The Sensitive Dude’s Guide to Sports

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.)

I hope my wife doesn’t read this.

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.

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About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses contributed to the very first day of The Good Men Project. He writes the "Love, Recorded" column about his wife, baby, and cats. He has written for The New York Times, NPR, the Center for Asian American Media, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. He is the author, most recently, of Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American masculinity. See more at his eponymous website. Contact him via email or @salesses.

Comments

  1. As a fellow Boston fan, I liked this. Because like you, I often flit between my friends who love sports and my nerdy journalist buddies who think I’m wasting my time on a mindless game.

    I do have to add to your categories of fans though:

    8) The Poseur: This guy is probably not from Boston, yet learned everything he could about them upon moving here and now likes to offer his “expert” take on things whenever he gets the chance. Although his stats are correct, you know he’s just spitting back everything he’s read in Dan Shaughnessy’s column and watched on ESPN. This guy is obnoxious.

    9) The Generational Die Hard: This guy is a real fan. The truest of fans. The team was passed down through generations of his family and he’s been going since he was a kid. He’s not obnoxious like the Poseur and he’s not as ostentatious as the Jersey-Wearing Guy. But he’s always there, year in and year out through thick and thin. The complete opposite of the post-2004 Red Sox fan. And yes, he cares a little too much about the outcome of events and is way too invested in the team for his own good. But that’s not a bad thing because it is all about loyalty and passion.

    To be honest, I’m a little of each category. Sometimes I do want to get away from my wife and escape for awhile. And I would NEVER bring my wife with me to a truly crucial sporting event. Because she doesn’t understand why I get so worked up. And in that moment, the last thing you want to do is explain everything to someone who, in the end, doesn’t give a shit.

  2. paul kidwell says:

    I enjoyed your peice, Mathew. I am an ex-college athlete (basketball) who played just about every sport as a kid, teen and young adult – with the exception of curling. When I was young, participating in sports defined me more than anything; and yet, I was not much of a fan. Not sure why, but watching others play games didn’t interest me much. In fact, I watched my first Super Bowl when the Patriots lost to the Bears in 1990-something. Of course, being the father of an 18 year-old, statristic-quoting boy has changed all that and sometimes when he talks sports with me I feel as if my ears are going to bleed, such is the level of passion coming from this young man who worships all Boston sports. I have no choice, but to join him in front of the TV or at a local ball park to watch the moves of his heroes. Of course, that will change when he leaves for college and I will go back to saving damsels.

    DaddyFiles: Every once in a while my wife joins us at one of the games. Try explaining the nuances of the Infield Fly Rule, squeeze bunt, etc. to a woman who was born in Shanghai.

  3. Will someone please explain to me why ALL guys have to be sports fans. Why is it that sports are used as a test of “masculinity,” as if MORAL courage counts for nothing? Of course, if a guy has no interest in sports, his masculinity will automatically be called into question. Since the popular culture is saturated with sports, nonathletic boys are likely to be bullied simply for having no interest in sports. What good does that do? What is the justification for that? I’m not putting down people who enjoy sports. I simply object to the coercive aspects of what is called the “jock culture.” (Just one example of that is forcing nonathletic boys to participate in competitive team games in mandatory P.E., which historically offered no fitness programs at all for the nonathletic students.) There seems to be no room for any sane discussion about it.

  4. To me, the sports page was the least ambiguous part of the newspaper. As an LA kid, I liked looking at the Times sports section and seeing a Dodgers or Lakers win, right there in black and white. Or occasionally a Kings win, or the Angels, or going way back, a Rams win. Or for the connoisseur, a Raiders win. (I don’t buy the Clippers hype – they are a fun team but winning has never been Donald Sterling’s thing. Sorry.)

    Anyway, I would add a few types or subtypes of fan:

    The Front Office Boy: He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t really identify with the players. He’s all about management. If he’s older, he was deep into Rotisserie baseball. Nowadays it’s all computerized fantasy leagues. He understands what happened as a result of every pro sports labor dispute and is a staunch supporter of a BCS playoff system because it’s more efficient. Has seen “Moneyball” five times. Has favorite GMs where other fans cheer for that bench player that always seems to come through in a pinch and fire up the crowd.

    The Harry Edwards Professor of the Sociology of Sport: The guy that views everything sports through a social science lens. Pete Rose. Mike Tyson. The Decision. PEDs. Absolutely hates the NCAA because it exploits young athletes. You’ll find that when pressed he actually knows and cares a lot about what actually happens between the lines, on the court, etc. He probably hates The Front Office Boy but might find some common ground in the nostalgia line.

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