I only have vague memories of the first time I stepped into a major sports stadium, but the impression remains. It was big.
When you’re a child, of course, everything’s big, but it was like seeing something the size of a new world — an expanse of grass like nothing I’d seen, a crowd bigger than I’d ever been in, an upper deck of endless seats stretching to impossible, shadowy heights. It was a shithole, but I didn’t know it then: Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the by-then decrepit husk of WPA-era ambition on the windy shore of Lake Erie. The crowd wasn’t actually very big, because the Indians were garbage then, and the pigeons roosting in the rafters weren’t actually the added feature I thought they were. It felt special, though. It felt like the opening to a new stage, to understanding something bigger than what I knew then.
I would often opine before having kids, somewhat seriously, that it would be unethical for me to pass on my love of sports to another generation. I’m a Cleveland fan who attended the University of Cincinnati, so my life as a sports fan has been marked by a healthy series of disappointments and heartbreaks — the Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, Jose Mesa’s blown save, Kenyon Martin’s broken leg, the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game, the Decision, the 2016 World Series, etc. Save for one miraculous run by LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals, it would seem as though sports hasn’t done much to return my affection in my lifetime.
Successful teams or not, there are some people who see sports fandom as inherently a waste of time. You know them — they’ll deride it as ‘sportsball’, something fundamentally anti-intellectual or worse. “It’s a waste of time.”, they say. “You’re not a part of the team, why would you care?”. “Practice for fascism!”, the cleverest ones will smugly note, like sports is the only place one could practice that these days.
Why would I do this to my kids? I know how much sports has put me through over the years. Why not channel that energy to something positive? Teach them to speak Mandarin, or how to play the violin, or how to change a serpentine belt? Well, there’s a few problems with those ideas. First of all, I don’t speak Mandarin, and it looks really hard. I worked in Spain for a semester in college, and I brushed up my C+ high school Spanish by turning on the dubbing and subtitles on my Simpsons DVDs. (I don’t think I’m a great language teacher, is what I’m saying.) My musical abilities don’t extend far beyond “humming Mega Man 2 boss themes while cooking”, and if my kids want to learn auto repair, they can do it the same way I do: watching a YouTube video on their phone with one hand while holding a wrench in the other hand.
I can teach them what sports has taught me, though.
That first time in a stadium, I learned that the world was a lot bigger than it seemed from my backyard. I learned that it was fun to be a part of a crowd, and that banging empty wooden seats along to “We Will Rock You” could make 10,000 people sound like a lot more.
When the Cleveland Browns lost the AFC Championship Game three years out of four, I learned what it’s like to have a civic villain. I barely knew who John Elway was, but I knew that he’d torn the hearts out of everyone in the city, and I knew that we hated him. (I have not revised this stance in the thirty years hence.)
When a school assembly in first grade was quickly reshuffled after the pro baseball player we were promised failed to show, and a batboy was sent in his stead, I started to understand that heroes can disappoint us. (In the ensuing years, that picture would become both clearer and more nuanced, as that player was a pre-rehab, pre-name change Joey/Albert Belle, who wasn’t done exciting or disappointing me.)
When the Indians moved into a shiny new ballpark and suddenly became the class of baseball, I learned what decades of pent-up civic pride could mean. When the Browns departed Cleveland the next year in a backroom deal, I learned that civic pride doesn’t mean much in the face of rich people wanting to get even richer.
As I moved into adulthood, these childhood lessons grew and shifted into a more complicated understanding of things. I’d reviled Albert Belle when he left town for more money, but I’d later come to realize that the side of billionaires wanting to pay less than someone’s earned value isn’t a side I’d want to be on. The same feelings of rage at LeBron James leaving eventually softened into a realization that wanting to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity to do something great with your friends isn’t something anyone should be begrudged.
Stadium deals and labor struggles. Financial holdouts and political demonstrations. Understanding that players are people, and even though they do things most of us can’t, they have the same priorities and problems that the rest of us do. Their world is a proxy world for our own, one with a language of its own. In the adult world, I can learn a great deal about someone’s values, beliefs and perspective without having to press into difficult, workplace-inappropriate conversations. Talking about sports provides a window into who people really are.
Lessons about failure and success are there, the stark and obvious realities of winning with grace or losing with dignity, of fighting adversity and working as a team. There’s more complicated lessons too, about incompetence in management, maliciousness in negotiation, in being told to value everything but your own worth. Sports is there, a simulation of life that’s always running in the background, generating problems and solutions and endless information to be discussed, digested and developed into something useful.
When you first start raising children, you start out with a perfect bubble, a tiny world. If you’re lucky, everything is chosen, everything is considered, everything is controlled as much as you’re able to. They will see a wonderful place, a simple place where you are loved, you are safe, and you are treated fairly. Everything that comes into that bubble will be by your own hands. As they grow, the bubble grows thinner. Things get through. The outside world begins to intrude with questions that don’t have easy answers, with things that can’t be controlled, with things that are uncomfortable and complicated.
This weekend, I’m taking my children to their first football game, their first trip into a big stadium. I hope they enjoy it; I hope the marching band and the hot dogs entertain them and we can make it until halftime without them asking to leave.
I hope we can look out over a big green field and I can give them some small sense of what I know: this is the big world. There’s a lot in it that I’m not ready to tell you about. Some of it you’ll have to discover on your own. Some of it will break your heart; some will repair it. It will take a lifetime to begin to understand, and we will need a language for talking about it.
We’ll start here.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
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