This year has been the first good year in sports for me in quite some time —since 2008, frankly. After years scraping by in everything but first, Yale football won the Ivy League title. After the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State purged its coaching staff and rose as a national powerhouse again. After intentionally serving as the worst team in the history of the NBA for what felt like an eternity, the fruits of the Sixers’ glorious “Process” are coming into full bloom. A small school in my backyard is now the number one basketball program in the nation. And Philadelphians now find themselves wanting to venture into hell on earth: Minnesota in February.
To the shock of the sports world, it’s good to be a Philadelphia sports fan. As I have taken a step back to appreciate just how much fun this year has been, I can’t help but ask myself, “Why do I care so much?” It’s really not an easy question to answer. Why does an embarrassingly large portion of my happiness hinge on games? Why do we become so invested in athletes who, for the most part, have no allegiance to the cities in which they play, nor the fan bases for whom they score?
When the Eagles were celebrating their NFC title, they were not the only ones partying. The city was stuffed with an ad hoc parade as Philadelphians literally set fire to the streets. To some extent, however, the two groups were celebrating different things.
The players celebrated a landmark moment in their careers; they were celebrating earning a berth in the Super Bowl — for them, for the team on which they play and, realistically, for their bonuses. But did it really matter for what city they had triumphed? They play in Philadelphia. They celebrate in Philadelphia. They live in Philadelphia. But for most players, the city in which they play is not their home. Linebacker Connor Barwin spent his days in Philadelphia reviving city parks and playgrounds through his Make the World Better Foundation. He was a public face, riding his bike through town, saying hello to those who recognized him — which was just about everyone, given that he’s a six-foot—four-inch athlete with four more inches of weird Mohawk hair. Yet he rolled around with a tattoo on his right bicep of the skyline of his hometown Detroit. Four years later, he was a Los Angeles Ram.
The fans, on the other hand, celebrated a landmark moment in and for their city. Their representative had proven the best. But did it really matter who represented them? And to what extent are the actions of a group of players, who merely constitute the performance basis of a business, our representatives? Sure, they brand themselves as the “Philadelphia [insert team],” but we don’t celebrate when Philadelphia Cream Cheese has a great year. Eagles fans were celebrating, in essence, that the team they love emerged victorious. But the question remains, why do we care? Why do we, in fact, love them?
At Yale, the answer seems obvious. We care because our teams — unlike those in any professional organization — really are ours. Although Yale is run by a corporation that is often the target of student vitriol, it is our home; we form the most essential cog in this large 501(c)(3) machine. The stadiums are across the street or in our backyard. The athletes are our friends, our suitemates, our classmates or even our significant others. We love Yale sports because we are Yale, and it will forever be a part of us.
The same can’t really be said for professional sports. Or can it?
When I reflect upon my childhood, I cannot help but smile at the memory of my father teaching me how to build a fire — the embers glowing under the TV displaying three NFC championships in a row. I’ll never forget the kindness my sister showed me when she gave up the World Series ball she caught, so that her little brother could always cherish it. I’ll always remember all my stupid childhood friends who wore shooting sleeves and Reebok basketball shoes in honor of Allen Iverson. Or how the referees let us get away with carrying on crossovers because that’s what “The Answer” did. Sports are a cohesive glue, gathering together friends and family, bringing entire cities to tears or to parades, and serving, as time rolls on, as factories of memories.
And let’s not be too hard on the athletes either. For the lionized greats who play most or even all of their careers for one team, the town in which they play often becomes their home. Just a few months ago I saw Charles Barkley at our local suburban pub; he shared a gym membership with my uncle a decade ago. I heard Brian Dawkins cut short his radio interview regarding his departure from Philly after 13 years because he didn’t want to cry in front of the city. I saw as Allen Iverson watched his jersey rise into the rafters, moments after he could barely finish his speech thanking, last and most importantly, the fans. And I bet as New Orleans residents huddled together inside the SuperDome in the wake of Katrina, they didn’t question why they loved their football team.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org