Preteen me started out as a biased, novice, ignorant sports fan. When I became a fan of a team, an event, or an athlete, I became a supposed fan of that sport. In other words, I liked, therefore I was. I was a fan of the in-school pep rallies we got to have every late January because the Bills went to the Super Bowl, thus I was a fan of football. I became a fan of Steve Young’s striking good looks, thus I was even more a fan of football. I was a fan of my dad dragging me to Rochester Amerks games when he was able to score free tickets, thus I was a fan of hockey. I wanted to be Kristi Yamaguchi, therefore I liked figure skating. I liked the hoards of hot guys in indoor track, thus I joined the track team.
Here’s the converse of becoming a fan in that fashion–you absolutely despise other events, teams and athletes, but you can not tangibly explain why. I hated the Dallas Cowboys, because they were the arch enemy of both Steve Young and the Bills. Never mind that the early-mid 90s Cowboys were amazing on both sides of the ball, were crazy dominant, and probably were not the dirty cheaters my father pinned them to be. I hated them with every ounce of hate a twelve year old could muster. They caused the Monday after the Super Bowl to be the saddest day at school–every time you spotted a stray streamer in the #52 School gym from Friday’s “Go Bills” pep rally, you got choked up. I liked the Amerks, but I couldn’t tell you why I was booing the Hershey Bears–I couldn’t tell you if they were actually any good, what college teams the players came from, if they had a good defense. As for indoor track – I liked the hot guys, but my running form was awful and I couldn‘t tell you what half the events were–plus, when my coach tried to get me to practice hurdles, I often tripped over them not for lack of vertical leap (hey, I had been a gymnast, thus I had vertical leap to spare,) but because I was staring at the guys on my team. It’s not just me–think of a Boston University or Boston College student whose first introduction to hockey is in college. They hate the other school’s team, although most of them, at first or ever, can tell anyone else exactly why they should hate them.
Eventually, around the time I decided to become a sports journalist, I realized I had to learn a little bit more about the sports I liked. With that education came a dispelling of many of the dislikes I had carried with me since my tweenaged days, replaced with an appreciation of a good offense and excellent form, and the ability to call out a bad call or a missed tackle. Even though the whole sports journalist thing never did quite work out, to this day I try to stay neutral, enjoying the sport for exactly what it is, and trying desperately not to take sides.
Take Chris and I at the University of New Hampshire on Friday evening, watching the Boston University hockey team play a highly ranked Wildcat team. Everything I know about hockey tells me UNH is talented, and that Boston University relies too heavily on its defense and Hobey Baker quality goalie. UNH played poorly in the third, however, missing passes in the Terrier zone that could have been set up for some easy goals. However, I found myself defending the Wildcats, because my sports knowledge tells me they are good. I held back rooting on the Terriers because I can point out their flaws. This is not the first time this has happened. It is as if an alarm goes off in my brain if I start to get too biased towards one side that academically (as in the study of sports, not the team’s GPA) isn’t deserving of all of my support. In some instances, I can fully realize that the team is good, but the alarm orders me to stay neutral because I, as a “smart” sports fan, need to be a fan of the sport as a whole, and not any individual team.
I am still a fan of teams, I will still cheer, but there’s always that reluctance. I desperately want to be a serious, knowledgeable sports fan–but to do so, do you have to give up all bias? If you truly were an academic sports fan, your favourite team would be who was best in a given year, meaning in sports like football, where there is such parity, your favourite team will most likely change every year. Gosh, I’d love to cheer on the Bills till I’m royal blue in the face, but why am I doing so when they so obviously weren’t the best team in the NFL this year? If I have the knowledge to know better, than why do I cheer for them? Should it be treated like the legal world’s assumption of risk–it could be introduced that you have access to the knowledge that the team you are rooting for is horrible, but it can’t be used against you if you do not heed it?
Living in Boston, I live amidst many who claim to be baseball experts, but who wear their Red Sox hearts on their sleeves. Does this make them less of baseball experts? Possibly, because they are more likely biased. It’s considered a high crime to acknowledge that, hey, Jeter actually may be pretty good, but still root for the Red Sox at the end of the day. It’s just like knowing there wasn’t one Bills fan in Canton, OH this past August with a Troy Aikman jersey on, or there will never be a Boston University hockey fan who will even begin to acknowledge that maybe Boston College played a better game in Worcester last March. Are they less sports knowledgeable than those whose allegiances are silent or change with the handing over of a championship trophy? Better yet, given the pure basis of sports in our modern society, is it even possible to be a sports fan without taking a side?
I’ll keep trying to maintain that happy balance of trying to remain sports knowledgeable while cheering on my favorites, because I imagine there is no right or wrong in this argument. And anyway, the Bills need more fans who knowledgably disregard the fact that if they lose Nate Clements and London Fletcher-Baker, the team is screwed, and cheer for the team anyway.