The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. Massaro
Image

Super Bowl XLV thrilled the nation on Feb. 6. About 111 million pairs of eyes were fixed on the hundred or so players racing about the gridiron in the largest domed stadium in the world. But once again, alas, none of those players was wearing the green and white uniform of the New York Jets.

Much to the chagrin of us long-suffering Jets fans, it has been nearly two generations since that glorious day (Jan. 12, 1969, lest anyone forget) when Joe Namath and Gang Green brought home the Super Bowl III trophy. The Jets have come close, including appearances in the last two A.F.C. title games, but have never again made it to the Super Bowl. While simple arithmetic attests to longer droughts by other professional sports franchises (any Chicago Cubs or Detroit Lions fans out there?), I rarely feel more bitter disappointment than I do every year when my favorite team is eliminated.

Perhaps as a defense mechanism, I am growing increasingly philosophical about the entire enterprise of following professional sports. Even when our teams fail us, as the vast majority of teams must do each year, being a sports fan prepares millions of us, male and female, young and old alike, for crucial life experiences. I will address just two such areas, though they could be multiplied many times over.

The most obvious contour of modern life reflected in sports fandom is loyalty. Staying true to your team in good times as well as in lean years is a valuable character trait; but like so many virtues today, it is growing ever more complicated. In our highly mobile society, where families change residences and even regions frequently, sticking with one team for a lifetime is not easy. Many of us live in cruel exile far from the media markets of our favorite franchises. I know of many “mixed marriages” (between Yankee and Red Sox fans, for example) and have met children who root against the teams of their parents, who had migrated to regions that are home territory for their rival teams.

Consider, too, the tendency of franchises to move from city to city (true or false: The real Cleveland Browns are actually the current Baltimore Ravens) and the increasingly rapid turnover of players due to trade and free-agency. (Is it still O.K. to like Johnny Damon after his fifth uniform change?)

These many diasporas—of teams, ownership, players and fans alike—leave a landscape cluttered with conflicted loyalties. Maybe Jerry Seinfeld had it right when he quipped, upon seeing mostly unfamiliar players wearing the uniform of his favorite team: Aren’t we rooting for just the laundry nowadays?

The ties of loyalty can be shaken by more than the rapid change of players and locations. Fierce debates rage over whether it is justifiable to withdraw one’s loyalty when a franchise grows ugly—when a team features too many thuggish players, for example, or exceeds the quota for empty swagger. The antics of the blustery coach Rex Ryan and the mouthy linebacker Bart Scott have sent some Jets fans to the exits (not me, at least not yet). Some Philadelphia Eagles fans cursed the day their team acquired the convicted felon Michael Vick, while others cheered this offer of a chance at redemption for the star quarterback (not to mention his rifle arm and exceptional scrambling ability).

A second sports phenomenon with wider life currency involves the skills of dialogue and reasoned debate. The ability to engage constructively with others does not come naturally; it is an acquired skill. Athletics is often the first topic on which youngsters form opinions, draw inferences from their observations and learn to argue civilly with peers. When I served as a high school debate coach, I encouraged neophytes to cut their teeth by defending their opinions about favorite teams (“Be it resolved that the Celtics should draft a new backcourt”). Once adolescents learn how to analyze and interpret facts, they are well positioned to debate a wide range of ethical issues, including those arising within the sports world itself (salary caps, performance-enhancing drugs). My coaching efforts did not produce any state champions, but they may have elevated the discourse of local sports-talk radio just a hair.

Far from being “only a game,” sports echo the topography of our lives. They matter enough to cause anguish or exhilaration, to give fans a sense of belonging and to prompt deep reflection on social values. How long until Opening Day?

Thomas Massaro, S.J., teaches social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Comments

Florence Lathrop | 2/27/2011 - 11:13pm
Fr. Massaro has used the issue of loyalty to our teams - an issue for which we understand that the stakes are considerably lower than they are for the issues that Father Hashka raises - to make broader points that are applicable to those more important issues.  In a world of alliances, interests, and violence, Fr. Massaro pushes us to question the nature and meaning of our loyalties.  In an era of heated and often vitriolic rhetoric, Fr. Massaro challenges us to combine our passion with reasoned and respectful discourse. Although the article starts with the sports entertainment on which we certainly do place too much emphasis, it invites me to apply these considerations to the ways I think and act on issues that deserve more of our attention.
Christopher Kuczynski | 2/26/2011 - 4:48pm

To Father Hashka's points, it certainly is the case that this country grossly overvalues sports.  I wouldn't, though, cry any crocodile tears for the so-called student athletes.  Sure, they're exploited by the NCAA and our nation's so-called institutions of higher learning.  In return, they have access to something that cannot be value - a free education.  While the athletes in the minor sports take advantage of that opportunity, we know that many of the athletes in the more elite sports don't.  Who's fault is that?  The athletes  and their parents - the athletes are only children, after all - need to be savvy enough to take advantage of every opportunity the exploiters offer them.  Above all, they and their families need to value education, and sadly we know that many of them do not.

As for loyalty to one's home team, it is a thing of a bygone era.  Loyalty needs to run both ways.  The millionaire (sometimes billionaire) owners and millionaire athletes tell us that it's okay for them to make exponentially more than the fans in the stands (or the fans who can't afford to be in the stands) because sports is, after all, "a business." It's okay, too, for owners to blow up successful teams and for athletes to leave teams and communities with whom they seem to have forged a relationship to go wherever the money is best.  In return for all of this, the fans are expected to be loyal - or, more correctly, to keep coming out to the games, paying for the concessions, buying the gear sold at exhoribant prices, etc.  Where's the loyalty to the fans.  There isn't any.  And if sports are just "a business," do our hometown teams not deserve to be treated as any other business - meaning, that if the product they offer is of inferior quality, I have the right to take my business elsewhere.

David Smith | 2/26/2011 - 1:49am
David H. asks (#2):

"Where will our obsession with sports entertainment end?"

Modern Western man seems besotted with popular culture.  Organized sports - controlled violence for mass consumption - seems to be an inextricable part of that.  I suppose it'll end where it began - on the couch, obese, asleep.  Here come the Chinese!  Shhh.  Let him sleep.
David Haschka | 2/25/2011 - 12:32pm
Would that Father Massaro appled his prodigeous ethical/intellectual talent to the question of what happens to a society that transfers so much of its social capital, value, and meaning to something so trivial as sports entertainment.

How many people now who would not dream of missing a Sunday football game will easily let go of Sunday worship?

How many scchools and colleges invest millions in sports while their academic programs languish in mediocrity or worse?

How many poor minority youth have been exploited by college athletic programs  - dreaming of a lucrative career but winding up back in their neighborhood with nothing to show for their efforts but perhaps a fine pair of basketball shoes?

And, in the face of a national epidemic of obesity, can we continue to celebrate that paradigm of fandom: sedentary over-consumption of alcohol and junk food?

Rather than presenting the topography of virtuous lives, sports-entertainment more likely presents the topography of societal collapse - something like ancient Rome and its circus. 

Where will our obsession with sports entertainment end?
Jane McNally | 2/25/2011 - 12:11pm
How's this for loyalty:  Chiseled into granite headstone:  "A Red Sox fan in life and in death."   Of course, yours would need to come AFTER the S.J. !

Go Sox!

Recently in Columns