Tuesday questions, Bill Belichick edition

There are many things I learned about New England after I moved here.  Some are wonderful.  Some are… less so.

I love the historicity of the region.  I love the quaint old towns and the graveyards with pre-Revolutionary headstones in them, straight out of an Edward Gorey illustration.  I love the importance placed on preserving the integrity of the communities, on tempering the pressures of modernity.  I’m not above admitting outright that I like living in a politically bluish part of the country.  And Autumn is a particularly lovely time hereabouts.

What don’t I love?  Hmmm.  Well, one thing’s for sure — if I had to choose between which city actually has much ruder residents between New York and Boston, I’m sad to say the former has the reputation, but the latter is the one that actually deserves it.

On a more neutral note, I don’t think I have ever lived in a more sports-mad part of the country.  Ever.  People in the parts of New England where I’ve lived love their sports.  Like, really, really love them.  It’s not just that generations were devoted to the Red Sox despite hoary old curses and a World Series drought of legend.  People in this area love all the major sports teams.  The cars that pass me on I-495 with stickers for the Sox, the Pats, the Bruins and the Celtics are legion.  This does not seem to diminish with distance from Boston, at least in the more northern reaches. I’m sure there are other areas of the country that are just as obsessed with professional athletics in one season or another, but it seems that this area is the one that has the most persistent, continuous devotion from season to season.

(Those of you who live[d] elsewhere and beg to differ, please feel free to do so.)

I do not understand this in the slightest.  I have mentioned before that I do not grok what it is to be heterosexual.  I don’t have a clue what makes a woman’s breasts erotic.  In a similar vein, I simply do not get what it is to care about sports.  That is not to say that I think sports fandom is either an exclusively male or heterosexual thing.  Not at all.  I knew a (straight) woman in New York with a Yankee insignia tattooed on her leg who would evince a near-nauseated reaction to discussing the Mets.  When I think of the most rabid Patriots fan I know, a lesbian friend of mine springs immediately to mind.  I don’t mean to link male heterosexuality and sports fandom.  I just have an equal degree of perplexity when trying to grasp either.

I cannot fathom caring about the outcome of a game or even a championship.  Frankly, I can’t really fathom caring that much about the outcome of anyone else’s endeavors in which I have had no part, regardless of social realm.  (Since I think we all have a part in the outcome, regardless of our engagement or apathy, elections do not count.)  The nearest I can think of on a personal note is how much certain Oscar winners stick in my craw.  But even if I think it’s a travesty that Judi Dench was beaten by Helen Hunt (then receiving her consolation Oscar one year later for a glorified cameo), it’s not something that would incline me to be depressed for days, much less light cars on fire.

So, in all seriousness, can someone explain why people care about sports?  Not merely find them diverting entertainments, but actually care about them?  If you have a genuine emotional connection to whether or not your favorite team wins, can you give me a sense of where it comes from, what sustains it?  (I sincerely hope I am not coming across as snide or condescending here.  I have no intention of being either.  I truly want to understand part of the human experience that is completely foreign to me.)  What makes this such a part of so many people’s lives?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Two years ago, the Giants won the World series, for the first time since they’d moved to San Francisco, and a fortiori the first time during my lifetime. The deciding game was in Texas, but the mayor had gotten permission from Fox Sports [1] to show it on a bug-screen TV outdoor near city hall, so a few hundred of us die-hards gathered, watched Timmy pitch a masterpiece, saw Edgar Renteria somehow recreate the magic he’d been capable of 13 years before (almost as long in baseball-player years as in dog years), and, when The Fearsome Beard [2] recorded the final outs, we hugged and high-fived and shared a joy that’s rare indeed. And while pretty much everyone on San Francisco was glad they won, no one got the kind of high we did who hadn’t lived through the decades of lows to compare it to. So that’s one reason: you invest yourself in sports because on rare occasion it pays you back tenfold.

    1. And I honestly don’t understand how people can complain about Fox News while ignoring the ones who inflict Tim McCarver and Joe Buck on us every fishing October.

    2. Whence my gravatar.

    • Aw man, I am disappointed to learn that gravatar ain’t yr beard for some reason.

      RE: pays you back tenfold – this sounds a bit like what gamblers get from gambling. Curious if the same brain regions light up.

  2. Do you like action movies at all? Not entirely dissimilar. Except you pick your good guys and your bad guys. Often, you have some connection to them (you live somewhere near the city they represent, you went to the school they represent, etc.). Oddly, I’m not big into action movies, but I do like some sports. The connection helps, which is one of the reasons I prefer college sports over professional.

    It also helps if you play it when you’re younger. You learn about it, then you get to see it done by the greats. This applies more to basketball and baseball, as comparatively few play football and though more play soccer it’s not nearly as entertaining to watch.

