In which I continue to make a feminist case for my sports fandom the old-fashioned way--with a Top Ten List. It's coming to you in a series of posts. Consider this my response to well-meaning friends who look at me incredulously and point out that the sports world is saturated with macho posturing; it frequently excuses the bad behavior of its heroes; it celebrates brute force; it's history is poisoned by cheating and drug-use; and it is often actively and explicitly hostile to women.
Because, folks, I still love sports and I love being a sports fan.
Need to catch up on my other reasons why I'm both a feminist and a sports fans? Check it:
1. SPORTS ARE JOYFUL
"We've lost our sense of joy."
A friend said this to me during the spring after I graduated college. I was living in Ann Arbor, paying too much in rent in a home that had more than its share of emotional drama among the housemates (me included). I was working as a groundskeeper for the University of Michigan, giving tours at a natural history museum, and I was soon starting an MFA program in fiction writing. I was confused as hell about what I wanted to do with my days, where I wanted to live, who I wanted to be around. Meanwhile, I got almost zero sleep, thanks to those early mornings working the grounds. Worst of all, I felt the chill of a community of friends that I loved throughout college dissolving, as we began to go separate ways. As I weeded and watered and planted my way through my days, I was left with entirely too much mental space to brood. At one point, in a fit of frustrated anger that had no real target, I kicked a wall and put myself on crutches for a few days (not smart: you try planting dahlias when you can't use your right foot.) I missed everybody and everything, even before they were gone.
"We've lost our sense of joy."
My friend's words struck a chord. I felt the void of full-hearted joy in my life... A void made all the more apparent because I was living among the trappings of what should make me happy (summertime, Ann Arbor, graduation, fiction program, working outdoors). I felt starved in the midst of a feast and I had no idea what to do about it.
While I struggled with the demons, the Detroit Pistons basketball team started doing really, really well--unexpectedly well. Friends and I made our way to Pizza House to watch their NBA play-off games. And what did I see on that court, watching while munching on breadsticks and drinking beers among dozens of other enthusiasts? I saw exactly the kind of basketball that I love best.
This was the team with the unofficial slogan of "Going to Work" - tough defensive play that was eminently team-based. They were often described as being a "blue-collar" team with strong work ethic. Contrary to the superstar strategy of some, this Pistons team was exceptionally balanced. You'd look at the score totals after the game and they were remarkably even: Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, they were all netting about the same number of points, and rebounds, per game. And these guys who were hustling so hard? Most were discards from the league--Billups had been traded from team to team; Ben Wallace was an undrafted player who worked his way into the NBA after playing in Italy.
Their game was beautiful to see. I thrilled to their style of play and to the excitement of the playoffs. This hard-working team's team was winning. They plowed their way to exciting heart-in-your-throat wins in series' over the Milwaukee Bucks, the New Jersey Nets, and the Indiana Pacers.
And as summer broke open, they were in the championship Finals-playing against the Lakers, which are their total opposites. It was the Pistons' first appearance in the Finals since 1990, and few thought Detroit had much of a chance against the star-studded Lakers, which then had Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton on the line-up, and was coached by the legendary Phil Jackson.
The Pistons won the Finals in five games-and it wasn't even that close. Detroit dominated with double-digit victories in three of its four wins. The Lakers barely won their one game; they got it on a last-second three-pointer. Fans around here were calling it the first five-game sweep in the NBA history and started pulling out the brooms anyway.
From the Detroit News coverage:
Score one for the undrafted and the discarded. Score one for the journeymen and role players. ...
Score one for "team."
Raise a glass, Detroit. Your Pistons are again the champions of the NBA. ...
"We" beat "I." Team depth beat individual brilliance. Unity beat disharmony. ...
The Lakers, a team of four future Hall of Famers, were reduced to a team of two stars, neither of which seemed too interested in playing with the other - Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal who seemed to have two different agendas.
By the end of the game, the Pistons' unrelenting pressure and hustle-they came at the Lakers in waves-reduced a once-proud, three-championship dynasty to dust.
How convincing was it? The Pistons announced the parade route with 2:56 left in the game.
Raise a glass, Detroit. We beat I.
With friends, I watched the winning game from a pub in Detroit and it was one of the happiest nights I had that year. The whole city exploded in joy, in hugs, in dancing, in singing, in cheers, in kissing, in music, in high-fives. Everybody, people of all ages and races, ran out into the streets, on foot or in cars, simply to celebrate with one another. I'd never seen anything like it. I haven't seen anything like it since.
"DE-troit, world champions," I remember one guy saying. "My god, that sounds good."
