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:
#3: SPORTS ARE A VENUE TO CONNECT WITH PEOPLE VERY DIFFERENT THAN YOU
A care for sports cuts across class lines. That's not to imply that sports are a classless arena, as the hierarchy of tickets (bleachers versus boxes versus bars with shared TVs) makes apparent. Likewise, a care for sports cuts across racial lines, even as some sports, like hockey, tend to have more white people in attendance while basketball has a disproportionate number of black people as fans.
People tend to be fans of sports that they played growing up, or that they otherwise saw played in their community. Given our segregated society, that inevitably influences the people who play and who cheer for particular sports. That's why, decades after Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe rocked the tennis court, Venus and Serena Williams remain representatives of the very few number of pro tennis players who aren't white.
Perhaps it is then all the more incredible to see how sports nonetheless provide a venue for people of different backgrounds to connect.
Baseball is a powerful case study. I've written before about how Jackie Robinson, the first to break the color barrier in "America's pastime," is honored every time a game is played because of the unprecedented and unmatched ritual of retiring his #42 from every single Major League team. This is a way of pro ball to honor the ongoing debt it owes the talented man who stepped up to the plate in 1947.
But since that remarkable day, baseball has become an especially international game. Players in America's favorite sport are natives of at least 17 different nations and territories, including Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan, The Netherlands, Curaçao, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, and Columbia. As of Opening Day last season, 28 percent of all pro ballplayers are foreign-born.
Overall, 39.6 of all MLB players are people of color - 27 percent Latino, 10.2 percent African American and 2.4 percent Asian. The 2009 season began with 10 managers and 5 general managers who are people of color (out of 30 teams). In 2008, people of color held 33.4 percent of the league's coaching positions (an increase of 2.4 percent from the previous year).
You might think of the MLB as a dude's game-and indeed, in many ways, it is-but women are involved in leadership positions in the sport. The Boston Red Sox lead the league with seven women in vice president positions. The San Francisco Giants are second with six.
No doubt the impetus behind the internationalization of baseball was to bring the most skilled players to the game-which, for many owners, is motivated by the desire to make money by winning. But motive aside, the fact is that this remarkably diverse league inspires deep loyalty among a cross section of fans that see themselves represented. Those fans-from different backgrounds themselves-have something to talk about, sometimes for the first time. They find themselves cheering for the same thing. Folks who come from neighborhoods where everybody, say, comes from the same white Protestant background starts wearing jerseys that read "SUZUKI" and "CABRERA" and "ARROYO" and "CHOO."
It sounds so simple, even small, but it is powerful.
I admit that of all the reasons that I became a sports fan-both those I've articulated and the final two coming up in this series-this reason was my very first. I consciously chose to start following sports in my late teens because I wanted to join in on the conversation that seemed to be happening all around me, growing up in Michigan and on campus in Ann Arbor. I wanted to make friends with both people my own age and people much older than me. I wanted that excuse to spend time with people on game day, rather sitting in the college computer lab by myself, refreshing my email.
I wanted to connect.
And sports worked like nothing else I know ever has. Debating the prowess of, say, the Michigan football team or the candidates for the Cy Young award or mourning the loss of the Pistons in the basketball championship series --- this is the stuff that was the groundwork for relationships that have come to mean so much to me. It was the start, creating a spirit of friendliness and connection that ultimately led to something truly substantial.
Including the incarcerated adult men who I met every week for writing workshops.
Including a college classmate who I had a passionate crush on.
Including my wealthy uncle.
Including my young cousins, who are startlingly talented athletes.
Including the people who I hoped would hire me for a job.
Including the homeless folks who came into the Boston soup kitchen where I lived and worked for a few years.
Including my Scottish brother-in-law and his family.
Including the spouses of friends that-at first-I otherwise had little besides the weather to chat about.
What began as a desire to simply join the conversation flourished into relationships that I value. And over time, as I got carried away in the stories and histories and joy of sports, it wasn't just a conversation topic anymore; it was a meaningful part of my life.
But there's something else. These connections don't go one way. I think that by becoming a sports fan, I didn't just give myself the gift of connecting with so many different people; I gave other people the opportunity to connect with me.
I don't want this to sound egotistical. I mean only to acknowledge the mutuality of the connections facilitated by sports, and that I'm hardly the only one who values sports for this reason.
Primarily because I'm female, people are surprised that I not only cheer for sports, but that I know shit about it. I'm not a fan because of a guy I'm dating, or as an excuse to tailgate. I admit to exulting a bit when I can dismantle the preconception of who a sports fan is, or who a woman is, simply by talking about sports, which I love anyway. And I love the chance to have my own preconceptions dismantled when we chatter together about sports.
And I've noticed how others who might not feel they have much in common with me aren't just surprised, but pleased that we have something to talk about. I'm thinking of extended family members who share nearly nothing of my politics; who used to describe me as hippie in high school for no other reason than that I wore a bandanna and wrote some letters to the editor of our community paper. When I grew much more developed in my identity-voting, and protesting, and living in an intentional community, and making every progressive idea of mine public with articles I write, and throwing around words like "feminist" and "voluntary simplicity"-well, I was just really far away from anything they could relate to.
Except through sports. I value what sports has brought us. And I know they do to.
If you're not a sports fan, maybe this sounds superficial to you. But it sure doesn't feel that way. You know that scene in "Field of Dreams" where Kevin Costner plays catch with a young version of his dad? It makes me cry. Because I relate to it, and because I see how others, too, have found a way to build and sustain relationships with people they love through the language of sports.
In a society that is so painfully divided in every possible way, when contrarianism rules the day, when politicians and citizens alike mistake "I win" for "you lose" - in this kind of society, anything that can bring us together is to not only to be treasured, but to be exulted in, celebrated, and learned from.
Sports are one of the most powerful, consistent, and deep sources of connection there is. And I am grateful.
About the Images:
First Photo: A sunset blazing as the Tigers play ball in downtown Detroit. Via Detroit News Reader Gallery (posted by Melodi Brown).
Second Photo: St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, left, congratulates Cardinals shortstop Brendan Ryan after Ryan singled in the game-winning run against the Chicago Cubs last September in St. Louis. Via NBC Sports.
Third Photo: Joe DiMaggio with a hit
Fourth Photo: Oakland's Nomar Garciaparra touches his chest. Garciaparra, a former Red Sox star, was greeted with rousing cheers before his first at-bat on July 6 at Fenway Park in Boston. Via NBC Sports.
Fifth Photo: Milwaukee Brewers batter Prince Fielder (28) reacts at home with teammates after hitting a walk-off home run during the 12th inning against the San Francisco Giants this fall. As Fielder jumped onto home plate, his teammates fell back as if knocked over. The Brewers won 2-1. Via NBC Sports.
Sixth Photo: Justice Sonia Sotomayor tossed out the first pitch in a game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium to help commemorate her hometown ball club's Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. Sotomayor, a baseball fan, was positively gleeful about it. Here she's pictured with Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. Photo by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger.