why we follow sports
Beside the obvious, much more real problems we face in the world: death, disease, war, male pattern baldness, there are very few things as indescribably heartbreaking, as a hard sports loss. The kind that make sleeping difficult because you keep replaying images of missed opportunities and “what-if” scenarios. The type of losses where you enter the bargaining stage of grieving far ahead of the actual loss. An atheist pleads to a god, whom twenty-four hours ago was the false deity of a different, more forgotten part of America. The most logical of human beings start to attribute their presence in the world as some sort of catalyst to the outcome of the game. “As soon as this asshole in the green shirt came into the room, we started losing. Maybe we should kill him.”
Being a sports fan, like romance, is deeply romantic. And like deep romance, it comes with gnawing heartbreak.
In my adult life, I’ve experienced three deeply painful sports losses. All of them college football. College football, in particular is subject to the most emotive, captivating, and heartbreaking of sports. Fervent college fandomship is developed by two things, geographic and affiliation. You were either born and raised in the town your team is in, or you actually attended the school in question. Those two factors raise the outcome stakes to a much more personal level that can ever be achieved in its professional counterparts. For most small towns, their college football team is the only reason why names like Tuscaloosa, AL; State College, PA; or Eugene, OR are relevant to the rest of the country. For three hours or so, on any given Saturday, thousands of sports fan lend their hearts to the outcome of a specific game. They lend, what is perhaps the most valuable commodity on Earth: time. They lend a few hours of their life to invest in the success and failures of a bunch kids hundreds of miles away.
In 2008, my hometown team, the University of Hawaii Warriors lost to the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. Actually, loss is an understatement. They were crushed, 41-10 and embarrassed on national television on New Year’s Day. This was my first ever sports induced depression. It pained me in ways only girls pained me before. I watched as Georgia deflated and crushed UH in front of the whole country. This wasn’t just my team losing. This was my home town, my home state. The last home game of the season that year was a 50,000 person sell-out, and while the game, itself, was a miraculous comeback, the thing that resonated with me to this day, wasn’t the touchdowns, or the dramatic defensive stops, it was right before the game, when the stadium, in unison, sang the Hawaii state anthem, Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī’. I’ve never had goosebumps like that before and I definitely have never shed tears watching sports before. The stadium resonated in baritone uniformity, a haunting audible reminder of the sheer power that a game has on people.
When they lost the Sugar Bowl a month later, I felt like the entity of my home was shamed.
On Saturday night, my alma matter, the University of Oregon was edged out by Stanford, crushing our national championship aspirations. The logistics of the game are not particularly important. The implications only hold weight in the sports bubble, but what was most particularly troubling of the defeat was an unfulfilled narrative. College football, like most sports, is slow moving. Change is incremental and the fear of innovation mostly stems from a greedy complacent assurance that fans will always pay to watch games. College football begins and ends in the south, and it’s been that way since the beginning.
The culture and politics of the south also don’t change. It’s a place that harkens to a different time in America. The protestant work ethic, a “culture of honor”, and the unequivocal dedication to God and football, those two probably used more interchangeably than imaginable. Oregon was looked as the crux of change, a non-traditional, aesthetically-driven team, who’s style of play happened to be entertaining. It was never designed to be fun to watch, it was designed to take advantage of the stagnation of traditional college football. The stage was set for a media field day between the sports thinking of yesterday and the vision of tomorrow. Oregon, the flash finesse team vs. between a southern/midwest powerhouse.
Sports represents things we can quantify. The celebration of emotion and competition, and a very, very distinct line between success and failure. We live vicariously through the teams we follow because it gives us hard evidence that we can measure as a community — on that given day, my community was better than yours. My values, everything I stand for, and everything that had made me who I am, is better than yours. And then when you’re on the opposite side of that, it sucks.