    For some people, there’s a strong social aspect to it. It’s a way that fathers and sons bond, going to games and coaching/playing junior sports. It’s also instant conversation with a lot of people. I only follow the NFL to the extent that I do so that I can talk about it with people I don’t know.

    There is also a pageantry about it. Players running out of a smokey hallway. People dressed as ducks doing pushups. A live rooster named Sir Big Spur.

    It had some positive side effects for me and others. I learned division through batting averages, averages through ERA’s, how to multiply by seven from football games, and so on. I also learned a lot about American geography, laying the groundwork for Monday Trivia! Otherwise, who cares where Milwaukee is?

    • A lot of this looks right to me. Except the Milwaukee part. Milwaukee is probably my favorite city in the world (New York and London are #2 and #3, in case anyone was going to doubt my snob bona fides).

      That said, I’ll tell a story. When I went to college at Michigan, I got football tickets, because that’s a thing you do at Michigan. I was supposed to meet a friend after one of the first games I went to (against Washington), so I left my seat and headed toward the exit before the game was finished (as it can be somewhat difficult to wade through 100,000 people in a hurry). Michigan was down 29-28 and getting ready to kick a field goal to try to win the game. I didn’t want to miss this, so I stopped to watch at the TVs by one of the concession stands on my way out. Phil Brabbs, who had already missed a couple field goals and was generally regarded as a goat for his entire Michigan kicking career, came out and booted a 44-yarder through the uprights. The place went nuts, including the concourse where I was standing. I was hugged and high-fived by complete strangers. It was one of the purest celebrations of joy that I’ve ever seen.

      So, in addition to Will’s things, what sports have meant to me is this kind of connection to a thing that’s bigger than I am. I’m not a religious person, so maybe I’m just using sports as a replacement. In any case, this seems to be the thing that ties together the social stuff and the traditions and the pageantry, the same way church does that for other people. It feeds some kind of basic need I have to be part of a group that finds meaning in the same things.

      There is also a story to be told about how insanely fun sports analytics are. There are so many good statistical stories you can tell with box scores from baseball, football, and even basketball. The fun of that, however, might derive from the fun we already have watching sports.

      The more salient thing is that, when Phil Brabbs was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2009, I sent him money to help out with treatment. And I wrote him an email in which I explained to him, a complete stranger, how much he meant to me, and I cried.

  3. Is this the wrong time to divulge that I have a Boston Red Sox logo on my office door, complete with a panoramic shot of Fenway I took this summer?

    I was VERY active in sports as a child, softball, baseball, flag football – and I LOVE watching the games – whether it be in the stadium (OMG ATMOSPHERE) or on the couch with family and friends. My son went with us to Fenway this year at just over 4 years old – and he was in LOVE with being at the game. He LOVED doing ‘the wave’ with the crowd, shouting, “Let’s go Papi!” and “YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUK” when Youkilis was up to bat. (We were there for his first game in Fenway as a White Sox)

    I attended KU before transferring back home to New England, but I can say with 100% certainty that when March Madness comes around, KU (and the rest of Lawrence) eat, breathes, sleeps and shits basketball.

    Sports helps span the generations – it’s something universal to share with your kids.

    And as an aside; everyone SHOULD care where Milwaukee is – that’s where the Safe House is, one of the best themed bars you’ll find in the US!

  4. Russell, here’s a hetero male who shares yr perplexity. Not a hostility to sports, just a profound indifference. In HS they were OK, ‘cos I knew the players, so it was communal. By college, that was mostly gone, since I did not know those guys and was aware that they were getting paid, and just barely getting an education, to do their thing. Pro sports, forget it, those guys and the owners aren’t even FROM here. What possible connection do they have to my life?

    That said, I can often give ‘stats’ on a relatively obscure band, album or record label; and have been known to become depressed when a favorite artist dies or breaks up the band, or the label shutters. Heck, I got married at Matador 21. This is not all that different, IMO.

  5. I’m with you every step of the way, on this one. I’ve been attempting to understand this myself. The closest I’ve come so far is finding a connection to some team that is important to someone I care about.

  6. Okay. Sports is kinda like religion. And by religion we mean Baptist type religion, where everybody in the room gets together and starts cheering. It’s integrating into a larger group, who all feels the same fervor.
    Some people find this REALLY fun, Some people find this really disturbing/creepy/weird.

    The cheering is an essential part of the anthropological concept of sporting events. It is a “pick a side”, but it’s just as much a “pick a team” where the team is not just the players, but the entire fanbase.

