Being from the frost-bitten northeastern United States, there are plenty of customs and activities that we do to keep ourselves warm and busy during the snowy winter months. There is hunting, there is snowmobiling or skiing, and there is, of course, football. Much in the same way that I’m derided as not being a “true” Mainer for not enjoying seafood, or being outside in the cold, I can also attest that I’ve gotten this same sort of sentiment for not enjoying America’s favorite pastime. There are several reasons for this.
The first reason is that I suck at sports. No, really. Always have, always will. It’s not that I’m super out-of-shape, although I could stand to be more healthy and active. It’s not that I don’t like the idea behind sports, because I actually really do – showmanship, teamwork, physical achievement. What it is is simple, and I’m honest about it – I will make your team lose if I’m chosen to be on it.
You see, I really can’t stand rules. I am abrasive when it comes to authority. I question everything, I don’t agree with everything, I hate being told what to do. Sure, I can play “the game” when I have to, like when I’m working for someone or when I have my customer service mask on (I work in retail, so it’s on much of the time). Most of the time, though, I go my own way. I’m not a huge team player. The other thing that sort of goes along with this is that I’m really competitive when I actually have something invested in what I’m doing. I remember in school when we would play floor hockey. There was one instance in which I faced off against another kid. I was a center. We looked each other in the eyes and I frowned. I pictured myself bathing in his blood as my floor hockey stick sliced through his jugular. Why? Because I’d heard him comment about how I sucked at sports (which was actually true, but I will get to why this bothered me later on). When the whistle blew, I slapped his stick so hard, ignoring the ball, that it snapped. Not grasping the situation, he attempted to flick the ball with his stick, but I smacked his stick again and broke it. I was sent to the sidelines. Most of the time, I was timid and didn’t react to any aggression by bullies. It was different when I was engaged in sports, however. I became animalistic, base, raw. But I still sucked.
Another reason I may have shied away from sports (and other “dude” things, really) wasn’t something I could really measure in any quantifiable way – but I never had a father. There were guys in and out of my childhood, but many of them were terrible people and didn’t inspire my young mind to be like them in any way. I know that sports is introduced most commonly (though there are exceptions, especially nowadays) by fathers to their kids but I never had that influence aside from my grandfather. Nobody ever took me to see football games, nobody ever had parties for the Superbowl when I was younger. Nothing. So I never really grew up with it in my face too much and by the time I reached the age where I could make my own decisions about what I wanted to be involved in, football was nowhere on that list.
In my last couple years of high school (right up until I graduated from college), I had the pleasure of living with my grandparents. Living with them was really the only time in my life I’d had a stable home life (more on that in another post, I promise) and with that, came the obligatory father-son, or grandfather-grandson relationship that included summer chores, working on cars, sports. My grandfather LOVES sports, and we would often go to see the Portland Pirates play hockey, watch the Portland Seadogs play baseball, or even go see racing (he and my grandmother still love NASCAR). The only football we ever did, though, was on television – and I was watching right around the time when the New England Patriots first started to come back after a long thaw. I wasn’t terribly excited by the game of football. It seemed to be a lot of nothing aside from anticipation and commercials.
However, when Vince McMahon introduced a new brand of football that meshed with my wrestling sensibilities (I grew up with Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage wrestling matches on television in my house) called the XFL – I was momentarily brought into the football camp. It was very short-lived, though, as my adolescent self was more concerned with the spectacle of it and the attractive cheerleaders with very saucy outfits. I remember thinking, while watching the explosions at the end zones and seeing the cheerleaders bounce around in pseudo-schoolgirl outfits, that I finally tapped into that reserve of masculinity within me that had always been just out of my reach – but in the end, the actual football games in the XFL were basically amateur, not really exciting even to someone who wasn’t really into football in the first place. My interest in all things football died with the XFL.
One of the main reasons, though – one of the biggest reasons – for me not enjoying sports in general, was school. School was a nightmare prison I was made to go to every day. It was a place where anarchy reigned and other students were free to do or say to me anything they wished without repercussions. When I moved from Lewiston, Maine to Exeter, New Hampshire – I was tormented by the children of the upper-middle class parents who lived in our high-end trailer park (it seems like a weird concept, but those places really exist). I was dragged around by my feet on the football field. My brothers were beat up. I was literally chased around the trailer park I lived in by gangs of masculine idiots. They made fun of my hair, my teeth, my clothes, my shoes, my body – especially since I started school early and was biologically a year behind everyone else. In the locker room, I would get whipped with towels that would leave welts. Half-naked jocks would stand around me and say things like “I bet his balls haven’t even dropped yet, the little faggot. What’s the matter, queer?” I wasn’t actually gay, not that it mattered to those kids. I was poor, I was different. They always wanted to remind me.
