Lord of the Rings when I was eleven and the month I spent watching The Wire two decades later.
Sport is life as we want it to be, with heroes and villains and rules, with an undisputed winner. after watching politics all day i realize even more why sports r the only thing real and the only thing worthwhile, my buddy Danny wrote me on November 2, 2004.
This October, I started game two against Tampa Bay in tears after Big Papi’s home run, and I ended it laughing with joy as little Koji Uehara threw nine strikes in a row to effortlessly set down the side and save the game. It was the feeling I got watching Michael Johnson destroy the 400 meters in golden shoes and Ray Allen taking hundreds of identical three-pointers, pivoting smoothly in mid-air and releasing the ball above his head with the most exacting economy of motion I have ever witnessed.
We created a flag because we needed a place to put our gratitude for not being alone; we created games because we need a place to put our gratitude for being human. Athletes make our capacity for greatness a physical thing in the world. They let us cheer for years of obsessive, lonely practice, for the mystery of genius, for teamwork, for the naïve faith that perfection is achievable. And the great ones do it in moments so critical they place the remorseless laws of probability into brief, blissful suspension. On October 13, I went from hunched-over despair to screaming, dog-scaring elation when Tom Brady lofted a game-winning pass into Kenbrell Thompson’s hands with five-seconds on the clock.
And a few hours later I scared the dog again when Papi tied a ballgame we were definitely going to lose with a preposterous, two-out, eighth-inning grand slam.
In any activity with an uncertain outcome—playing blackjack, buying securities, running for office, making children—what you stand to lose or gain depends on how much you invest. But only sport is completely transparent about the terms of the transaction. It does not allow you to justify your investment by pointing to the prospect of money, or dignity, or love, or any other real-world consequence. All sport asks you to risk is your happiness. All it promises is that you’ll probably lose, and the mourning will be long, and any joy will be fleeting.
You can’t recapture the feeling you had as the ball lofted into the night and you found yourself on your feet with your arms in the air. You get those four seconds, and then you got another minute or two (if it’s the championship, make it an hour or two), and the next day you rekindle a flicker of the feeling by reading all the write-ups, and by the time the parade comes around it’s a memory of a feeling, a warm glow you can stretch your hands out to and almost touch. A week after that, it’s a memory of standing with your hands in the air: you can’t quite summon the feeling anymore, but man, you know it was good.
If the athlete embodies human achievement, then the game embodies the human condition. We are born into a universe in which bad things are more likely to happen than good ones. You’re not going to get a phone call saying you don’t have to work anymore, but you might get a call saying you have cancer. Entropy is always the highest probability: stars explode, bonds break, atoms comes to rest. Life is entropy’s opponent, and human beings are life’s major leaguers. We don’t just make new tadpoles or help the pod nurture the newborn pups. This is The Show. We paint cave walls, recite fifteen-hour poems, calculate the force of gravity, build cathedrals. We scream with joy when the man who wears our flag (a bad, bad man, a man we love) hits a ball into the sky with a stick. We scream so loud because we know that the next time it will probably be our man doing a somersault over the bullpen fence, the ball falling just beyond his grasp.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.