Can sports fans be nerdy—in that good nerdy way? Matt Rozsa thinks so.
I’m not sure if I can be considered a Green Bay Packers fan anymore.
It isn’t simply that I missed the NFC Conference championship on Sunday, which by all accounts was a spectacular game. It’s that I didn’t particularly care about missing it. Indeed, were it not for a well-timed email from my parents, I probably wouldn’t have known that it was on at all.
This never would have happened in the ‘90s. My fandom began when, as a six-year-old child, I awoke my parents in the early a.m. and proudly informed them that any team which had green in their name and their uniform deserved my support (green has always been my favorite color, so this logic seemed impeccable at the time). From that moment until I left for college, I followed the NFL season as diligently as millions of other red-blooded Americans. I memorized statistics, learned the intricacies of offensive and defensive strategy, and was swept up in the martial metaphors and weekly displays of athletic prowess.
In other words, I used to be a football nerd. To understand why that changed, it’s important to first understand how it’s possible to be a sports fan and a nerd … and what it says about our culture that those concepts will undoubtedly strike many readers as mutually exclusive.
For a working definition of what it means to be a nerd, I turn to the author John Green:
… nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff … Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.’
Green was hardly the first social critic to observe that geek has become chic. Today we celebrate science fiction nerds and fantasy nerds, comic book nerds, and video game nerds, nerds who focus on the hard sciences and history and literature and art. We live in the era of Comic Con and The Big Bang Theory, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix-induced binge watching, of bitter disputes over whether Han shot first or Gamergate is about more than harassing women (it isn’t). And yet, colloquially speaking, sports fans are rarely considered nerds.
Sure, most coaches and many athletes need to master and effectively employ complex strategies to win in any major organized sport you can toss a stick at (football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer). Similarly, it takes considerable mathematical and analytical dexterity to be a conversant fan in any of these games, be it creating a fantasy league and creating odds for a betting pool or simply maximizing your enjoyment as an audience member by fully appreciating the intricacies of the game you’re watching. Yet when all is said and done, being a truly knowledgeable sports fan simply doesn’t carry a great deal of cachet.
One big reason for this, I suspect, is our embedded cultural bias against jock culture. Just as we have been conditioned to assume athletes are big dumb lugs, so too do we tend to view the sports fan as a visceral rather than intellectual creature. Beyond this snobbery, it’s also easy for the uninitiated to dismiss athletic competitions as simple games. Finally, the scandals that keep cropping up in the sports world—from high schools and colleges that give special privileges to their “student athletes” to steroid abuse in baseball and more NFL scandals than can be listed in a single article—have undoubtedly sullied the reputation of sports among many in the intelligentsia, who, I can vouch for from firsthand experience as a PhD student and professional editorialist, have never thought very highly of sports in the first place.
Like most prejudices, however, the assumptions that prevent die-hard sports fans from taking their rightful place in the nerd pantheon disintegrate with even modest scrutiny. “I can date my sports nerdom back to first grade, when my friend Evan and I would memorize the names of the 49ers’ (our favorite team) starting lineup,” recalled Mike Raymond, who currently hosts ESPN Radio of the Lehigh Valley. Modern technology has increased the level of sophistication with which fans can learn about their favorite sports in the couple decades since Raymond’s childhood. “Websites like FanDuel and Draftkings have monetized the participation in fantasy sports,” he explained, while “video games such as Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K allow you to play with teams from around the country and the world, learning more about the players and hence gaining more interest in the sport.”
Salomea Grucela, another football fan whose Facebook page remains one of my main sources of football-related information, knows plenty of people with stories like Raymond’s. “I think there’s definitely an overlap in ‘nerd culture’ that includes sports, particularly the kinds of fans who dedicate the time to memorizing stats, rosters, play calling, etc,” she explained. “The personal investment fans place in ‘their teams,’ which they themselves have never played for, or ‘their players’ who they’ve never met and don’t know on a personal level, really isn’t all that different from drawing those same emotional connections or devotions to fictional literary characters or historical heroes.” Her observations echoed those of Jessica Blasco, who told me that she hadn’t become a football fan until college. “Football was ‘just a game’ to me, and I didn’t understand everyone’s obsession with it,” she recalled, until she went to her first NCAA football game and experienced “the pride, tradition, and camaraderie that surrounded it … In an instant, the realization that you have a shared love for a team can bond you with a stranger, whether it’s at a bar, a tailgate, or seeing someone a thousand miles from home wearing your favorite jersey.”
This brings me back to my own experience as an erstwhile cheesehead (the nickname for Packers fans). There was never a single moment in which I became disenchanted with football or made a conscious decision to pay less attention to it. As I grew older, the intellectual energy that I invested in being a football fan gradually found itself directed toward other subjects, primarily the ones from which I make my career today (history, in which I’m getting my PhD, and political science and literature, which I use as an editorialist). During that time, football faded from being a secondary interest to a tertiary one, and eventually a passing curiosity with the faint aura of nostalgia affixed to it.
While the subjects that occupied my nerdy attentions may have changed, however, the passion and intensity is exactly the same. The respectable history/political/literature nerd that I am today is the direct descendant of the sports nerd who, less than twenty years ago, cheered when the Green Bay Packers won their first Super Bowl in twenty-nine years and wept when they lost their first Super Bowl ever twelve months later. As I reflect on my numb response to the Packers’ last-minute loss to the Seattle Seahawks, I can’t help but hear the elegy for the inner child who would have been devastated at that event. Make no mistake about it: That part of me was a bona fide nerd, even if the cultural consensus seems to dictate otherwise. It is a genuine tragedy when something that once helped a person plug into “the miracle of human consciousness” evaporates. After all, the best part of being a nerd is feeling that connection—and for the sake of our humanity, it’s important that we never lose it.