    I don’t like sports, much (I consider myself like the worst sports fan ever, as lacking a TV, I don’t actually see the games). But Pittsburgh’s about as sports mad as they come, so I keep up enough to actually have some words to say about it.

    It helps that I’m a girl — I get insta-cred for knowing names and maybe talking about key plays. Where a guy would get quizzed, I’m not expected to know what I’m talking about — and I claim ignorance at all opportunities.

  7. I think that following professional sports functions as a very low-level and usually safe form of tribalism for your hometown or place you consider home and sometimes nation. It is better to see Germany and Greece take out their frustration at each other on a soccer pitch than in combat. Usually safe but there still football hulligans, riots, and the random fight/brawl.

    Though I am a heterosexual guy and with you. Watching sports is almost never my preferred form of entertainment. Spending a whole day watching football is not something I would do on my own and I’d probably decline an offer from friends to do so. I went to a small liberal arts college with a Division III ranking and no football team so college sports are especially perplexing.

    Plus public money used on sports stadiums is one of my least favorite things.

  8. There are people at work with whom I can’t hold a real conversation on any topic that I am inclined to discuss when I am waiting for my applications to finish doing what they’re doing in the lab. If I wanted to talk about politics, they aren’t particularly interested (they have their party and they assume that I’m from the other one because we disagree about, in one case, gay marriage, in the other case, Obamacare). If I wanted to talk about religion, they have no interest in discussing the history of the world with regards to the Bible (the Bible mentions wine but not beer, in Genesis and in the even older Book of Job and the Epic of Gilgamesh mentions wine… and apart from a quick outburst about how the Book of Job can’t be older than Genesis, there’s no real interest in discussing the implications of this). Video games? Those are for children.


    When I mentioned that I was playing Fantasy Football for the first time this year, they looked at me and asked “Who is your quarterback? Do you pick individual defense players or just the whole team?” and they were delighted to have a conversation in the lab.

    Sports provides something that “everybody” can talk about.

    • I can guarantee that I can not talk about football enough to make a fantasy team.

      • There must be a wedge out there that could make you see how the topic is one that is fun, in its own right, to discuss.

        Do you enjoy smack-talk?

        • In very small doses and very rarely and only when it sticks to being clever and witty over a bunch of frat-boy bro-dudes making dim-witter “Your Mom” jokes.

          I don’t get the point of the later type of male bonding.

          Again, I went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad and one that was all female for the first 2/3rds of its history. People who want and choose to go to small liberal arts colleges are generally not looking for the big sports/Greek scene of a major university. I think men (especially heterosexual men) that want and choose to attend a formerly all-female college are not quite bro-dudes or enjoying smack-talk types. My undergrad did not have a Greek System and this was one of many strong selling points along with small classes, no TAs, etc.

          • Smack-talk is a minor hobby of mine, you see. I never truly appreciated how you could incorporate smack-talk into sports, though. I mean, they play the games. That’s how you know the Springfield Cubes are better than the Shelbyville Tetrahedrons. They won! What room is left for talking smack?

            Well, if you argue politics, people tend to take that stuff *PERSONAL*. “You oppose Obamacare??? DO YOU WANT MY DAUGHTER TO DIE??? ANSWER THE QUESTION!!! DO YOU WANT MY DAUGHTER TO DIE!!!”

            Religion is an even bigger minefield.

            But arguing over which Manning brother is a better QB? There ain’t no hard feelings about that. You can give your speech about Eli, I can give my speech about Peyton, we can laugh, we can say “NO WAY!”, and we can walk away saying “that was fun” rather than asking if, seriously, you think that it’s appropriate for a guy who needs neck surgery to be a role model for children. (“Do you think my children should operate on each other’s necks??? ANSWER THE QUESTION!!!”)

            It allows people a safe arena in which to argue and let off steam.

            And if bonding is more your thing? Football has that too. Seriously, I would not watch games on my own if left to my own devices… but I enjoy being able to answer the question “how ’bout them Broncos?” on the day after a night like last night.

          • Jay,
            that’s because, well, it is actually personal.
            When you have a 20 year old in fit physical condition collapsing at the top of Cardiac Hill because of the level of sulphur in the air…, and fools start talking about how “air quality regs will lose us jobs, oh heavens!”
            that’s… umm… rather personal to me.

            I don’t take oil drilling so serious, honestly, even though that BP disaster was nearly world-ending.

            I do take the financial crisis pretty serious, because it’s likely to happen again (give it a few years) unless we fix this leaky ship.

        • That being said, I do like a baseball a bit and have fairly strong opinions against the Yankees (I come from a line of Brooklyn Dodgers and later Mets fans) and I think the designated hitter rule in the American League is a cop-out.

