23 May 2014

Why a Gay Man Gets Excited About Superbowl XLVI (original post: 05 Feb 2012)

It’s the stuff that Disney feel-good movies are made of: my single memory of playing football in junior high school was accidentally catching a ball that somehow landed right in my hands - - and then running in the wrong direction.

I have a similar memory from basketball. I would always allow myself to be blocked, so that there would never be a chance that I would actually catch a pass. But one time it somehow happened (I think the opposing team just gave up on bothering to cover me). I caught the ball. In my panic, rather than pass it or dribble it, I ran with it. Ooops.

There was the wrestling demo in grade school, where the gym coach flipped me around and my neck cracked as it bent backwards and I ended up seeing stars for 30 minutes. And the little league game where the pop-up fly landed not in my glove, but hit my voice box square-on, causing me to black out.

Now, I shouldn’t make it sound like I’m a TOTAL dork...I can play volleyball pretty well, I’ve finished (poorly) in a few 10k foot races, I used to ski fairly well, I can bowl and shoot, and I found some major mojo in the gym once I saw the results in my arms and chest from a lot of hard work while weight training.

Still, it is a little odd that the kid who used to find any excuse in the world to escape gym class; who openly identifies with the gay community; and who only learned at the age of 51 how to throw a football with a spin (thanks to his teenage son) – can actually get excited about the Superbowl.

And that excitement is not just limited to the Superbowl - as an adult, I have enjoyed the World Cup in a gritty pub in Holyhead, Wales; followed the NY Mets during the US Baseball season; and remain fascinated by rugby and the culture surrounding it. Somewhere I decided that my relative incompetance and ignorance in sports skills did not have to last forever. But for the most part, I am still a very ‘late bloomer’ compared to my male counterparts when it comes to sports, so it stretched me to my limits six years ago when I created a college-level course in Sports Economics. When it comes to discussing the media revenue streams to the NFL or the salary structure of pitchers in MLB, I can hold my own – but when my students start throwing around names and statistics and player numbers, I get that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling I got when that football somehow landed in my hands in junior high.

Reading through the threads on Facebook today, many of my gay friends are making funny comments about the Superbowl, and being kind of campy about it…looking forward to Madonna’s half-time show, wondering how well the uniforms will fit, preparing to make Cosmos, and musing about how good-looking the ‘goalies’ will be. All in fun, all acknowledging in a sideways kind of ways that they, too, like me, were the “outsiders” as kids who never “got into” sports, and for whom sports was a dreaded opportunity for humiliation.

But aside from the tongue-in-cheek and campy threads, there are many more that are basic “hurray-for-our-side” or “Who are YOU supporting today?” threads. And therein lies, I think, one of the reasons for the pervasive hold that professional sports has on our society.

In teaching that Sports Economics course, the very first topic we seek to answer is a deceptively simple question:

What is the product that professional sports is selling?

Students who take the course are often sports-a-holics; with the exception of one or two females per class, they are exclusively male; and they are often the kinds of jocks with whom I had *nothing* in common in junior high or high school. As they grapple with this question, they often wrestle with the idea that Professional Sports is ‘selling’ leadership, teamwork, safe expressions of warrior-hood and male aggression, unrealized dreams, superstar brands, and entertainment; and to be honest, there are elements of all of these things at work in sports.

But the conclusion they always reach is that Professional Sports teams are selling something much more elusive in today’s society: Identity.

Both of my grandfathers worked their entire lives in a single company. My dad worked in several capacities for the same government unit his entire life, and my mom worked for one company for the majority of her adult life.

On the other hand, between the ages of 24 and 52, I have worked at nine different jobs.

My mom and dad got married and bought a house that was 3 blocks from where my mom was raised, and one mile from where my dad was raised. When they retired, they moved to smaller condominiums and apartments within two miles from there (They originally moved to Florida for a short time, but realized they wanted to be "home" and they came back to NY). My mom still lives in the same community in which she was raised. My father’s distant relatives remain in the NYC, all within an hour of where his ancestors stepped off the boat 370 years ago.

On the other hand, though I was born and raised in NY, I left there at the age of 30: I have since lived for 8 years in Massachusetts (in three different houses) , and 14 years in New Hampshire (in six different places). Statistically, I’m typical of most Americans: according to the 2010 census, the average American moves 12 times in a lifetime (which explains why I am about ready to ‘retire’ and settle down a bit!)

In this fast-paced century, where people have Facebook ‘friends’ they have never met on the other side of the world, where they move every 8 years, and where they change jobs 10 times before the age of 42 – “where is home?” What is “home?” With a growing integration of ethnicities into the American salad bowl, a growing number of US citizens simply call themselves “Americans” on the US Census rather than holding to older European nationalities (I did this myself on the 2010 Census: it was easier than choosing more than 10 ethnicities).

And so, with global communications and fast-paced mobility, Professional Sports Teams offer a sense of ‘belonging,’ of identifying with a particular location regardless of one’s ‘temporary’ or ‘transient’ station in life. Today’s Facebook threads are full of people emphatically supporting the NY Giants or the New England Patriots – and the strongest fans are precisely those who see one of these teams as their “home team.” Their identity is, in some way, wrapped up in these non-military warriors representing the “homeland.” Native New Yorkers living in California will root for the Giants; native Bostonians in Texas will be cheering for Tom Brady.

And for that reason, this gay man who couldn't throw a football until last year is preparing the guacamole dip, reading the online sports news, spicing the shrimp soup, picking up some more beer, watching his boyfriend wire up the surround sound system, and getting out the ingredients for some kick-ass Hero sandwiches.

And routing passionately for Eli Manning and the New York Giants.


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