I step inside the neighborhood bar to watch the game. Dark as a cave, lit by neon and TVs. Nine of them. Talking heads, pregame warm-ups, slow-motion highlights. When my eyes adjust, I find myself two deep at the bar trying to get the bartender’s attention. It’s noisy but she reads lips. I get a cold one and look for a seat. I’m in luck. There’s one near the BIG screen. The place is packed with people I’ve never seen before. Strangers make me uncomfortable. Which makes me wonder why I’ve come. But then I remember. I didn’t want to watch the game by myself.
Sports have always been a secret pleasure. Not a passion, never an obsession. I can walk away at any time. That’s what I tell myself. Admittedly it comes out sounding like I need convincing, but I have an excuse. I was hooked at an early age by four cousins who were obsessed with sports. But then the obvious question, why am I still hooked decades later? The short answer is, I don’t know. And it’s been difficult keeping my secret. I’ve never told anyone that “jock talk” is a preset on my car radio. The problem comes when I’ve got a passenger. I switch on the ignition and suddenly a call-in listener is complaining about a foul. As my fingers fumble to find the classic music station, I turn to my friend. “Sorry. Hit the wrong button.” How embarrassing is that?
I attribute part of my interest in sports to tribalism. Like anyone, I want to belong. My therapist says that sports bring people together. But is this a tribe to which I want to belong? Sports fanatics are morons. They scream, paint their faces, and wear cheese wedges. I’ve never owned anything with a logo. I’ve been tempted, but I’m not that sort. Still, there’s the feel-good exceptionalism of sports. “We’re the best.” “No one like us ever was.”
My mental meditations are interrupted by the guy seated next to me with a pitcher of beer. He looks over and says, “Going to be a kickass game, huh?” I don’t feel the connection, but I’m compelled to go with the flow. “Right on,” I say, giving a head-bobbing nod.
As he pours a pint, I ask myself, what difference does it make which team wins? A victory for either one won’t cure cancer, end poverty, or bring about world peace. Nothing about this game has anything to do with real life. It’s meaningless, a colossal waste of time. I’ve worked all my life trying to keep focus on what’s important. Where did I go wrong? I don’t have a connection with any team. Let’s face it, athletes are freaks. Why should I care about muscled millionaires who play with balls in ritual acts of warfare? They don’t care about me. It’s senseless spectacle, what that first century Roman writer meant by “bread and circuses.” These are the circuses.
And let’s not forget that sport is the national religion. The players are minor gods who cross themselves and point skyward after every goal even though no one has ever explained why God cares about men and women who wear cleats, kick balls, and swing clubs. Yet we strive to see them, touch them, wear their jerseys, collect their autographs. We gather with the faithful in stadiums, have beer and nachos for communion, and wear hoodies that proclaim “We Believe.”
Mental exhaustion is taking over. I have all the justification I need to leave, but I know there’s more, something I’ve missed. And then I remember the sheer beauty of the game, the poetry of athleticism, the perfection of humans engaged in heroic endeavors. It’s more than escapism or a drug of choice. It’s the ultimate in form, grace, and power. Such thoughts elevate the game to the dizzying heights, sure, but I’ve convinced myself that I’m close to a profound truth.
As this realization dawns, I sense that the vibe in the bar has changed. There’s anticipation in the room. I look up at the screen as the ball is put into play. Within seconds “our” team scores. It’s a brilliant play. Everyone cheers. But almost as quickly, tragedy strikes. The other team scores. The boos are deafening. What’s wrong with the referee? He must be blind. The injustice of it all. Yet sport teaches us to move on, so move on. And the momentum shifts. Our team scores again. Pandemonium erupts. My seatmate, now on his third pint, screams. We high five, the best of friends, brothers in a common struggle. I jump up and spill my beer. But it’s only beer. Right now all I want to do is savor the moment and hope to god “my” team wins. Because I’m a fan.
Jim Woessner’s writings have appeared in the Blue Collar Review, The Daily Drunk, Close to the Bone, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College, and he works as a visual artist and writer living on the water in Sausalito, California.