Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Psychology of Sports Fans, Vol. I

[In which I place on my philosopher, rather than comedian, hat. First posted last night at Mile High Report, now archived here. I strongly suggest you also read "The Philosophy of Sports Fans," a lengthy and thoughtful continuation of the questions raised herein, written over at MHR by poster styg50.]

I count myself under the "rabid, tending to dysfunctional due to extreme emotional attachment" brand of sports fans. I watch spring training and preseason games, whether on TV or on Gamecast. (My plans for Saturday night consist of: Get pizza. Watch Broncos game. Heckle the Cowboys even though they can't hear me through the TV screen. Make unimaginative cracks about Jessica Simpson. Yell at Jay to throw the ball to the open guy in blue (or orange, as the case may be). You get the idea). I read every stats sheet in existence. I check an average of five or six different sites a day, five or six times, for news on my teams. My evening is planned around how I can check on the games in progress -- or avoid them, if they are currently too painful to be endured. (This April, I went to a big dance party at college. During breaks on the sidelines, I was constantly texting MLBscores to keep updated on the progress of the Rockies game). I am happy if the team wins, and feel as if life is all a sham and should be disallowed in the (sadly all too common) event that my teams get their behind handed to them on a platter. This is a routine that likely sounds very familiar to all of you, since I'm sure all of us have similarly proudly displayed our lack of social skills and bizarre emotional swings all having to do with a bunch of guys in matching colors.

This can make you do strange things. As an example, I work at Starbucks, and today a guy came in wearing a raiders hat. My first impulse was to ignore him, or pretend to throw holy water on him, or make more cracks about Al Davis. (Earlier this year, I recounted my triumphant encounter with a raiders fan while leaving the Rockies game, in which wit wasn't even needed to outmaneuver the poltroon -- just a simple stating of his team's crappy record). Of course, it is my job to be nice to the guy, so I just took my sweet time finishing the drink I was working on and eventually got around to him, where I was very nice indeed. So nice he might have suspected something was up. So nice that I certainly didn't spit in his drink or anything... (As a matter of fact, to be perfectly honest, I didn't. Mainly because he didn't GET one. Nope, he just stood there with a bagel, one bagel, for me to ring up. And couldn't have gone somewhere else. Nope, needed the bagel. One bagel. Right then, raiders fan). And the guy wasn't even wearing a chargers hat. I wonder what I might have done if that was the case. (Although a kid did come in wearing a chargers shirt a while ago. I decided not to tell him that his choice of football allegiance sucked harder than Phyllis on dollar drinks night. Being as poor as I am, I can take no chances with losing my job).

I'm a psychology student and a chronic overthinker in addition to a sports fan, which of course got me wondering. I had never met this guy in my life. I am sure he was a perfectly ordinary fellow, but the colors which he had chosen to brand himself immediately sparked a "that guy has gotta be a dipshit, oh god" reaction in me. We have the choice of following, or not following, a team that wears some assortment of colors and throws some shape of ball around. We don't play the games, we don't manage the team (at least in reality, as we do our best armchair-jockeying). We don't pay the salaries (although we grumble at how much money we blow on them with so little results). We don't even write the newspaper coverage of them. (Although we should, since I swear to God your average fan at MHR could do a better job than some of the hacks in the press boxes. But that is another diary which has already been written and not by me...) Is it a primal emotional thing, to glorify in Us stomping on their heads? Do we identify ourselves with the players or as their followers? And for heaven's sake, why does it absolutely ruin an otherwise perfectly acceptable evening when we don't cross home plate more times/make more three-pointers/shoot the puck in the net more times/throw the ovoid to the guy in the end zone more times? There is enough insanity going on in the world, so is that the precise reason sports evoke such a response in us -- we know it's not Darfur or Russia/Georgia, but dammit, it DOES matter that the guy didn't aim right in getting the ball through the yellow uprights. People make a lot of money on this crap. Or lose a lot of emotional stability, as the case may be.

I get philosophical about sports, especially when my teams lose. (Since I am a diehard Rockies fan, I have this experience frequently). The more I think about it, it just doesn't entirely make sense. And then I go to the stadium on a summer night, have a dog and a drink, settle down, watch the opening video montage, and feel like, "Hell yeah! These are my guys! We're awesome! We rule! We kick butt! Hell yeah!" (And then this does not usually happen). Not your deepest emotional reaction, but no one would deny that it is deep. It does matter. Good luck explaining to your non-sports-crazy significant other that yes, the reason you want to put a paper bag on your head and die is because the one guy hit the ball three inches too far to the right for the game-ending double play instead of the game-winning single. Yes. That is the reason. And yes, you are an infidel because you don't get it. Wait, you have a life? Well, screw you.

(Interlude while I watch Michael Phelps win his record-tying seventh gold medal in his most exciting race since the 4x100 freestyle relay. Same thing goes here. Aside from the fact that Phelps is probably from another planet, he is from the USA, so I root for him. My sister and I leapt off the couch and roared when he somehow got in first. This at least has somewhat more sense in the fact that that's where I'm from, so national solidarity.... so.... state solidarity? Is it that we decide this particular group represents us, so we come together in a unity show? Is it the old pack mentality? Since we are from one place, we are better than you from another place?)

If I can get away with it during the course of my cognitive psychology Ph.D (still a few years off) I would like to be able to trick the department into letting me study if being a sports fan appeals to something in primal human nature. We all jump off the couch, pound our chests, and shout like cavemen when Jay threads the needle with a pass to a double-teamed Marshall in the endzone who somehow pulls it down... we don't waste time on analyzing why we are doing what we are doing, we just know that it feels good and HAHAHAHA EAT IT CHARGERS EAT IT HAHAHAHA. This is not particularly intellectual stuff. No one thinks that being a sports fan will save the world, but sometimes it does. Or at least our world. Maybe the whole rest of the day sucked, but at least the boys won, so we can deal with it. Or maybe you read a feel-good story about a dying kid getting to meet their favorite athlete. Or you have a get-together with your friends and talk about sports, it's something you can connect with. (MHR fulfills this role).

So, my question to you all is this. What makes us sports fans, and what keeps us there through the bad parts? I don't think that any of us would doubt that what we feel for these guys, these moments, these teams -- none of whom we've ever met unless we're stupidly lucky, none of whom we know aside from soundbites provided to the paper, yet who we watch devotedly every day or every Sunday -- is real love. And yet we put up with so much crap from them, like boneheaded passes into double coverage in the endzone that Marshall doesn't catch, but which instead get picked and run back for a touchdown. They break our hearts. They do stupid things like signing Kip Wells and failing to have a run defense capable of stopping a paper bag blowing in the wind. But we stick. They become a part of us.

And why, in chicken-pickin' hell, is this the case? Would we all be happier if we had the answer? Or would it really not matter? A lot of us start watching teams because we live in a certain geographic location, or because our parents did, or because of total accidents. And then we start obsessing. And then it generally goes badly. But hey, there we are, sitting with teeth clenched through one more five-run inning or three-and-out drive. And if we're bona fides we come back for more pain. And curse existence. And do it again, so we really have no excuses.

In short, I am watching the Rockies play the Nationals, a few games removed from a disastrous 3-7 homestand in which the Nats were responsible for 3 of these losses. But watching them anyway since they are my team. And waiting for the Broncos game to start, as I have all day. Despite the fact that it is preseason. Despite the fact that it is against the Cowboys, who schooled us in preseason last year (I tell myself that this will be an interesting opportunity to judge progress. For Pete's sake, I had to watch the entirety of the Colts/Redskins Hall of Fame Game to get my football fix. I want to see what the defense looks like, how sharp Cutler is, how well Clady matches up against DeMarcus Ware this week after drawing Mario Williams last week. I will probably be posting updates on the affair over at MHR. My name is Hilary and I have a sports problem, but at least I own up to it freely. There are far worse things to be obsessing about).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The NFL In A Nutshell

* Not all of the herein reported events may have occurred precisely as I describe them. Then again, they may have. I leave it to your discretion, dear reader (then again, that is deluding myself into believing that I have readers).

** This post contains the advised daily serving of BRETT FAVRE for your sports-fan health.

Since my last post on March 25, 2008 (a total of 141 days for those of you keeping score at home) a great many things have happened in the wonderful world of football. Training camps opened, for a start, and every Lions/Dolphins/Jets fan has talked him/herself into believing that the acquisition of Gosder Cherilus/Jake Long/TEHHH CHEESEHEAD GODDD!!!11 (BRETT FAVRE) will get them back to the playoffs for the first time since John Madden began walking upright. Teams got a look at their new finds from the 2008 draft, particularly some who were relying on fresh blood to lead the offense. Boston College's Matt Ryan (the first quarterback off the board, taken at #3 overall by the quarterback-challenged Falcons) inaugurated his new life as Michael Vick's successor by going to a production of Oklahoma! with a teammate and looking terrifically awkward when a camera caught him, but then threw for 113 yards and a TD in his first preseason game, raising everyone's hopes that they have a signal-caller who a) is competent at the job and b) doesn't have a side hobby involving cruelty to animals. Delaware's Joe Flacco, the second quarterback taken (#18 by Baltimore) looked as if the Ravens' modus operandi of fail had rubbed off on him, losing a fumble on his first snap and completing precisely zero of three passes, but still probably looking better than Kyle Boller, who may win the job again by default.

