Monday, October 28, 2002

Back from Knoxville yesterday on a 6:30 AM flight. The trip reminded me that a) the difficulty of the hour notwithstanding, 7:30 AM is a pretty good time to be at O'Hare airport and b) I have a troubled relationship with sports. The first theorum needs no defending, so let me talk about sports for a minute.

The purpose of the trip to Knoxville, among other reasons, was to go to the football game between the University of Tennessee Volunteers and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. As someone who, thanks to coincidences of rearing and capitalism, supports the Vols, I found the game dismal, a disappointing rout. Perhaps because the game left me in a dark mood (me and hordes of jeering fans at Neyland Stadium), I started thinking about my curious relationship with this thing called college football, and sports more broadly.

I grew up loathing sports. My parents took me to University of Tennessee games from when I was very young, and anyone predisposed to like sports would have viewed these as fabulous opportunities. Tennessee football is, as Dick Cheney might say, big time, and matches between Tennessee and its storied Southeastern Conference rivals--the University of Alabama, the University of Florida--sit in the first tier of important American sporting events. That said, as a boy I found the games enormously dull, and a crisp fall afternoon often found me in Neyland Stadium with my nose deep in a book, irritated that the noise of the game disturbed my reading. Such was my relationship with all sports at the time. Football, baseball, basketball--I found them stultifying to watch and, perhaps not coincidentally, frustrating to play. Telling statistic: in little league baseball, my batting average was .000.

Something happened in the years after college, though, and sports began to pique my interest. Maybe it was living in Chicago, as sports-hysteric a city there is; certainly it helped that during my time in the city, the Chicago Bulls franchise of the National Basketball Association won many championships. The excitement surrounding the Bulls team was pervasive, contagious, and I think the Bulls were fascinating to me and other non-sports-obsessed Chicagoans not just as atheletes but as templates of a particular kind of eroticism--with an emphasis on handsome Michael Jordan but also on sexually ambiguous Wunderkinds Dennis Rodman and the late Bison Dele (or Brian Williams, as Bulls fans knew him).

All of which is to say, by the late 1990s, I was mildly interested in sports. This interest brought me back to the Tennessee Volunteers, who were winning games and doing well, despite my pointedly reading Judy Blume books at them in the 1970s. Coinciding with my new enthusiasm was the Vols' winning the national championship in 1998, and in the last few years I have been to several Vol games--as well as a number of matches of the University of Wisconsin Badgers, who also have done well in recent years. These games have been enjoyable, by and large, and there is something honest--as opposed to ironic--about my fondness for the matches, the fall weather that accompanies them and, perhaps especially, the often freakish pageantry surrounding the marching bands (what means majorette?) and cheerleaders.

So this belated enthusiasm was what brought us to Neyland Stadium Saturday evening. Maybe it was just the drubbing the Vols received from the Crimson Tide, but I found myself as troubled as I was excited by what I saw. First and foremost, whatever the merits of the game itself, sports fans can be unspeakably hostile toward their rival fans, and this hostility often reinforces other troubling behaviors. I'm thinking in particular of a group of young Tennessee fans who, at a crowded Knoxville intersection before the game, taunted crimson-clad Alabama fans with chanted obscenities--until suddently before us, a traffic cop confronted an African-American lad of twelve or thirteen for jaywalking, and without missing a beat, the Tennesseans chanted at the child, "Nigger, nigger."

We saw nothing quite so upsetting at the game itself, but I was a little surprised at the crowd's sheer nastiness, as the Vols' ineptitude made itself more and more apparent. In particular, when the referee made an unpopular call, on the basis of which Alabama scored, the crowd jeered and booed him so loudly my ears hurt. It seems to me this confrontation lies at the heart of all that is paradoxical--and telling--about organized sports: the fans clearly were frustrated about the Vols' playing, yet the angry fans misdirected their derision toward the referee as casually and unthinkingly as drunk racists outside the game taunted a child with slurs.

So the game was a mixed bag, though I don't mind saying that I might not be writing this sweeping critique if the Vols had won handily. That said, I think for the moment I prefer University of Wisconsin football games. Wisconsin fans are politer when they're hostile.

No comments: