Kicking and Screaming

Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming (photo via
  http://www.sky.com/tv/movie/kicking-and-screaming-2005)

Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming (photo via Sky)

I was never going to write this, originally. I was recently given the opportunity to give a talk on anything that I was passionate about, and at a loss for good ideas, I asked my friends for ideas to write a talk on. In typical form, not many of their suggestions were particularly helpful. I have a lot of passions, but I didn’t think I necessarily had anything I would (literally) write home about. But while discussing an article I wrote earlier on the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, someone cut through my mental fog:

Thanks Meem!

Thanks Meem!

Indirectly, she had revealed something that I hadn’t really considered: instead of talking about sports as an objective third party, I should be talking about how they’ve affected me personally. I should tell my sports story, both as an (subpar) athlete and later a devoted fan.


So to begin, I want you to picture this scene: you’re two years old and sitting in front of a TV screen, staring mindlessly at the flashes of color that dances across the glass. There’s a certain rhythm to the flashes — a method to the madness, a natural ebb and flow to the action on screen, and it enchants you. As you pay more attention to the images on screen, you notice something: those splotches of color are actually little people! As you move in to take a closer look, you realize there are two separate groups of little people — one blue and one yellowish white — moving across a field of green, and they seem to be chasing after a little brown dot that moves erratically around the screen every so often. You step back for a second; you’re puzzled — perplexed about what you’ve just watched. But you’re soon entranced by the colors again, and you’re sucked back into the action on the screen.

Little do you know, you’ve built the foundation of a pastime that will change and guide the rest of your life.


Kevin Dyson reaches for the end zone at the end of Super Bowl XXXIV

Kevin Dyson reaches for the end zone at the end of Super Bowl XXXIV (photo via RealClearSports).

This dance of colors was my introduction to sports. Eventually, I learned that I was watching Super Bowl XXXIV, where the St. Louis Rams edged out the Tennessee Titans when Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson was stopped short of the goal line in the final seconds of the game.

This game was a bit of an inauspicious initiation into the brotherhood of sports (especially considering we lived in Nashville at the time), but that was something I neither knew or cared about at the time. All I knew is that I loved sports and wanted to be involved in them.

I didn’t get to fully engross myself in playing sports until a few years later. My parents saw sports as purely an athletic activity — something to keep me healthy and in shape, as well as burn off a lot of my rambunctiousness. I never saw them as anything other than a source of fun, and I wanted to have as much fun as possible. My parents fed into this natural proclivity and enrolled me into as many sports lessons as possible. In my formative years, I tried tennis, baseball, flag football, basketball — heck, I even played cricket at one point. But I was never really good enough to be anything more than poor to average at these; I was never the most athletic child, and that left my abilities severely lacking. The only sport I really caught on to was swimming, and even then, I eventually quit because I wasn’t ever fast enough to keep up with my peers. This left me at an impasse: if not in the pool, then where would all of this fervor for sports be diverted?

I decided to take the deep dive into fanhood.


AT&T’s 2016 College Football Fandemonium commercial

Fanhood is a very hard social concept to nail down. Wikitionary defines a sports fan as “admirer of a sport”, but that’s not encompassing enough of a definition for me. Urban Dictionary comes a bit closer to the true meaning of fanhood, offering “a guy’s loyalty to sports”, elaborating further that this loyalty extends to an “infinite knowledge of everything sports”, including “scores and stats of any athelete, any team, in any country”. But one can be knowledgeable about sport statistics without being loyal to a specific team, and one can be blindly loyal to a team without great knowledge about the team’s sport. And loyalty also doesn’t necessarily imply admiration: one can be loyal to his or her superiors in the workplace, but can still personally dislike them.

Now, that isn’t to say there aren’t different definitions of fanhood to different people that incorporate these concepts in some proportion — some don’t have time to dedicate themselves to watching every game, others have some teams that take higher priority, and still others may not be very interested in the sport the team plays, but roots for it simply because of their proximity to the stadium in which the team plays.

True fanhood — what I like to refer to as “devout fanhood” — incorporates a perfect mix of the above concepts of loyalty and admiration, but in a more abstract sense. A true fan lives and dies by his or her team; he or she emotionally invests in the results of said team every week and every season. A true fan treats the team like a close friend — toasting to their successes, supporting them when they fail, and taking a dedicated interest in the team from day to day (including, but not limited to, watching every game). A true fan wears his or her pride for the team on his or her sleeve, and even when the team is broken, run-down, and hurting, he or she refuses to quit and jump ship.

