Do Sports Really Matter?

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Within the past week, two major sports events have drawn my attention away from writing magazine-cutout letters to Taylor Swift: Ray Rice (of course) and Penn State’s reinstatement into postseason bowls. More specifically, what’s interested me is not the events themselves, but sifting through the endless reactions. You don’t need to be a moralist to note that Ray Rice knocking out his now-wife in an elevator was not very nice. It hurt to watch almost as much as it hurts to listen to a Chris Berman-announced football game. And, if I’m reading the tea leaves right, it seems as if most folks are pretty okay with Penn State’s lifted bowl ban, as it was strange to punish kids who had nothing to do with the actions (or inactions) of old, terrible men.

These aren’t revelations, but I watched Ravens fans give a standing ovation for the beleaguered Ray Rice during Baltimore’s first open practice, then witnessed hundreds of Penn State students rally to reinstate Joe Paterno’s wins (and statue) and I wondered what the fuck is wrong with everybody.

I’ll tackle (haha) Penn State first. I went to Penn State. I love watching Penn State football. When we win, I am happy; when we lose, I am disappointed. But a whole bunch of kids were raped over a long period of time, and I believe I am clear-eyed enough to understand that’s more important than the win tally of Joe Paterno. So yeah, I’m a little frustrated that a bunch of people are using the NCAA’s loosening of sanctions as an excuse to go further and ask for reinstatement for a recognition of victories. If you disagree with me, let me ask you something. Let’s assume you’re a huge fan (of course you are). Would you give back every Penn State win if it meant no kid was raped? Would you disavow yourself of Penn State football entirely if you knew it would save the emotional lives of several young men? Of course you would–you’re not a monster. I know I created a ridiculous hypothetical there, because that’s not a choice you would ever have to make. I’m only pointing out that in extreme realities, you will always favor humanity over sport.

So what if I asked you this: would you give up the NCAA’s recognition of JoePa’s 400 plus wins if it meant the victims wouldn’t have to relive their anger? If there was even a single person who felt marred, disrespected, or forgotten by that rally on Monday, would you still feel like speaking out for Joe Paterno? Regardless of how you feel about the man–guilty or not–is the near meaningless decision by a governing body that regulates a sport so important that you would rally over it? Would you put that above the potential feelings of victims? You wouldn’t. You couldn’t–at least not intentionally. The same goes for the Ravens fans, who stood to cheer on Ray Rice after it was made public that he dragged his unconscious fiancée from a casino elevator. They didn’t consider their actions. They couldn’t have. They had only one thought: “Go Ravens!”

I get it. Sports, and more specifically, football, occupy an interesting space in our lives. For many, including myself, it has become a kind of shorthand for who we are. I went to Penn State, and I am a Patriots fan. Those simple admissions give others a diving board from which to jump into conversation. To me, that is the best argument for sports; they create room in which you can relate to others, have some fun, and share in this mortal circus. The visceral joy of watching your team or player do well has been around since cavemen formed packs. It’s simple and tribal and oh so human. Yet, intellectually, we all know that we were, for the most part, born into our love of a specific team. I was raised outside of Boston, inculcated with my love of Patriots football before I even understood choice. I’m not so dumb to believe that if I was born in Cleveland, I would still love the Patriots. I’m not divinely drawn to them. I never chose my loyalty. And if there was no choice involved, how could I reasonably argue that my team is “the best” or more deserving of a title than the next team? How could I ever objectively tell you that Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all time? Yet, that’s what we do. We treat football like religion, as if our beliefs are self-evident truths. We post absurd, obsessive ramblings on social media, cheer on wife-beaters, argue about Joe Paterno, and adamantly feel that Miami fans don’t care as much because they have nice weather. But if everyone is right about his or her team, then no one is right about his or her team. The great contradiction of sports is that the moment they are given too much worth, they are simultaneously rendered meaningless. So when does our care of football outweigh its value?

I can’t wait for Saturday. This will be the first game of Penn State’s inevitable march to a national championship. And I can’t wait for Sunday. My fantasy lineup is set. I’m going to meet some buddies at a bar and we are going to get drunk. I will cheer when the Pats score, say, “What the fuck?” when they turn the ball over, and I’ll randomly wonder if Rob Gronkowski gets excited when he eats at a restaurant that has paper placemats and crayons. If either of my teams lose, I WILL be disappointed, but I won’t be unhappy. It won’t ruin my day, because football, win or lose, has already served its purpose. I get to slap my buddies on the back, share a few drinks, have a few conversations, and relentlessly hit on a girl in a jersey pretending to be a fan. That sparkling bit of humanity every weekend is enough. It’s amazing. Welcome back, football.

But seriously, the Pats better win on Sunday, because 0-2 is basically death.

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