Matt Salesses breaks down the seven kinds of sports fans—and celebrates his own kind.
On occasion I have to miss a fun and hilariously awkward party full of sensitive folk because of sports. These are my people: when I say there’s a game, I sometimes get a certain look. “Athleticism?” the look says. “Organized competition? Haven’t you grown out of that yet?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve left plenty of my youth behind: sweatpants, rap music, fear of vegetables (almost), video games (for a while). But sports still tell me I’m a man. When I was a boy I was afraid I wasn’t manly enough, and now that this fear has worn off (right?), I like feeling more manly than I am.
I’ll explain, but first let me list the seven kinds of male sports fans. (Choose your own adventure moment: If you’re only interested in the sensitive part, not the sports part, of this article, skip to number 7.)
1. The manly man. Example: Lumberjack Vikings fan. This is the type of sports fan who could be playing sports himself if he wasn’t too tired from doing other manly stuff, like cutting down trees or rescuing damsels from fires. He needs to relax, and does so by watching men hit other men, or hit balls.
2. The man avoiding his wife/girlfriend/boyfriend. Example: The guy who always wants to watch games at a bar, or at your house, but never at his place. This is the type of sports fan who gets overinvested, his team his Significant Other and his S.O. his mistress. Recognizable by the way he always stays out for too long after the game is over.
3. The statistician. Example: Trivia expert. This is the type of sports fan who goes to the annual sports statistics convention (it exists). You nickname him Wikifan. He’s always saying “I’ll bet you.”
4. The casual/social fan. Example: The drunk; the Red Sox fan post-2004. This is the type of sports fan who just wants to hang out or fit in. You like sports; he likes alcohol. He’s the only one talking when the Sox are down one run in the ninth, or maybe he’s learned by now when to shut up and pretend.
5. The father-issues fan. Example: Non-Texan Cowboys fan. This is the type of sports fan who follows sports because his father did. He still likes the Boys, because his daddy watched them and taught him the rules and told him that to be a man he had to like the Boys. He calls the Cowboys the Boys.
6. The ex-athlete. Example: The guy calling out the pitches before they happen. This is the type of sports fan who seems to hate to watch. He points out every mistake, and when his team wins, he can’t believe it. Could be mistaken for a pre-2004 Red Sox fan, or a Cubs fan.
7. The nostalgic fan. Example: Brooklyn Dodgers fan, From-Texas Cowboys fan. This is the type of fan who learned to love sports when he was young. Now it still pleases him, but he doesn’t know why. Maybe the simplicity of winning and losing.
I’m number 7 on this list. Sensitive men can be numbers 3, 4, 5, or 7. I doubt they’re number 2. Possibly number 6. When I was growing up, I was trying to be number 1, but I was really number 4, trying to fit in. I was ashamed of being sensitive, and wanted to make up for it.
Picture me at age 8 as a scrawny Asian kid with a big head and gangly arms. I’m like a Korean alien, except for the eyes. And I want to play basketball. Every summer I go to Jim Calhoun Basketball Camp, something my father is unhappy about paying for. (Although, to set the record straight, I did win a couple of trophies. That makes it worth it, right, Dad?)
I learn how to get in a defensive crouch, how to keep my elbow in when I shoot, how to swipe up at the ball instead of down, how impossibly large and round Ray Allen’s calves are. Important life skills. I believe I need to know all this because my dream is to play Division II college basketball. I’m a practical kid, okay? I think one or two of my friends could play Division I college basketball, but I’m not as good as them, so I hope that I can play Division II.
The fact is, without basketball, I wouldn’t have had any friends at all. I wish I could blame this on bullying, or racism (there was some of both), but really it had to do with personal awkwardness. I was the kid who insisted for far too long that he liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles more than girls (I don’t know why I did this), who ate everything in a circular pattern so that the last bite was the middle, who cried whenever he had to mow the lawn, who stayed in the classroom during open periods to play Scrabble (and won).
Should I even be admitting these things? When my friends and I hung out outside of school, we either practiced our jumpshot or played home run derby or sat in a basement and played videogames and watched sports.