I mention this somewhat convoluted definition for a simple reason: I am not a true fan — at least, not for all of the teams that I support. I’ve pledged my allegiance to a number of teams over the years: at first the Tennessee Titans, later the Atlanta Falcons, the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta United, and Team USA, to name a few — but I’m not enthralled by all of them all at once. I’m only human; there are some teams I value more than others (like United over the Falcons because of my season tickets), and I only have so much time to devote to fanhood. But this is really the inherent beauty of sports fanhood: it’s inherently egalitarian — you can be as devoted or as casual as you would like, and no one can judge you for that (so long as you aren’t a bandwagon fan — everyone hates bandwagon fans).


The aftermath of the Miracle on Techwood
Drive

The aftermath of the Miracle on Techwood Drive.

While sports often test our sanity game after game, they keep us centered. Even on our toughest days, being reminded of something we love keeps us going and reminds us that we are loved. Oftentimes, I get lost in the fugue of life and struggle to grapple with stress, resulting a brooding, sulking, and very irritable version of myself that other people find hard to deal with. At these times, it’s very hard for me to connect with others and maintain conversation without a constant sense of negativity. But sometimes my friends are able to pierce through the veil of darkness I’ve wrapped myself in — they know that by asking about things I’m passionate about, like sports, they can break through and reestablish my sense of normalcy.

In one specific instance earlier this year, a friend of mine was having trouble getting me to talk while walking to class. Normally, I do a lot of the talking — it’s early and while I know that my friends might not like to be awake, I like to catch up with them and see how their weekends went. However, this particular morning, I wanted no part of that — I was mopey, I was moody, and I was mad at the world. My friend stuggled to get through to me, but she found her opportunity to strike through my mental fog when I mentioned dryly that I watched football all weekend. She poked and prodded me about the games I watched, and while thoroughly annoyed by her antics, I began to rattle off the games I had watched and their results. As I did, this sense of calm came over me and I began to loosen up, something that she noticed as well. As we continued our back-and-forth on that weekend’s games and she pried further, I came into my own and got into my zone. My troubles seemed to melt away, and I became animated and excited again. This episode speaks to the power of sports as an anti-depressant and de-stessor: the emotional investment and excitement fans have inside can be tapped at any time — it returns them to a sense of calm and normalcy that grounds them in reality.


Long exposure of Atlanta, GA, via https://unsplash.com/photos/45FJgZMXCK8

Long exposure of Atlanta, GA (photo via Unsplash)

But sports create more than just emotional attachments— they tie us to a city or area culturally. Through my fanhood, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for Atlanta and discovered more about the city and its history. Being interested in sports has opened avenues of exploration within the city and its story: among them, the inception and lasting effect of the 1996 Olympic Games, the arrival of pro sports to the city (both the MLB and NFL) and the construction of newer and newer stadiums, and the seminal moments of Atlanta’s sporting history (notably: 1916, 1974, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2013, and 2014). Atlanta has a long and proud sporting history, which is curiously hidden under a layer of more recent self-loathing and low expectations for our teams. Contemporary seasons of choking and poor play aside, Atlantans have many reasons to be proud of their city. By attaching myself to these teams and learning about their great victories, best moments, greatest icons, and immortal legends, I’ve unraveled an intricate tapestry of Atlantan history that is delicately woven into the threads of the development and evolution of the city from literal ashes after Sherman’s March into the crown jewel of the American Southeast today.


In many ways, your level of devotion to your team really comes to define your life — fanhood can have an underlying effect on your friendships, relationships, and even your personality as a whole. Being part of a social group in this fashion determines our moods and enhances our knowledge — all derived from fanhood as a tie that binds. Seeing someone else wearing your team’s jersey or colors in an unfamiliar place instantly brings you home and creates an instant bond with that person. This is why sports fanhood and sports are important: in an increasingly politically-fractious world, sports provide us with a distraction. It eases our minds about our troubles, and for ninety minutes, four quarters, or nine innings, we’re given a unique opportunity to join a brotherhood of man (or woman) united in sport.

We may come from different cities, cheer on different teams, or root for different players, but our love for the game unites us. These are the ties that bind — the ties that keep us together and the ties that define us. Throughout history, sports have been a reflection of our society, our values, and our culture, and sports fanhood is no different. In today’s divisive era, there’s no denying that sports are inherently political, but instead of looking for differences, we should be focusing on what brings us together: our love for the game and our love for our teams.


Update (11/11/16): I gave a talk on this at a Startup Exchange meeting! If you’re interested, here are the slides.