What makes a person so poisonous righteous that they'd think less of anyone who just disagreed? She's just a pacifist, he's just a patriot. If I said you were crazy, would you have to fight me? Fighters for liberty, fighters for power. Fighters for longer turns in the shower. Don't tell me I can't fight, 'cause I'll punch out your lights. And history seems to agree, that I would fight you for me... That us would fight them for we. ~ Moxy Früvous
Though certainly nothing new for me, I've been thinking a lot, lately, of my life as a sports fan. With a baby on the way and a wife increasingly skeptical of this specific choice of hobbies, it's perhaps not surprising that I'd choose such a broad topic in the wake of cramming and sitting for another Bar Exam for which I was woefully underprepared. My need to rationalize my life choices has kicked in.
These thoughts, though, aren't limited to my life as it is now, with my teams firmly entrenched in a frustrating mix of hope and futility, but also as a kid, when anything seemed possible because I had yet to learn otherwise. Vivid memories of afternoons and evenings spent shoulder to shoulder with friends, allowing our voices to crack under the pressure of so much hope and fear. Moments where we felt as if our will to win might carry across time and space to actually impact the reality of what unfolded before us. To bring us deep, personal satisfaction at what our team has achieved for themselves, sure, but for us as well.
For me, sports tend to exist in black and white. Us versus them. Good versus evil. When Pat Lafontaine was traded to the Rangers, he did not change personalities and did not lose that joy for the game that brought us all to love him so. When Bruce Smith became a Redskin, he was still the man who had dominated our consciousness and opposing offensive lines, who brought nightmares of Bad Things, Man. Yet, in my black and white world, Pat and Bruce and all the others each became "them" when they left Buffalo, and that brought with a certain level of hate. But for their mutual decision to come back into the fold of my beloved teams in public ways, I may have yet decided to hate them forever, even though there are more than enough reasons not to.
The thinking part of my brain knows that this is entirely foolish, as shades of grey must exist to account for the realities of modern sport as business. However, there's a certain addiction to watching sports through such a lens. They take on greater significance when you allow yourself to sink into your role of fan as combatant. As defender of home turf, of cultural identity. Victory becomes immensely personal and satisfying, though is also offset by deep pits of sadness and even despair when you are forced to accept that, at least for now, you are on the wrong side of history.
I have no illusions that, in a very real way, this is pretty sick. And yet I soldier on.
When I was in high school, already shattered by the Bills' Super Bowl losses of the early 90s, I clung to the idea of sports as battle. A singer by trade, I remember frequent morning rehearsals where my raspy baritone revealed that I had yet again lost my voice while cheering on my classmates in one sport or another. It mattered little what the sport was - sure, boys basketball was fun, but so was leading the full-throated support for our swim team - as I was a sure bet to be in attendance and make my presence known. Leading classmates in chants was a badge of honor and was crucial for a kid who has already come to terms with his own limits in sport. That sense of identity as fan continued in college - was amplified, actually, by the greater sense of community fostered there - and I found myself absorbed in statistics and schedules. In a growing sense that I could assist in prevailing over the next opponent. At the heart of it all, winning mattered. "We" mattered.
This willingness to live in a world of black and white, while fun for me generally (particularly when I hide behind sarcasm and an Internet personality rarely held to account for the absurdity of his opinions), is also dangerous. Increasingly so, on a personal level, in a world where my exaggerated moments of hyperbole are instantly publicized through any number of different avenues of social and electronic media. It takes an immense commitment for me to transition my thoughts to the appropriate social politics of the real world, and even then I often choose not to. Unsurprisingly, this is even harder when the veil between sport and real world is pierced and it becomes necessary that I view the former with more of my real world lens than I usually care to.
Because, of course, the Us versus Them paradigm cannot exist freely in a just world. If we're being honest, it must not.
Of course, this wasn't the only thing about the Cold War that was irrational. Or any war for that matter. Boiled down to its core, violent conflict between humans is an irrational act, more often than not motivated by deep fears of "otherness," rather than reasonable fears of self-preservation. Yet, at their heart, stripped of historical rationalizations and even revisions, such conflicts can be understood as motivated by that same addictive rush of team triumph that exists in sport. Except, of course, the stakes are much higher.
While I think I'm very much on the right track with this a analogy, you don't need to look to violent conflict to see how the competitive nature we see in sport pushes its way into so many other parts of our lives. Minority groups of American culture - whether based on race or gender or sexuality or age or class or a combination of these and others - often find themselves arguing over which form of social oppression is the worst, while glossing over the similarities that underpin any and all forms of the majority's institutions of power. Citizens (myself included) rush to call each other out for opposing political ideologies, casually ignoring the ways in which the ruling classes of society seek to pit neighbor against neighbor so that our democracy sits idly by while the consolidation of wealth persists. Drivers weave in and out of traffic in the hopes of arriving a minute or two earlier, commuters push people to the edge of a subway platform, failing to appreciatethe fine line between life and death and their role in shaping that line. As if early arrivals somehow justify stepping off a moral precipice.
Getting caught in the Us versus Them paradigm all but guarantees that the truths of our existence, of our dependence on each other, will be lost in the rush to be first. Our desire to win becomes paramount, even if it means taking "their" humanity down a peg or two in the process. The truth, at least as I see it, is that as much as we try to cling to the idea that winning is necessary to protect our interests as we struggle through a complicated world of conflict, there's nevertheless a moral imperative that we all become conscious of the dangers inherent in our shared, if understandable, desire to step out of conflict victorious.
Not that I'm ready to give up on sports just because I can take a moment to recognize a deeper truth about the absurdity of it all. Even if it does mark me as a hypocrite. After all, I'm not ready to give up my role as combatant fan and the rush that comes with it. I'm not ready to stop my flippant and inappropriate jabs at Bruins fans or Leafs fans or Pats fans, not to mention the players for those teams, and how I hope they all get rabies or worse. Those raspy mornings after a night game are still precious to me all these years later, as is the opportunity to escape from the real world where issues need to play out with more caution than an unbridled and unchecked desire to win. Yet, so long as I choose this path, and choose to spend my nights shoulder to shoulder with friends in objectively frivolous moments of unabashed hope and fear, I'll continue to seek the words that give it meaning and may even help me find meaning in the all the rest while I'm at it. That make it all not-so-frivolous, after all.
I'd love to get your input, whether positive or scathing, either below or on the tweet-machine.