If there’s one thing the 1980’s and even early 1990’s taught me, it’s that jocks were popular and got lots of girls while nerds like me were supposed to be beaten up and antagonized. I literally never met anyone who played sports at the time who didn’t antagonize me. It was like they were all in a secret society designed to ruin my life. These people drove me to withdraw into myself and become a lone wolf, always steering clear of any events where I might run into them, including school assemblies and eventually school altogether.
It did get better later on, but the problems persisted. When I went to a new school I became heavily involved in the arts, an escape from the everyday stresses of the school institution. What did the school system do? Cut art program funding to dump more of the budget into the school’s terrible football team that never won anything. While our art teachers were being rotated and overloaded with classes and no proper equipment, the football team was getting a new field. The inner hallway was lined with multiple sport trophies, but no artistic representation anywhere.
My resentment of the football culture grew even more in college.
By this time, I had met several people who were not only sports fans but also who played sports and who were actually decent people who didn’t give me swirlies or make fun of a sexuality that I had never been born into. Still, the part of me that had been antagonized so often was wary of the culture and its proponents. In one of my classes there was a young man who was academically behind even me – and that, at the time, was impressive. I had eschewed the school system around that time and because of my propensity for going against authority I found myself on academic probation during that semester. Knowing my major was in English, he asked me for help with an assignment he was working on. The guy could barely read, and I’m not exaggerating. But he could play football, and he was actually pretty good at it. I helped him for a short while but stopped, having had a long-standing vendetta against “jocks” for all the wrongs they caused me in school. I looked into it more and realized that athletes seemed like they were given more academic leeway. There I was on academic probation for being behind in a few things (I was placed on the dean’s list the following semester once I actually tried) and this guy was in college, having his entire way paid, because he could run down a field with a ball. And he could barely read?! To my undergrad-self, this was not only a major misuse of scholarship money but also a great disservice to the football player who was struggling beyond his capacity with academia. The school system was basically using his body as a commodity. It blew my mind.
I grew up poor, was raised poor, and had to work for almost everything I got – including food (one time I resorted to eating donuts in an alley as a kid). However, I couldn’t complain too much because due to my grandmother having worked at the college I was attending, I was able to get a deeply-discounted tuition. Still, I had to work to pay my fees and buy my books, and didn’t get any help for anything else. I had been working off and on since the age of fourteen or fifteen, too young to even be paid – but it was either that or be shipped off to summer camp by my foster family at the time (more on that in another blog post). The disparity just didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t get the concept of being championed by an entire system because you played a game on a field – but couldn’t read. It basically turned anything I could offer of value into meaningless rocks next to the football skills or sports skills of other kids my age. I felt like I was useless to society. Who cared if I could make a sculpture of my hand or write my own poetry? What sort of revenue would that bring the school?
So, with all that stuff I mentioned working against me – the only other barricade preventing me from becoming a football or sports fan is the mentality many people seem to have in regards to identifying with a particular team or group. To me, this mentality is no different with football than it is with religion or with politics. When a team wins, people riot and fight. When a team loses, people riot and fight. Blood is literally spilled in heated arguments that turn into brawls. I’ve seen this first hand, as well as in the news in more extreme cases. Not only do I not condone this type of pack behavior, I steer clear of it. It has a way of steam-rolling over good sense and judgement. I speak and act for myself, not through emotional response but through rational thought. As a football fan, you literally do nothing more than watch the game being played by athletes who are usually much stronger and faster than you. They are not avatars in which your personality traits are invested. In most cases, they are not family or loved ones. They are strangers you know a few details about, whom you will most likely never get to know as a real person – and sometimes they are paid exorbitant amounts of money…for playing a game. All the stresses, all the anxiety, are placed on yourself…by yourself. Unless you’re gambling, you literally have no logical investment in the outcome of the game.
Now, this is not to say that football and/or sports don’t have anything to contribute to our society. It drives a lot of merchandise, a lot of business. Local sports teams provide a “usual” safe haven from alternative choices of entertainment for a young person. The sports arena provides many outings prime for social gathering and community support.
I know many people who love football, and I still love them. My grandfather cried when he finally went to see the New England Patriots one year, and that is something I am very glad he was able to do. It’s just not my jam.