According to some words I heard recently while listening to the radio, something is about to happen with football. I don’t know if this is a problem for other people. My “sport” of choice growing up was gymnastics, which is closer on the spectrum of physical activities to yoga and ballet, so I never really learned how to care about teams. This is not to say that I did not go to sporting events at the all-girl’s high school I attended. Far from it. I went so far as to find a ride to away volleyball games without being friends with a single player. But this had everything to do with unrequited crushes and very little to do with my love of the game. This summer I enjoyed watching the women’s World Cup while visiting friends, but again, my joy had a lot to do with the fact that when you watch the World Cup you are allowed to drink gin and tonics with your breakfast, lunch and tabbouleh.
My lack of interest in sports has nothing to do with disdain. It appears to be a neurological barrier— rules stress me out. To give an example, when I tried to buy a Powerball ticket, I read the directions several times before looking desperately around the gas station for help. Finally, I realized that I could just mumble something confidently to the cashier and give her a couple of bucks and she’d hand me a ticket. Being in a relationship with a sports fan means that I can’t just pretend sports aren’t there. Here are some strategies that I’ve developed in order to survive each new season of bodies doing things inside of lines.
Doughnuts, People Watching, Fanny Packs and Brittney Griner
I don’t particularly like going to places where loud people have come to assemble. I am also mortified by the idea of screaming negative things so that somebody will perform their job poorly. So when we drive to Phoenix every now and then for a WNBA game, I try to find ways to entertain myself that do not involve distracting my girlfriend with yet another lecture in which I posit the idea of shouting encouraging things to both teams and playing slightly more interesting music. I am lucky in this situation because my girlfriend has a game-watching buddy, who also brings her girlfriend, so I usually have a friend to go exploring with.
One of the things we discovered was snacks. There are likely different kinds of snacks at different stadiums and I imagine they range from pretty-much-plastic to kinda tasty. But boy have we found a diamond in the rough: freshly-made doughnuts at the Fractured Prune. Some of them are coated with orange syrup, and some of them have a kind of silvery veneer. I don’t even like dessert that much (more on that soon) but piping hot pastries have an undeniable appeal, especially when they reflect light. Also, sometimes you can find nacho-filled fanny packs.
Also, there are tons of lesbians with their families just hanging out together in one place. I mean: it’s basically majority lesbian. When else do you get to be in a majority lesbian environment when that is not the stated purpose of the event? This makes the game ethnographically fascinating and I people-watch to my heart’s content.
Last but not least, there is the issue of tattooed star appeal. When your girlfriend wants to stand closer to the court, you can play the “Brittney Griner Just Made Eye Contact with Me” game, which is the kind of game that doesn’t have a very complicated set of rules and everybody wins.
*Here’s a hint: don’t wander off looking for food during the national anthem. Rule sticklers don’t like this.
Okay, I said I don’t like dessert and I am not lying. I am a salt person. I go through a tub of olives every week. I SAID IT. I am relishing this habit while my blood pressure is still reasonably low. However. My girlfriend introduced me to our friend’s pie blog a couple of years ago and it made game days so much more delightful. When you are making a pie, nobody will wonder why you keep leaving the room, and everyone will coo with delight when you pass around piping hot slices of fruity goo.
Get to Know the Players
My girlfriend did a really good job of explaining her love of Michigan basketball to me. We watched the Fab Five documentary together and she introduced me to the history of the school’s storied relationship with elite athletes. It was like taking a class. She went through a similar process with Lebron James. We also watched He Got Game. I’ll probably watch Love and Basketball. And give Hoop Dreams another go. For me, you just have to zoom in on somebody’s face and tell me a story about them and I will care a lot more about the significance of what they do with their arms and legs. One of the reasons I like basketball more than I like football is because you can recognize the player’s bodies and faces better.
Take for example the film Trainwreck. I got to spend a good amount of time with Lebron James in this movie. Now, as someone who has a very discerning eye when it comes to the depiction of black people in film, there was a lot to cringe about when it comes to the way his character was written and maybe Alison Bechdel can come up with a test for inoffensive inclusion of black athletes in mainstream media. But when I see Lebron James now I have a whole host of emotions that don’t involve loud beeps, math and the sound of screeching shoes.
Sports have so much to do with gender, race, power, health and society — it’s a rich topic to dissect and people are writing about it beautifully. The literary journal Prairie Schooner recently published an entire issue devoted to sports, edited by the sensational poet Natalie Diaz. The only time I tried to start a race war in graduate school was in response to a conversation we were having about the essay 36 Tattoos by David Shields, which juxtaposes quotes about sports ownership, tattoos and corporate sponsorship in a way that evokes America’s history of slavery. Sort of like the artwork of Hank Willis Thomas. All this to say: if I’m up on the latest controversy, the game becomes a kind of who’s who on the cultural conversations red carpet.
If All Else Fails, Criterion Collection
You know how, in Jane the Virgin, Jane Villanueva teaches college undergrads for the first time? And one of her students is a basketball player? And in order to break through to him she watches sports at home and even goes to the court to play a game with him? I hated that part. I was talking back to the TV the whole time. When I taught at a huge university, I found sports culture on campus terrifying. When students asked me if I had gone to a recent game I got all Mary-responding-to-Edith-on-Downton-Abbey and asked them if they’d seen the latest Almodovar film. My first neighbor in Tucson would rent out parking spaces in our driveway on game days and I would close the blinds and periodically peer out as though the whole city was under siege.
Large groups of screaming men — is there a way to finish this sentence? It’s one thing, for me, to meet my partner half way. But as far as sports culture more widely is concerned, I’m not the least bit interested in fitting in. I can sport a Phoenix Mercury shirt and eat a doughnut in the convention center of Lesbos but as a general rule my first instinct upon seeing large crowds of uniformely dressed white dudes is not to dive into the fray. That’s just a personal boundary of mine.
So if you find yourself in a situation that feels downright toxic, remember: your loved one loves you too. Find a safe place and watch art films until it feels like the world has come back into balance again.