I grew up in a sports-obsessed household in the sports-obsessed suburbs of sports-obsessed Philadelphia. Naturally, I hated sports.
For one thing, I couldn't play them worth a damn. I can't kick a soccer ball or sink a basket unless standing still, with no one moving around me, and (preferably) a light wind in my favor. And while I always did well academically, sports made me feel stupid. When I watched games on TV, people sighed when I asked questions, so I stopped asking. This made me even more confused, so I stopped watching—when my friends or family started talking sports, I tuned it out. But the biggest reason I gave up on sports is that I only had one model of sports fandom. On television, in school, and in my own living room, I was overrun by fanatical, face-painting bores. Rather than partake in this mass psychosis, I shunned sports completely.
In my experience, sports fans were parodies of excess. Sports-crazed people are like the music snobs everyone avoids at parties—the dweebs trying to outsmart each other by listing obscure pieces of trivia. The Phillies, Flyers, and Eagles die-hards who surrounded me not only had to watch every game but had to own jerseys in every style and color and memorize every backup's minor-league statistics. Then there was the fact that when I was a kid, my father would respond to an Eagles loss by making my brothers and me clean the kitchen. To be considered a real fan, I thought, you had to take games seriously enough to punish your children for your team's ineptitude. But why did sports have to turn everyone into a crazy person? Couldn't there be such a thing as a casual sports fan?
Strangely enough, it took me four years on an isolated, sports-obsessed campus to learn how to enjoy sports. When I decided to attend Penn State, I planned to continue my sports boycott. I soon learned that this wasn't practical in a place where football is a religion. So, like the halfhearted rebel that I am, I joined in with all the festivities of football season—waking up early to drink, waving a cheap pompom in the stands, taking part in the "We Are Penn State" cheer. After going to a few games and listening to a few thousand dining-hall conversations, I found myself clued in enough to keep up and even enjoy myself.
Casual sports fandom, I've learned, is ideal. Keeping tabs on everything is too exhausting and has no point. Avoiding every game and sports-related conversation can be equally taxing—it takes effort not to know that Peyton Manning and Eli Manning are brothers. But knowing a little bit about sports is essential if you want to be culturally literate. The stuff I learned about football has paid off far more than many of the other skills I picked up during college (rarely do I get the opportunity to make use of that Latin minor). I can make small talk (always a challenge for me) with almost anyone, because most people are willing to chat about games. And I've realized that many of my preconceived notions about sports fans were simply projections of my own insecurity. Yes, I've been looked at like an idiot for not knowing what the yellow first-down line is. But most people are willing to laugh and explain it to me. Being a casual fan isn't quite the social impossibility I had long feared it was.
There are countless other benefits to being a casual fan. The sports broadcasting industry is set up to appeal to people like me. Serious sports fans may form their own insular world, but networks need casual viewers to bump up their ratings. The constant explanations about minor rule changes and how exactly college football's BCS system works are probably annoying to die-hards, but they make it possible for me to follow more than just where the ball's going on the screen. And thank you, ESPN, for giving people like me a good rags-to-riches tale of an athlete overcoming the odds at least once a season.
If you don't want to be too emotionally invested in sports, being a casual fan is easy on the spirit. Sure, seeing Penn State get annihilated by Notre Dame the other day was rough. But by the end of the night, I had moved on. Living in Philadelphia, I watched year after year as the local teams deflated my friends and family. But as a casual fan, I have no obligations—if a team is disappointing, I can dump them. Much as I love Penn State, if they lose to Youngstown State this week, I'm done with them for the season. On the flip side, I can root for a team like George Mason in the NCAA Tournament because I like a good underdog story.
It took me a long time to figure out that I am a sports fan—I'm just not a fan of the extraneous information that surrounds every game. When the game isn't on, I turn the television off. I have little to no interest in watching the pregame shows and halftime shows and post-game shows that breathlessly dissect who is floundering and who is surprising. I don't care about the wheelings and dealings of the offseason—who's partying too much and who's taken up meditation to focus his game. I watch sports for the sense of community they bring—the excitement of groaning or yelping with everyone else. I watch it to see the unbelievable feats of athleticism and the Hail Marys and unexpected sacks and last-minute changes. It's like watching an action movie unfold, with explosions and twists that can, once in a while, if you're lucky, upend the predictable conclusion. You don't need to memorize jersey numbers to appreciate that.