Hawaii's Colt Brennan, the former Heisman Trophy finalist who saw his draft stock slip dramatically after a bad Sugar Bowl showing, made his pro debut with the Redskins, who picked him in the sixth round (186 overall) and looked good in his first showing under quarterback guru Jim Zorn -- he finished the Hall of Fame Game against the briefly Manning-less Colts with 9 completions in 10 attempts, 123 yards, and a pair of touchdown passes. (BRETT FAVRE) San Diego State's Kevin O'Connell, taken in the third round (94th overall) by the New England Patriots, asked himself if God hates him and does not want him to play football, a question that resident sports theologian Matt Cassel has been struggling with for years. Louisville's Brian Brohm and LSU's Matt Flynn (taken 56th overall and 209th overall, respectively, by the Green Bay Packers) briefly wondered the same thing but then accepted Aaron Rodgers' breathless, euphoric, and misspelled e-mail invitation to join "A-Rod's Pack o' Thugz." Washington State's Alex Brink, the thirteenth quarterback off the board (#223 by the Texans) enjoyed a nice breeze and wondered if a seventh-rounder's signing bonus is enough to buy a Maserati. (BRETT FAVRE)

Speaking of quarterbacks (BRETT FAVRE) Tom Brady put up his "injured" foot, took a bath in Cristal and $100 bills to remind himself that he's still cooler, wealthier, better-looking, more successful, and gets laid more by a supermodel than you, Eli Manning got married and wondered why everyone suddenly liked him, Peyton Manning had surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his knee, hoped to be ready for the regular-season opener, and made himself such a giant irritant to Ashley Manning by sitting around the house, bitching, and constantly watching game film of his 2006 AFC Championship win over the Patriots that she made him go wash Tony Dungy's car. Five times. BRETT FAVRE retired, unretired, retired, unretired, and made Cheesehead Nation spontaneously combust before returning to the Packers, getting messily divorced from them a few days later, and going on his merry way to the Jets, where we are now treated to (I'm serious) stories about how he had to run a penalty lap since he fumbled a snap. Fans across the Meadowlands reacted in delight, both to the fact that one of their teams had acquired an aging gunslinger (BRETT FAVRE) with a penchant for interceptions and bad facial hair, and the other had, I dunno, oh yeah, beaten some team with a really good record in the Super Bowl. In other news, BRETT FAVRE will also supplant Eli Manning, Trent Edwards, that Brady guy, Kyle Boller, and every other quarterback on the Eastern Seaboard, while breaking every record in existence and nailing your wife.

In other news, there was a tragedy at the University of Wisconsin where a college co-ed was found dead -- apparently the unfortunate was playing a drinking game, had to take a shot every time the sports media mentioned FAVRE, and died of alcohol poisoning in half an hour. Speaking of drinking, Aaron Rodgers got drunk in euphoria. Aaron Rodgers got drunk in crushing depression. Aaron Rodgers got drunk in euphoria again and then he smoked a really good bowl and shaved his porno-stache to prepare himself for the rigors of being the Packers' starting quarterback and wondering if they'd name a street after him one day. Also, he got so fed up that he swore he'd send an Andrea Kramer/Suzy Kolber-fronted sideline bimbo assassination squad after the next lazy sportswriter who titled a piece "Now It's Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood." Bill Belichick, meanwhile, wondered where he could hire this squad to put Eric Mangini out of his misery, and made five thousand copies of the "Spygate" tapes before hijacking a B-52 to drop them all on Arlen Specter's rooftop at the dead of night while playing "Start the Machine" by Angels & Airwaves at 1,529 decibels.

David Tyree enjoyed a winter of never having to pay for his drinks anywhere in New York and the fact that people pretended they could tell him from Domenik Hixon before the Hail Manning in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Michael Strahan retired, but got arrested for assault when, reacting out of habit when the doorbell woke him from a nap, he violently sacked the teenage babysitter (this coming as the third strike after he had already leveled the mailman and used the tax collector to pick the gap between his teeth). Ben Roethlisberger spent his offseason building a better motorbike, which backfired when Terrell Owens helped himself to it. Maurice Jones-Drew spent his offseason overturning garbage trucks for fun. Brady Quinn spent his offseason matching curtain prints, drinking Mai Tais, and shouting homophobic slurs at anyone wearing better hot pants than him. Rex Grossman impregnated 1,000 women from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to the Philippines (where his successor as Florida Gators quarterback, too-good-to-live and desperately devoted Christian Tim Tebow, was doing his part to save the world by circumcising poverty-stricken children. And that is actually not a joke).

