I am nobody's idea of a serious sports fan.
I support the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and the underdog in whatever NFL game is on TV for the sake of my various family members who care deeply about those entities, but truth be told, I don't pay much attention to any of them if those people aren't around.
The thing I love about sports is the capacity they have for telling great stories. Think of Remember the Titans. Blindside. Miracle. The Sandlot. 42. Facing the Giants. Classics of my childhood such as Angels in the Outfield and Little Big League. Books like David James Duncan's The Brothers K. And of course--and here I would remove my cap, were I wearing one--Ken Burns' masterful documentary Baseball.
Time and time again, sports stories capture something seminal about what it is to be human--to struggle against oneself; to face monumental obstacles and overcome them. (Note that overcoming the obstacles and winning sports victories do not always happen concurrently, even in the movies.) When they are told well, sports stories seem to tell all our stories--because regardless of whether any given one of us particularly cares about (or is any good at) sports, we all have dreams; we all have obstacles to overcome; we all need teammates to help us get where we need to go; we all need a good coach (even if we often don't recognize good coaches because we're too busy complaining about how hard they make us work), and we will all face, in some form or another, a big, bad, seemingly unbeatable foe.
I recently attended my youngest brother's first high school football game. Despite being a freshman with an injured ankle, he actually got some playing time in (he played defensive lineman, for those of you to whom that information means anything) and he played well. I was told by those who would know that he had excellent vision, and was immediately double-teamed by, among others, the biggest guy on the offensive side. (This is apparently a big compliment to anyone, and especially to a freshman. Good on you, brother mine.)
Just for fun, here are some of my random neural firings from that first game.
- It is my theory that there is an unofficial rule requiring everyone at this event to shout incomprehensibly. Doesn't matter if you're a player, spectator, coach, referee, or cheerleader. If someone isn't shouting incomprehensibly, it's not football. That is my theory.
- Man, I am getting a surprising amount of knitting done, and it's only the second quarter!
- Cheerleader. Noun. An emaciated person, usually female, who, in concert with other such persons, attempts to distract the opposing team by chanting, flailing, climbing on top of each other, and waving shiny objects around whilst wearing skimpy outfits.
I've been to a few of these games now (summary: my brother hit some people, and we won) and I am kind of horrified by the power cheerleaders still have over me. These girls are little better than half my age. I have an apartment; a bachelor's degree; thousands of pictures taken all over the world in the years since I graduated. They have to finish their Algebra homework and go to bed and hope they don't hit snooze too many times because if they're late to homeroom again they'll be in detention. And yet my self-loathing rises exponentially in direct proportion to my proximity to these girls. (And this is the JV squad. God help me when my brother plays Varsity ball.)
Especially at first, I couldn't look at these girls without remembering the cheerleaders / friends of cheerleaders I knew in high school, and how they wanted nothing to do with me or my friends. And then I found myself taking vindictive pleasure in not raising my eyes from my phone when the stick figures turned around to wave pom-poms in the faces of the spectators.
But when I did look up, and actually looked into those girls' faces, I saw something both surprising and intensely familiar: insecurity. Familiar because I see it in my bathroom mirror every morning on the other side of the hard water spots; surprising because, I mean, for God's sake; you're a cheerleader. Don't you know that, by definition, you have nothing to feel insecure about?! ...but it was there. It was there in the way they straightened their hair and skirts. It was there in the way they glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes. It was there in the looks on their faces when they missed a step.
And suddenly I couldn't hate them anymore.
I am certainly not the first to realize or to say that hating other people isn't the answer. What came home for me during the process of watching these games was the realization that cheerleaders are people too. It is so easy for me to write off entire groups because something about them makes me feel fundamentally uneasy in my own skin. I try to restrict myself to drawing these lines in socially acceptable places (i.e., I mentally and emotionally dismiss cheerleaders, celebrities, soccer moms, Olympic athletes, Martha Stewart, and anyone else who seems to / pretends to have their lives put together better than mine) as opposed to socially unacceptable ones (i.e., I do my best not to mentally or emotionally dismiss people on the basis of, for example, race). So most of the time it's fairly easy to pretend that this habit or tendency says nothing about my character.
But it does.
All of those people are people too--every bit as much as I am myself. Even Martha Stewart. No, really. I actually moved a bit closer to legitimate human fellow-feeling for her when I heard an interview wherein she admitted that she once dated Anthony Hopkins, and he was a perfect gentleman, but she broke it off because she couldn't get Hannibal Lecter out of her head. See? That's a human response right there. She's a person.
Smart Aleckry aside, this is why sports stories are important. I would argue that the following is true about most of the great sports stories I've encountered:
Q: The opposing team is the enemy, right?
A: WRONG. _______________ is the enemy.
Sometimes prejudice is the enemy. Sometimes it's apathy, laziness, hopelessness, arrogance, fear, or just the slew of bad stuff that happens because that's the world we live in. But the people facing us--across the dinner table or the conference table; the party line or the line of scrimmage or anything else that divides us--those people are not the enemy. They are people, just like you and me, and in some form or another they are facing the same enemies we are.
And yes, this is true even of the cheerleaders.
So I've started memorizing their names, and I try to make a point of looking at them when they turn around to do their thing. They're baby steps, yes. But I've been on the receiving end of the write-off I have given these girls, albeit for different reasons, and I would rather be two baby steps closer to compassion and understanding than doing that to my fellow human beings.
Because they are not the enemy.