I am an American, born and raised in this country, and yet I am not a sports fan. Some of you will find this hard to believe and are already writing letters to the government, asking for my citizenship to be revoked.
And yet I feel about sports the way that Dorothy Parker felt about skiing: “Skiing is very difficult and none of my business.” Big sports is none of my business.”
I have genuine admiration for individual athletes, but I can’t appreciate what others find marvelous about sports. People have tried to explain it to me. For example, art dealer Jeff Cooley has been passionate about rowing ever since he crewed in college and it’s always baffled me. But I’ve now had several terrific undergraduates who row and I asked Jeff to tell me again what it is that I’m missing. He summed it up in six words: “Teamwork, camaraderie, discipline, challenge, adrenaline, friendship.”
OK, I have a sense of that. I’ve known runners, swimmers, climbers and martial-arts folks who hold a special place in my imagination. I have friends and former students who play tennis, pole-vault and play field hockey. In my 30 years in the classroom, I’ve taught students who excel at these activities and I cheer them on — just as I cheer them on when they do great work in my classes.
My friend, writer Jill Brehm Enders, speaks with enthusiasm about the coaches she had when she was growing up in Ohio. “They shaped my character and to this day, I hear myself chanting in my head ‘You’ve got this’ when life is unbearable. It’s reflexive — just as the tendency to hold on to hope until the last second even when ‘my team’ (my dream) is ridiculously behind.”
Another friend, Amy Lennard Goehner, a former boxing reporter who got hooked on watching the Friday night fights with her grandpa when she was 5, was one of those who argue that the love of a team is about far more than simply the love of the sport. She illustrated her point with an anecdote: “The night after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 (for the first time since 1918), a Boston cop caught a man scaling the wall of a closed cemetery. The man said he needed to visit his dad’s gravesite. The cop assured the man he wasn’t in trouble, and told him to take a look around. Several other guys had had the same idea. They needed to tell their dads — the ones who had never seen the Sox win the Series in their lifetimes — that the Sox had finally done it.”
Maybe it needs to be in your DNA or incubated early into a child’s life. My father had no interest in sports; I suspect his young, tough life was tribal, competitive and fierce enough to make organized games where grown men were split into artificial rivalries seem foolish rather than entertaining. His crew flew in Liberator bombers from 1943 to 1945 over Germany.
My husband, too, is impervious to the lure of teams, groupthink and mascots. When, at a party, a guy cheerfully said to Michael “How ’bout them ‘Noles?” my husband replied in all seriousness, “Did you have them removed?”
We all need to play, we all need to exercise and we all need our communities; if athletic activity can answer all three basic needs at once, sign me up. (Not literally.)
And yet, after all arguments explaining the virtues of big-time sports, I will never understand how this fascination leads to giving coaches who are dismissed more than $3 million.
I say this as a citizen — at least until your letters reach Washington.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.
This post was first published under a different title at the Hartford Courant.