What a potent source of joy this team was--for me, in a troubled time of my life, and for all the thousands of other people that I got to celebrate with. What a salve for the disconnect I struggled with.
With this Top Ten list, I laid out reasons that inspire my passion as a sports fan ... and I hope that I might be able provoke a bit of interest in folks who haven't yet found a reason to give athletics any attention. But I want to be clear: being a sports fan isn't a theoretical exercise, or as some duty to your community.
The first and foremost reason why sports are worth your attention? Sport are joyful. Being a fan (and an athlete) is fun.
Every one of the reasons I've already detailed--the inherent optimism, the play, the connections and communal identity, the diverse physical intelligence, the aesthetics, the stories and history and vision--contribute profoundly to the joy I have as a sports fan.
Sports bring an enormous number of people happiness and inspiration. There's simply no arguing with that. When I hear folks speak in a baldly dismissive manner about sports, it bothers me ... personal interest in sports aside, how can anyone hate on a realm that ignites such palpable joy in so many people? Often, it seems, the resentment comes because it makes so many people happy--which seems downright undemocratic to me.
I also don't understand when people say that they "don't like sports" or "sports are boring"--when there is such an enormous diversity of sports as to render such a generalization absurd. Frankly, some sports do bore me, but others I'm passionate about, and still others I've yet to discover.
But one thing I've learned in my ten years or so of fandom is that sports are remarkably different from one another. A fan can choose among team sports and individual sports. Professional leagues or semi-pro leagues or collegiate leagues or youth leagues or community leagues or high school leagues (all with a distinctive mood and rules and style, a distinct source of joy). Sports primarily played by male athletes, or by female athletes, or multi-gendered co-ed teams. Rowdy sports or quiet sports. Sports that elevate aesthetics and sports that are down and dirty. Sports that move swiftly and sports that are patient. Sports that simply involve a human body giving its all and sports that require equipment-skates or skis or boards or boats and oars or bikes or uneven bars. Indoor sports or sports that rely on the natural world.
Not only are sports primarily joyful, but they are a source of many kinds of joy.
"We've lost our sense of joy."
It wasn't just my post-college self that felt a void where joy might have been (and was, finally, there as I watched the Pistons play and had such unadulutrated fun in celebrating their win). I feel like we live in a culture that, too, has lost a sense of joy. We seem to look down our noses at any activity that is simply, "fun." For example, recess is being cut at schools across the nation, on the grounds that it's not important enough. When it comes to sexuality for pure pleasure's sake, our culture is downright petrified as it shifts between denying it and exploiting it.
Sports are no different. They are absolutely joyful. They are a realm where millions (billions?) of people have fun. Sports, after all, are games.
Some people might think that is simplistic; too un-serious to matter. I think it is a wonder, and a reason to celebrate.
It's too easy to lose our sense of joy these days, to de-prioritize it or even fight against it. Let's honor sports as one of the places where it can be found. And have fun while we're doing it.
This all said: Thanks to all of you who have stayed with me through this Top Ten, especially those of you who have offered interesting perspectives through comments and emails. I initially intended this Top Ten to be one single post, but I realized that I had so much to say, such strong feelings, that it expanded way beyond anything I expected. I feel like I approached this feature with an almost missionary zeal, since it provided a platform to link communities of people that seem to not often overlap. I even have another reason why I love sports that I was sorry I didn't get a chance to list-about how sports brings out the virtues of competitiveness-but alas, I ran out of space and time. Maybe it's something you and I can discuss when we get together sometime and watch a ballgame and get to know each other.
About the Images:
1. Photo I took of a Tigers home run this summer at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit.
2. Photo I took this summer of a sunset in Comerica Park.
3. Detroit Free Press front page after the Finals.
4. Pistons player Ben Wallace on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Finals.
5. Westwood, Mass. high school lacrosse players rejoice after winning the South Sectional Final versus Wellesley High at Wellesley College June 4. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
6. Womens double scull pair Paula Twining (left) and Anna Reymer take a rest during the Rowing New Zealand elite squad training session at Lake Karapiro June 3 in Cambridge, New Zealand. Via Getty Images.
7. Triple amputee Jake Speed rides a wave during Operation Restoration IV August 15 in Pismo Beach, an event hosted by The Association of Amputee Surfers, an organzation helping wounded soldiers and civilians to learn adaptive surfing. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
*** My list is primarily focusing on professional sports... though I trust you smart people can extrapolate easily enough about how this same feminist reasoning applies to collegiate, school, community, and youth leagues.