Yesterday evening, when dinner was over, I climbed into bed with a little plastic tub of Trader Joe's chocolate covered peanuts to watch the Super Bowl [my illness has had the disconcerting side effect of making me lose weight, so after a lifetime fighting the battle of the waistline, I am now allowing myself previously forbidden indulgences.] Susie went into the living room and turned on that classic date movie, Sleepless in Seattle, whose lines I know as well as those of its inspiration, An Affair to Remember.
I was rooting for the Patriots, a holdover from a lifetime lived mostly in Massachusetts. After a series of bonehead plays one would expect from a poorly coached high school team [twelve men on the field?], the Patriots scored a touchdown with eight seconds left in the half, to take a 10-9 lead. There was just enough time for me to switch to the movie and watch Sam, Jonah, Annie, and Howard the Bear finally connect on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building. I turned off the TV and went to sleep.
When I got up in the middle of the night, as I do every night, I logged on and discovered that the Giants had beaten the Patriots 21-17. I immediately put the game out of my mind and went back to sleep.
I have a theory as to why we invest so much emotion in sports teams, or, as in the case of Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters, individual sports stars. We do it because what happens to them really does not matter. We live in a perfectly awful world, in which exploitation, oppression, war, torture, and religious fanaticism make the lives of billions of men, women, and children miserable. As I write these words, I am waiting to see whether Israel will launch a preemptive attack on Iran, doing its level best to drag America into yet another Middle Eastern war. The share of the Gross National Product going to workers has hit its lowest point since records have been kept. After two and a half centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow, White America has used the prison system and drug laws to drive African-American men into a third kind of second class status. Everything I have spent my life believing in and fighting for is under assault or already suffering defeat, and there is virtually nothing I can do about that fact.
But sports offers me a chance to invest disproportionate emotion in the outcome of a game, with momentary exultation if my team wins, and no real disappointment if they lose. So long as Tiger Woods dominated the professional golf world, I was a devoted TV viewer of PGA tournaments [even though, on the two occasions in my life when I actually played a little golf, I hated the game.] As soon as he crashed and burned, never, apparently, to recover, I simply withdrew my emotions from golf and stopped watching. When Venus and Serena were dominating Wimbledon and Forest Hills, I sat glued to the set. When they began to age and decline, I turned off.
Sports fandom is soothing in its utter unimportance. In these terrible times, we need some way to get through the day.