I had friends then who were numbers 3, 4, and 5 fans. Sports were what kept us a social unit. Awkward as I was, I was respectably athletic and could tell you who the second pick of the 1984 NBA draft was (a famous failure: Sam Bowie). Wielding the power of sports, I tricked myself into thinking I was happy.
It’s still the same thing now. The outcome of a playoff game can make me as pleased or as sad as a best friend’s wedding or divorce. Something I’m a part of only not; something that puts my own life in different standing. Though yes, I’d say the same about certain books.
As I write this, the NBA Finals are going on. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on writing as the Celtics play themselves into a 2-1 hole. Translation: I hate the Lakers. My wife is upset that the television takes up so much of my time. Or she’s upset that she can’t watch what she wants. Or she’s confused that I even like sports at all. I’ve told her how I have cried over cutting the lawn. (Again, should I even be admitting these things?)
I watch Kobe Bryant sweep in and make impossible shots and I hate him but I have to admire him a little. There are certain things every man secretly wishes he could do, and I imagine that even non-sports fans would put “make a game-winning basket” on that list, or “take over a game.”
All the glory! You could retire and star in a reality television show! All these writers and musicians chase immortality their entire lives but have already been beaten out by Michael Jordan. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have a commercial made in which children sing about wishing to be you?
This was my childhood.
One of my earliest memories is of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball “dream season,” when a team of national unknowns went to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament and were a buzzer beater away from the Final Four. They were beaten by Duke, a team I hated enough that I eventually went to their arch rival, UNC, for college.
The game before that loss scarred my sensitive sports memory forever. Tate George hit a game-winning shot of his own, on a play that started with one second left on the clock and which UConn fans still call, “The Shot.” You can see how I am fan type number 7, the nostalgic. These are the things that stick.
My favorite player on that dream team was a kid from Israel, Nadav Henefeld, who led the team in steals. He wasn’t the hero but the guy who did what announcers call the “little things.” Obviously, looking back on my fandom, I can see why I liked him. Henefeld was the guy from another country, who often got overlooked, but who was important, who was loved anyway. He was how I thought of myself. He was great, but he wasn’t that great.
For a class assignment in elementary school, I wrote (and illustrated!) a book all about Nadav Henefeld. I still have it. It’s the first thing I ever really wrote. Fan fiction. I was reading all the typical sensitive kid books and writing about a basketball player most people would never remember. I doubt any of my friends who played basketball with me then would even remember him, or the way I talked about him. Like he was my Jewish brother.
As I grew older, Nadav Henefeld became a fond memory. That team became a fond memory. The dream of Division II college basketball became a fond memory. And those fond memories make up a love for sports.
I’ve rooted for athletes like Henefeld my entire life. The guys whom no one except the sensitive fans, or the diehard fans, notice.
Which brings me back to now and the strange outsider status of sports in the land of books and indie music—that versus the fierce loyalty to sports among those strange sensitive outsiders. Read: instead of your keg party or poetry reading or book club, I am going to watch sweaty men push each other around and try to throw a ball through a hoop. (It’s more embarrassing the more you try to describe it, I know.)
Really, I’ve made it seem like there are few sensitive men out there who like sports, when there are many. They’re often very adamantly fans. Too adamantly, perhaps. Dare I suggest that they (we) are making up for their (our) sensitivity? Maybe I should only speak for myself. (My boss says people were talking about the Lakers-Celtics series on an economics blog she reads. What was the big deal, she asks.)
By the time I got to high school, I was basically pretending to be athletic. I’d scored one goal in soccer that ever meant anything and had been the hot hand in a basketball game one single amazing time. I wasn’t making any varsity teams. But I would never have given up sports. I had sports as a spectacle, as a gathering of friends, as something I could claim to know about.
I could fake being fan number 6, the ex-athlete, by making claims about my youth. And then, as I realized that I was the sensitive guy, that what I wanted to do with my life (writing) was something most people would call a hobby, not a career, as I realized that this was okay and might even work out for me, I still had sports to tell myself that a manly side existed somewhere within me.
These days I take out my sensitivity on the television, cursing and clapping and staring down the screen like I could do better than it. “Damn you, Player Blank, why did you fail to do blank impossibly athletic thing (which I could never do)!” is a common theme. Really, this is all more fun than it sounds.
I deal with being a sports guy through a number of sensitive wiles. As I write this, I am preparing for Game 4 of the NBA Finals, and I’m in Boston, home of the storied Celtics franchise. Somehow, bookstores have still booked famous authors to read, people are still having get-togethers at trendy bars that are still open.
I am staying home and watching the game on a brand new HDTV; my excuse is that I need to spend time with my wife. While watching the game, I will try to keep my wife in the other room so that she doesn’t see me yell and moan. I will try to be quiet (update: I failed).
This weekend, when I see my friends at one of those trendy bars, I will talk sports with one or two of them and books and writing and music and movies with the rest. I wonder what would happen if I started talking sports all the time. I wonder if I would get sick of it. I wonder if I would still be the same person. I wonder if I would convert anyone else.
So here (at last) is a guide for sensitive men who like sports: first, how to be a sensitive man and like sports and not simply be overcompensating, and second, how to learn to like sports if you are a sensitive and don’t like sports now. Basically, reconciling the world of sports to the world of sensitivity.
1. Know why you like/want to like sports. Nostalgia, daddy issues? (See above.) If you don’t know why you, you’re only fooling yourself. Body Bag Game? Love that. Maybe it would be better to let go and embrace your sensitivity full-time. Sports will not save your manliness.
2. Choose players who represent your personality. If you’re a sensitive fan, you don’t need to love Kobe Bryant or another superstar. (Not even Shaq loved Kobe.) Love Hines Ward for how much he loves his mom and how hard he blocks. Love a role player. Love Tony Allen, who comes off the bench and can’t shoot but plays good defense that makes Kobe Bryant mad.
3. Learn how sports tell a story. If it’s hard to like the men hitting men, like the story-telling. How the Sox came back from 3 games down and a bloody sock to beat the Yankees. This is what makes it good conversation, just like books. Like the story of how Randy Johnson exploded a bird with a fastball.
4. Learn the history. History buffs, here’s how you can like history in a bar and not get an Ultimate Wedgie (link nsfw). If you know who won the World Series in 1922, or who was the first to hit for the cycle, people will actually want to talk to you. Well, some people will.
5. Memorize stats. Again: Geeks, you’ve finally got a chance. Learn the Hollinger PER system. Play fantasy baseball. If you don’t care about the players, care about the math. People make money off of this. Money can motivate you to like sports, right?
6. Be unapologetic. If your friends for some reason think you’re weird, then they’re probably pretty damn weird, too. That’s why you’re friends. “I can’t go to the baby shower. You understand.” You’ll be having more fun than those chumps, anyway.
7. Buy a jersey but only wear it to games. Don’t wear your jersey out in public. Sensitive fans get this wrong all the time. In public, a jersey looks stupid. At games, it looks normal. (Don’t tuck your jersey into your pants and other rules for jersey-wearing here.)
8. Don’t forget your significant other. If you love her/him, and you’re a sensitive fan, you know you can’t get too lost in sports and forget about her. Don’t leave her at home when you go out to have fun. That’s like leaving your baby in the car with the windows up. You don’t think so, but she’ll explain it that way. She’s liable to make revenge a sport of her own.
9. Follow your team (and only one) through wins or losses. You want to prove your fandom? Supporting one team is how you gain respect. Watch the Cubs lose every year despite high hopes. Believe in the goat curse. This is what sports fans like. (Right?)
10. Lastly, sports are emotional, so let it out. If you don’t get emotional, what’s the point? You’re sensitive. Losing hurts. Winning is almost like sex. This is the way it should be. So get out there and hurt.
One last aside: Look how much little Nate Robinson and big Big Baby love each other here. And really, that was a lot of sports fans’ favorite moment of Game 4. I’ll ignore what happened in the rest of the series.