February 3rd, 2005


thoughts on the meaning of sports

I've been thinking about how to write this post for two weeks, and I haven't really come up with any good ideas. So please forgive me as I ramble on for a bit.

I'm currently reading a book called The Meaning of Sports. I'm not very far into it yet, and it describes how team sports are in some ways a product of the industrial revolution. How the need to function as a large group was an inherent requirement of the new technologies of the 1800s in America, and how it's natural to try to build team unity by having your group work together to defeat a common foe: the other team. I'm not very far into the book, but I understand it's going to go on to explain how football is an extended metaphor for war, and even in some ways a simulation thereof. This comparison arises not just from the metaphors made by modern sportscasters and, by, extension, fans; this is older and deeper than a long pass being called a "bomb". I'm sure the book will either say that football is a way for people to get out their aggressions rather than starting a real war, or that it's practice for one.

But I don't care.

It's a good book, but it's a history book. So far, at least, it hasn't really addressed why I care so much. Really, sports for me is about unity, more than anything. And nothing showed that on a wide scale better than in the days after September 11th. I wrote late that day that sports are my barometer for the country. And it was true; you could follow the progress of the country's recovery by watching sports and the sports media. For 48 hours after the attacks began, ESPN.com and the major sports networks were only showing news. The television stations were unapologetically simulcasting the network news, and you had to poke around sports websites awhile to even find evidence that they were once dedicated to sports. All sporting events were cancelled for a week to allow the country time to grieve and begin to recover. The following week, when the baseball season resumed, two images stick out in my mind. Larry Bowa, the stoic Phillies' manager at the time, whose only public emotion in his life to date was anger, crying during the national anthem. And a fan at a game, one of the many fans out there who despise the Yankees, holding up a large bedsheet sign reading, "NYC, USA, WE ARE FAMILY". People realized that sports didn't really matter.

Except sports did matter. That was the whole point. In addition to being a barometer for how our country was coping and recovering, they helped in the coping and recovery. By the time the baseball season started up again, 7 days after the attacks, we were ready for some distraction in our lives. As of the morning of Friday September 14th, 2001, when roughly everyone else in the print media, regardless of topic of assignment, had already weighed in with their thoughts on the attacks, Bill Simmons hadn't yet written anything. Bill Simmons is a Boston sportswriter who became an ESPN sportswriter, and has since become possibly the most popular and important sportswriter of our time. His column from that afternoon [archive.org link] is a big reason why. He said, in part:

There was a reason you didn't hear from me this week -- those "These are the moments that remind us that sports is just a game" columns make me nauseous. I hate reading them almost as much as I would have hated writing one this week. Every few years, no matter what tragedy is involved, those same columns start getting pumped out -- whether it's the San Fran Earthquake, Oklahoma City, this week or whatever. Enough already.

First of all, we don't need to be reminded that sports are trivial in the big scheme of things. We're not morons. And if we do need to be reminded of it, there are better ways than four hijacked planes crashing into various targets, causing $20 billion worth of damage and killing thousands of people.

Second of all, it's insulting for someone to say that sports isn't important; I can't speak for you, but some of the happiest and saddest moments of my life have been directly related to sports. And lastly, those kinds of columns carry a hidden message -- they're basically saying, "I know I'm irrelevant, I know I don't matter at all." Who asked you? If you really feel that way, don't waste my time in the first place.

That just about sums it up for me. It's not that he lost perspective. He managed to keep just the right amount.

For a folklore class a few years ago, I wrote my final paper on the family folklore of baseball. I interviewed friends and family, and ended up with some pretty incredible stuff. Baseball, and sports in general, is an incredible part of our nation's history. Beyond 9/11, everyone knows about Jackie Robinson's role in the civil rights movement, and other large-scale things, but the impact of sports on an individual and familial level is so much more so. Memories of sneaking into games in the 1930's, or watching through a knothole in the outfield fence, are passed down from grandparent to grandchild. Parents who have trouble expressing their feelings bond with their kids over teaching them to score a baseball game. And I don't know anyone who read to the end of the amazing book Shoeless Joe, or saw its more famous movie counterpart Field of Dreams, without crying.

Sports is the ultimate in delayed gratification. Before last year, the Boston Red Sox hadn't won a World Series in 86 years. Grandfathers who followed the Sox every game of their lives died without seeing their team's ultimate goal realized. On October 20th, right before they were to win the game that would put them in the world series, someone on SoSH, a popular Red Sox discussion board, started the Win It For... thread. This poster detailed everyone who he wanted the Sox to win a championship for; old Sox players and old friends of his. Other people followed in suit, begging for a victory for Bill Buckner, or Ted Williams, or their late father. Go on and read a few pages of the thread, and see if you can get through them without crying. If Field of Dreams does it for you, this probably will too. And then skip to pages 50 and 51, and on through the end. If that doesn't make you feel warm inside, I don't know what will. I'm bawling here at work.

People who describe sports as a religion for them aren't even that far off from the truth. It's a common thread throughout all of sports fandom. The most famous sports announcing call ever was in the 1980 Winter Olympics. When the US hockey team beat the USSR team in a huge upset, Al Michaels exclaimed on live TV, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" The game has since gone on to be known as The Miracle on Ice. Later that year, when Tug McGraw threw the last pitch that gave the Phillies their only World Series championship ever, the rallying cry of the entire city was, "Ya gotta believe!" When Mcgraw died a year ago, the city rallied around one of its greatest heroes, and its greatest believer, one last time. When the Sox finally won their Series a few months ago, all their fans just talked about believing as well. The traditional superstitions of sports players and fans are only the beginning; when it comes down to it, we're a bunch of people praying. There's a reason an end-game desperation pass in football is called a "Hail Mary".

Everywhere I go in this city, people are wearing Eagles green. Parked cars all over have window flags. Thousands of people are gathering a block from here, right outside city hall, for a pep rally in three hours. Tomorrow morning at 5am, tens of thousands of people, many of whom will have been lined up for hours, will be let into one of the arenas in South Philly for the Wing Bowl, but the famous competitive eating contest on the floor will pale in comparison to the activity in the stands: possibly the largest pep rally in the history of sport. This entire city is focused on the Eagles. You can make eye contact with people on the street and smile, or even strike up a conversation, because you know what they're thinking, and you're thinking the same thing. I've mentioned in this space before how events that can do that to people fascinate me. But really, the only things that can do that on a large scale are natural disasters, national disasters, and sporting events.

I've lived in this city for all 24 of my years. No major Philadelphia sports team has won a championship of any sort since I was two and a half years old, and none of the three teams I follow has won one since before I was born. The first game the Eagles played in my lifetime was the last Super Bowl they were in. I was six days old, and they lost. My dream, for as long as I've had the power of conscious thought, is to stand on South Broad street, with over a million other Philadelphians, and watch a parade go by of a group of people who are the best in the world at what they do; who have just taken the total pressure of a maniacal city on their backs, shrugged it off, and done what they set out to do against the toughest competition possible.

Many of us in the city are wearing shirts and hats with the Eagles' new slogan. One. "one team. one city. one dream." The team is mine, this city is mine, and that dream has always been mine. And I believe.


A week ago, on the 24th anniversary of the Eagles' only other Super Bowl appearance, Bill Simmons published a letter from an Eagles fan like me; a guy identified as "Ed K. in Philly". He said a lot of what I'm thinking, and he said it in a way that really captures the spirit of an Eagles fan. I'm reprinting it here without permission:

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