Tony Romo got a STD from Jessica Simpson, dumped her, and desperately tried to keep it a secret until he could ask his Cabbage Patch Kid for advice -- unfortunately the Kid advised him to take her back, which he did, which will end badly after the Cowboys' first preseason loss when Dallas riots en masse to burn pink-jerseyed effigies. Elsewhere in Tixas, Wade Phillips, driven to the brink by megalomaniac Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, expanded to the approximate size of Chad Johnson's sense of self-importance and Mario Williams jumped up and down in a corner, wanting to know if anyone was going to remember the Texans, which everyone took as some kind of Alamo reference.

Jon Kitna and Kurt Warner held a prayer session asking God to deliver them from Matts: Millen and Leinart, respectively. In Arizona, everyone cared much more about the Super Bowl than they ever gave a crap about the Cardinals. In California, the 49ers continued the process of total irrelevance to everyone outside the Bay Area, changed their names to the Fightin' 39ers to sound more plucky and gritty, resigned when it didn't work, and then got scared awake by their alarm clock and a stern phone call from Roger Goodell telling them that doing anything without his express authorization, including breathing, is a violation of NFL conduct policy. (BRETT FAVRE)

The San Diego Chargers had to put a limit on Philip Rivers' offseason activities when they discovered that his new favorite hobby was daring his antagonists (a list ranging from the guy at the grocery checkout to Kofi Annan) to eat his surgically reconstructed ACLs. Los Angeles -- oh wait, Los Angeles didn't do anything since they don't have a pro football team, but laughed in the face of every other college program since they still have the USC Trojans and you don't. (Although they share their name with a well-known brand of condom, they still couldn't get Matt Leinart to wear one, which is a bit of a problem when you consider that he probably slept with all of the approximately 8,364 female undergraduates during his tenure there). (BRETT FAVRE) The Oakland Raiders retained Al Davis for the 134th consecutive year, thereby ensuring another year of disastrous and well-earned fail, and showed their commitment to their policy of making losers the face of the franchise by selecting Darren McFadden (two children by two different women at the tender age of 20) with their first pick, fourth overall. In doing so, they also ensured that McFadden, a top-performing running back at the University of Arkansas, will be able to tear unencumbered by the Denver Broncos' mesmerized defense, who somewhere along the way got a key tenet of football backwards and think that you are supposed to step aside and let the little guy with the ball plow easily through your big guys, who look imposing in theory but in practice are worse than useless. (BRETT FAVRE)

Jay Cutler discovered that diabetes were the reason he was so sick and drained last year, losing 35 pounds, as he'd initially attributed it to the fact that he'd stopped eating after receiving mysterious, threatening notes from "Jack Eldham," who is certainly not a legendary quarterback for any Denver team and certainly not interested in ensuring that nobody likes Jay better than they liked him. If he ever played, that is. Brandon Marshall, meanwhile, had a fight with his brother, a McDonald's bag, Roger Goodell, and common sense, and lost all four by a resounding margin while getting slapped with a three-game suspension to open the season. Jason Elam took his game-saving leg and Christian thriller novels off to Atlanta, leaving the Broncos with Matt Prater in return, which initially looked like a livable trade-off until everyone discovered that Prater had been padding his resume to say that he went to football powerhouse Florida when in fact he actually went to Central Florida and almost got eaten by an alligator while drunk at a frat party. (BRETT FAVRE) Mike Shanahan was named Broncos King for Life by Broncos Emperor for Life Pat Bowlen in a secret underground ceremony, where he honed the psychic powers that allowed him to cut troublesome wide receiver Javon Walker two weeks or so before Walker, who should be commended for exemplifying the principles of his new employers, went out and got drunk and beaten up in Las Vegas to celebrate his signing with the Raiders. And in an explosive revelation sure to upset almost no one, the Carolina Panthers were actually discovered to be a long-running urban legend. (BRETT FAVRE)

In short, it was a very busy offseason. With one week of preseason games under the nation's collective belt, everyone has discovered (BRETT FAVRE) it's time for pigskin. Will I be back? Well, hopefully. As the long hiatus between posts attests, I get distracted. But I'm feeling in a football mood, may actually finish the Quarterback Quizzes, and will write some crap on Denver's new "look" and "acquisition" and try to determine if this is any different from last year's -- which was to say, losing. (BRETT FAVRE) That was annoying.