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?