I wonder sometimes why I'm a sports fan. Why do I spend hours in front of a TV watching grown men beat a rubber disc with sticks? Why do I care about 10 guys trying to fill a pair of baskets that are tragically without bottoms? Why do I sit at my computer till my eyes glaze over, breaking down the batting average of some hump of a middle infielder against righties during day games? Why do I even know what WHIP and WAR are? I don't need to know Manny Machado's wins above replacement to do my taxes. If I get pulled over, the cop's not going to ask me to break down Jim Palmer's career, calculate his walks plus hits and divide by innings pitched, and compare him to Clemens and Glavine.
The federal government has Skynet reading our emails and I am pissed off. Not about that whole government-spying thing, but about this whole tennis controversy. Seriously, how could Maria Sharapova call out Serena Williams' personal life like that? It's just unconscionable. Oh, and I hear there are over a million people protesting on the streets of Brazil. I have no idea why. Are they all Spurs fans? That series was a bummer. Last weekend, the Orioles lost three straight in Toronto and my heart bleeds for my city. In those same three days, six people, my fellow Baltimoreans, were murdered-gunned down in the city. It's a long season, though, and the Orioles will bounce back.
There are times when all this fandom seems a hollow space, a void to fill with hours that could be spent worrying about the rising seas or how to pay for daycare. Chomsky would say sports aren't for us, but rather aimed at us, we, the 80 percent of Joes and Janes that make up the Six-Pack family. Sports are there to divert us, to dull our brains, and reduce our capacity to think. Maybe, but baseball is the only reason I still do math. Maybe all those neurons I invest in sports are wasted, but at least they get a little traction. If I were to lock myself in the basement with a slide rule and a farmers' almanac, I couldn't come up with a way to keep the ice caps from melting; sure, there'd be a nifty drawing of the Earth wearing a pair of umbrella hats-one top, one bottom-but that's as far as it would get. I could plan a lineup for the Orioles. Buck Showalter is probably not going to use it, but I could do it.
Maybe that's part of it, the feeling that my sixpack-addled brain can still work in these circles, It ain't rocket science, after all. But this love of the ephemeral spreads further than an egghead like Chomsky is willing to admit. It's more than just pablum for the disenfranchised. As chief justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion on Brown v. Board of Education, but when he picked up his newspaper, he didn't start at the front. "I always turn to the sports page first, which records people's accomplishments," said Warren. "The front page has nothing but man's failures."
Sports is far more than a diversion. At our highest, it can lift us further; at our worst, it can hold our head above the surface. "Haiti still loves soccer," my friend and fellow comedian Rachael Parenta wrote. "Humans have been playing and watching sports for almost as long as they have been eating. Sports interest is connected to something else, like music is connected to language." We know why opium works, there are receptors in the brain set for a perfect fit. It's harder to measure how sport affects us, but there's a reason Romans built stadiums throughout the empire. They were more than distractions, they were gifts.
I was living in Portland when the Ravens went to their first Super Bowl and I remember thinking, Baltimore will tear itself apart if they win. Instead, it brought people together. I remember telling a co-worker, a rock-throwing Oregon anarchist, how happy my friends back home were, even those that weren't sports fans. My friend Amber told me her neighbors who had never spoken to her struck up a conversation in the afterglow and they continued to wave and smile, even talk, ever after. When I told him that, he snorted and said something to the affect of, "Shame it's gotta be for football."
Perhaps. Maybe it would be better if they came together in righteous indignation at the plight of the common folk. What a world it would be if we met on the streets and discussed the unrest in Turkey and how maybe we should be doing the same thing. Perhaps those things would be better, but does that make what sport gives us any less? Sport, at its best, gives us ground together, a place to stand and talk with our neighbors, to see the sameness in them and rise together. Sport does make for us a hollow space, a hollow space to fill as we choose. A place to fill with triumph and hope and sadness that doesn't tear too deeply, a place for friendship, for shared past and shared future. It gives us a place we can manage, where we can see the walls and past them and more. Even after a revolution, there will be a World Series. I don't know why sport hits us, or how it affects us so deeply, but my buddy Dave Wisekopf was probably near its core when he said, "Hot dogs are probably a big part."