Why I stopped being a sports fan.
To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, Mike Pesca, and John Swansburg discuss this article on Slate's sports podcast, "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 26:14 mark:
You can also download the podcast, or you can subscribe to the weekly Hang Up and Listen podcast feed in iTunes.
Of course, you don't need to watch every minute of every game to be a fan. My complaint with sports doesn't hinge on the inflexible hours. There's also the issue of return on my investment. The games are relentless, the experience of them too often ephemeral. I will recall to my dying day the game I attended between the Celtics and Trailblazers in March 1992. It was Larry Bird's last great performance—a 49-point clinic that included a simply absurd three to send the game into overtime. But such moments are, by definition, rare. For every historic game I've seen, there have been hundreds of uneventful ones I can tell you literally nothing about.
I'm not denying the pleasures of spending an afternoon shelling sunflower seeds and watching the Brewers take on the Pirates—on the contrary. My problem is more with the games that promise to be momentous and prove otherwise. Every week, there seems to be a game of the century—a playoff opener, a clash of rivals, a prodigal son returning home. As a sports fan in good standing, I'm obliged to watch. But too frequently, such games fail to deliver on the hype. Even if they are entertaining in the moment, I know that after the passage of a few months, I'll have trouble recalling the action. What happened in the NFC championship game last year? I watched, but I don't remember a single detail. What's the point of devoting all of my free time to something so fleeting?
Big wins for the home team are always memorable, particularly in the postseason. But for every euphoric victory, there are dozens of crushing defeats. Even given the dominance of Boston's teams this decade, I'm not sure I experienced more pleasure than anguish as a sports fan in the aughts. I was at Yankee Stadium in 2003 when Aaron Boone hit his walk-off to win Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. That defeat—to say nothing of being forced to ride home on a 4 train lousy with jubilant Yanks fans—threw me into a brooding funk that didn't clear for days. I didn't get those days back just because the Sox took the series the following year. The Celtics' 2008 playoff march ended in a 17th banner—but only after two full months of hard-fought series with Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles, weeks in which I limped through my daily life, haggard from late-night nail-biters. Was it worth it?
Die-hard fans will say, Yes, absolutely. I understand that. I understand that there's no thrill of victory without the agony of defeat—Red Sox fans know this as well as anyone. I recognize what I'm missing out on by giving up sports. I have enjoyed, on many occasions, the spontaneous camaraderie with complete strangers that's engendered by common allegiance to a sports team. I have felt a swell of civic pride when my home team has won a championship. I appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a well-executed backdoor cut.
For those reasons, I may yet return to the fold. Maybe I just need a break. Maybe Boston's run of championships this decade has left me complacent. But for the time being, I'm content passing by the sports section in the morning and the sports bar at night. During this year's American League Division Series, I happened upon the ninth inning of Game 3 between the Red Sox and the Angels and watched as Jonathan Papelbon imploded, giving up the go-ahead run and the series. In previous years, the loss would have ruined my night, if not my week. I would have watched the morose postgame press conference, forced myself to read Shaughnessey's post-mortem, and tried to cheer myself up by logging in to ESPN Insider to read free-agent gossip. This time around, while I empathized with the crestfallen Fenway faithful, I felt a long way away from those die-hard fans. It was a liberating feeling, not to care. I went and read a book.