Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Spirituality of Sports Fandom: The Business of Caring

I sat back in my seat at War Memorial Gym to watch the University of San Francisco Dons' men's basketball team take on the Gauchos of UCSB and noticed something was different. My vision was uninhibited. My pulse remaining at a resting heart rate. I looked around their "fieldhouse" a throwback as far as gyms go and observed the fans and unique traditions of USF with eyes wide open. Just three days later, I turned on the Pac 12 Championship football game to see the Stanford Cardinal defeated by the men of Troy at Levi's Stadium. Missed tackles by both teams left me unaffected. Penalties given and received—no problem. Incredible catches in the end zone, converting on third and long, field goals, all of the glory of football was on display without a simple cheer, roar or high five from me. I turned to my friend and said: "it's so nice to watch a game and not care about either team." This is what I call the business of not caring. Maybe I should try it more often. Perhaps you agree...
Pac 12 Championship 2017. Who Cares...right?
Being a sports fan comes at a cost. The financial one is not insignificant. For example, traveling to South Bend to see the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame requires a pricey plane ticket, a place to stay and the game ticket is no chump change. I can appreciate that the only people for whom college football is affordable are the student body—that's how it should be. But all parties—students and alumni, parents, friends, and family, subway alums, and the fans of visiting teams offer another investment, one beyond price: time, energy and effort. When I say effort, I mean mental energy, emotion, deliberation, allegiance and more. I leave every Notre Dame football game I attend exhausted—and I'm not even playing the game! I go to a lot of high school basketball games. I'm invested in the outcome and many times that is characterized by two words: high or low, up or down, happy or sad. That's what caring about someone or something demands of us.

I'm not convinced enough has been written about the spirituality of sports fandom. Being faithful to an athlete or a team teaches us much more than knowledge about a sport, a person's story, the history of the game, or even a given school, city or institution. We learn about ourselves. Why are we drawn to certain players? What excites us about this particular team? And for what reason do we detest their rivals? What does the enemy embody? What does that coach promote that is in conflict with my values or beliefs? These are some of the many questions sports fans are asked to consider on a regular basis.
This guy obviously cares...
We know that the word "fan" is derived from fanatic: one who is filled with or expresses excessive zeal. When a sports fan attends a game where they have "no dog in the fight," the energy and effort that zeal requires can be put on reserve...that is...until it isn't.

The sports fan in me, inevitably, finds some connection, some relationship to my team or other allegiances that force me to pick a side. Slowly but surely, I make some sort of forced choice: USF or UCSB....Stanford or USC....Dodgers or Astros. I think of the people in my life who love one team or another. That friendship may be enough to draw me in. Other times, I will think of the athletes involved. USF has a player who went to my high school, an athlete I have always admired. Today he's a D-1 athlete. How could I not root for him?...and therefore his team? Or I've been at games where my own brother will cheer for a team because of how their win or loss will benefit or hurt the San Francisco Giants standings. Or I bring it back to Notre Dame. The Irish crushed USC and lost to Stanford. In this case, I want USC to win....right?!
BIG game for Wisconsin who lost to OSU in the Big 10 Championship
I suppose I shouldn't take for granted the fact that anyone, including me, does care. The baseball poet laureate and writer, Roger Angell wrote
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
The spirituality of sports fandom is characterized by one primary virtue: care.  And care is not passive—it's an active verb. Care means concern, attention, extending emotion and heart, finding delight and joy the victories both big and small. Care also invites disappointment and hurt, love and loss. Care reveals our humanity...maybe the best part about it.

Photo Credits
Stanford vs USC

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