  9. 1) because of the douchebaggery of Bostonians, I will always root against the pats and the bruins
    2) don’t follow pro sports at all, I find it difficult to cheer for millionaires. However, if I am in a sports bar and the pats or bruins are playing, then I will make time (see 1)
    3) college football is fun. I follow my team and watch or listen to all the games, since they haven’t won a bowl game since the 1940’s despite having been to 9 in the last 16 years. It’s fun to cheer for an underdog, and a fine excuse to get together with old acquaintances for a couple of beers.

  10. The thing is, I will actually watch sports for entertainment with friends. If people invited me to go to a football or baseball game, I’d be delighted to attend. I can understand rooting for one’s “own” team. If I’m at a social gathering and there’s a game on, I’ll often sit and watch, occasionally asking questions about what the hell is happening (if the game is football; baseball I understand just fine). I just don’t get the intense emotional connection so many people seem to feel.

    • Exactly! But no one ever invites me to sport themed activities. I think it’s because they assume that I’m not interested. I went to a Super Bowl party once and had a blast. A friend of mine invited me to watch a game soon and I’m looking forward to learning more so I’m excited to go.

      • If you’re a girl, ya kinda have to hint that you’re interested. Works best if you’re talking to a guy who’s kinda-sorta-maybe interested in you, of course. “I’ve always wanted to watch a football game, but I don’t understand it if i’m just by myself…”
        or, if you don’t want to pick up a hot guy,
        “It’s so lonely watching football by myself…” *sigh* [this is best used near Superbowls, or with people who have a party every football game.]
        See? (20/20 hindsight).

        • Being the ‘odd duck’ out with my group of friends (nationality wise), I’m the one they look to for any ‘American Sports’ party.

          So yeah, I throw the Superbowl party, the March Madness party, the Stanley Cup party…

        • I abhore having to play the dumb girl routine. And it’s worse when you aren’t trying to play dumb and you get accused of it. “No, I’m really just that ignorant about sports.”

          • If you’re expressing an honest interest, and getting accused of being the “dumb girl” pick up a bit of terminology. “What’s the difference between a touchdown and a touchback?” makes a hell of a lot more sense than “Like, um, I don’t get sports at all, maybe you can explain??” (not that I think, in a million years, you’d ever be caught dead saying the second).

    • I guess for me, it’s part of having ‘grown up’ with the Red Sox. Seeing Yas’s final game, watching the ball roll between Buckner’s legs during the Series against the Mets – feeling the weight of history at Fenway Park. Ribbing my younger cousin when his beloved Yankees lose (he’s the only Yankees fan in the family – we always did think he was odd from birth).

      Even as removed as I am now from New England, I watch the games whenever I can – because for me, it’s a little bit of home while I’m away from home. The Red Sox are (for me) a comfort that I am admittedly very attached to.

      My husband’s co-workers think he’s a lucky bastard because he has a wife that asked for a sports channel (ESPN USA) to be added to our cable package.

      I’ll watch soccer with friends, but I don’t have the attachment to it that they have – because I didn’t grow up with their team, etc. There has to be absolutely NOTHING on TV before I’ll switch over to a soccer match.

      Ok, I lied. I draw the line at watching CSI dubbed in German. That’s just cruel and unusual punishment. I”ll watch soccer before I watch that.

  11. I think it has to do with being part of something larger. There is a collective mindset that sets in. It’s not just you rooting for your squad… but your son and your wife and your neighbor and the guy next to you at the bar.

    I would also say that, as a former athlete, I think there is something vicarious about watching sports. I will never be in the NFL but watching those who are lets me kind of sort of pretend I’m part of it.

    • Yet Americans hate socialism and believe in rugged individualism.

      • Well, maybe that is why we are as crazy about sports as we are. Perhaps there are innate drives for both individualism and collectivism. When society emphasizes the former, we find outlets for the latter.

        • There is an old saying:

          “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.”

          Sports gives us a few more categories before we get to taking the world on.

  12. 1. Boston – I totally disagree. I spent a week there last November and thought all the residents very polite and gracious. I think it’s because they have the Museum of Fine Arts in their city: http://www.mfa.org/ When you’ve got those kind of bragging rights, you can afford to be gracious to newcomers.

    2. New York – NYers aren’t rude so much as self-absorbed. I mean, they don’t seem to be doing it consciously, it’s more of a by-product. Spent 10 days there 3 years ago and found they don’t handle cold well (it was between Christmas and New Year’s). An exception: the cab drivers. I didn’t find one cab driver who was rude or obnoxious. I even asked a couple why they had such a bad reputation which they seemed to find quite funny. One of them drove me to the address I requested, then we found out after he turned the meter off that I had made a mistake, and he insisted on driving me to the right place without charging me. Go NY cabdrivers!

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