Confessions of a Sports Fanatic

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As a libertarian, and a nonfollower of sports, I often wonder why people get deeply involved in America's great community project of watching games, cheering for teams, keeping track of trades, remembering statistics, and all the rest of it. To be honest, I simply don't understand why anyone would follow sports. So I asked a libertarian sports fan, Russell Hasan, to explain it to me. Here's what he said. See what you think.

— Stephen Cox

Ancient Greece held the Olympics. In ancient Rome the Emperor held gladiator games at the Coliseum. In modern America we have the Super Bowl. Given the broad fan base of sports, from baseball and football in the USA to soccer in Europe and South America, to rugby and cricket in England, Australia, and Asia, there must be something about sports that appeals to a deep and fundamental need in human nature.

Why do people like sports? The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel. Being a fanatical fan of the New York Yankees, and also following the New York Giants football team closely, does several things for me. I’ll list them.

1. Enjoyment. Watching sports is fun. If you don’t enjoy watching sports, then you are never going to be an avid sports fan (unless you play sports, which is a different article altogether). I like watching baseball and football, so it is natural for me to be a sports fan. Having been born and raised in New York, I root for the Yankees and the Giants. Sports gives me something to do when I am bored. There are 162 games during the baseball regular season, and more games when the Yankees make the playoffs. The Giants play 16 games in the football regular season. When you enjoy watching sports on TV, there is always something to watch. Factor in parties to see a game or seeing a game at a sports bar, and one can build an entire life out of watching the Yankees.

2. Tension. But why do I enjoy watching my Yankees play against another team, especially against the accursed, vile, rotten, Red Sox (their division rival)? Well, if you don’t see what I see then this might be like describing music to a deaf person, but something articulable can be stated about what it is like for a sports fan to see a game. I would describe a good game as “tension, adrenaline, excitement, and suspense.” Baseball and football are designed so that the games are usually a close contest between the two teams. A few crucial plays can determine who wins. When the Yankees are ahead by one run, and a fly ball goes to the outfield, I root for the Yankees outfielder to catch it. He does so 99% of the time, but there is a little sting of excitement to see the ball shoot over to him, and then a small but pleasurable sigh of relief when the baseball is caught.

The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel.

When I root for a team it means I want them to win, so I am happy when my team scores. I am elated when the Yankees win, and I feel horrible when they lose. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of being in a nerve-wracking high-stress situation when my team is in a key situation in a close game. To feel that, and then to see my team make a play and win the game, is thrilling.

3. Personality. So I enjoy games because I get to see my team win and the other team lose. But why am I a fan of the Yankees and Giants particularly? Each sports team has its own personality, which can only be seen when you follow the sport as closely as I do. For example, the Yankees are the equivalent of a rich successful businessman who dominates his competition and buys mansions and yachts, while the Red Sox are the equivalent of lovable loser underdogs who have recently changed their bad luck and become winners after decades of being horrible. The Mets (and also the basketball team the New York Knicks) are the pathetic loser that you feel sorry for and root for because of a deep, committed passion to be there for them no matter what, even though they constantly lose despite having every opportunity to win. It’s as if the Mets were your alcoholic brother who puked on your bathroom floor on a regular basis.

In football, the New York Giants’ personality is defined by their quarterback, Eli Manning, who once stood in the shadow of his more successful brother Peyton but later emerged and developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the game, crowned by two victories over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, victories that gave New York bragging rights in the perpetual New York vs. Boston sports feud. That sort of success story can be found at some point in the history of most teams. The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers. The personality of a team comes from its players and its fans, but it grows into a spirit that surrounds the team; and team personality is a great basis upon which to choose whom to root for. In the 2014 Super Bowl, the personality of the two teams is easy to see: the Broncos are Peyton Manning’s team as he fights to be recognized as the greatest football player of his era, while the Seahawks seek to give Seattle sports fans their first championship in a major American sport and reward Seattle’s fan base, which is known as the “Twelfth Man” because it is so loud that it’s like another member of the 11-man Seattle defense.

4. Regional Pride. Sports teams bring together a city or region and provide a bonding experience. The Yankees and Mets give New Yorkers something to talk about. I have had experiences at the dentist and the grocery store in which someone saw my Yankees cap and I had an interesting talk with a total stranger. In ways like this, sports gives a community something to discuss, something in common. Each city and region has a team that it is passionate about. New York has the Yankees and Mets, Boston has the Red Sox, Dallas has the Cowboys, Seattle has the Seahawks. These teams give regional identity and cultural flavor to an area, and this is good for the community.

The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers.

5. Discussion. As I mentioned, sports give people something to talk about. Every day of the year, I suspect there are a multitude of conversations about sports, and in the absence of sports these would be mere awkward silences between people who have nothing to talk about. There are millions of Yankees fans across America, and if I need to chat up any of them, I immediately have something that provides content for a friendly conversation. I can talk about the recent Yankees seasons for hours, and make intelligent observations about the team. I can talk about the decline of pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s arm strength, the ineptness of general manager Brian Cashman’s minor league talent scouting system, Robinson Cano’s greed, Babe Ruth’s stats (interesting fact: Babe Ruth has some of the best stats as a pitcher in baseball history, despite being better known for hitting over 700 home runs), and I could pull a dozen other conversation topics out of my Yankees hat. People need something to discuss when making friendly small talk, and sports is an easy, fun, enjoyable topic for them to discuss. I have found this to be true even among libertarians; for example, the famous Objectivist philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra is as avid a New York Yankees fan as I am.

6. Bonding. Sports brings friends together, and it brings families together when they share the same favorite team. Watching a baseball game together, or playing baseball in the backyard of your house, is a common father-son bonding experience. In my own case, if not for the fact that I and my mother and father are all Yankees fans, I would have very little in common with my parents, neither of whom are lawyers and both of whom are liberal Democrats.

7. Achievement. Sports, particularly baseball and football but also tennis, soccer, hockey, basketball, and most other sports, are almost unbelievably difficult for the athletes to play. Coaches and players require a chessmaster-like grasp of strategy, especially at the quarterback position in football. The quarterback needs to identify the defense’s scheme in about three seconds and find the right hole through which to throw the football. Major League pitchers need to be smart in deciding which pitch to throw to fool the batter. Intelligence is necessary. But athletic prowess is obviously also needed, and today’s professional athletes have almost unbelievable muscles. Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods. It is fun to watch people be good at something very difficult and challenging.

Also, a lot of success in sports is psychological. As Yogi Berra remarked: “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” To me, it is motivating and inspirational to watch the players on the team that is losing cope with the challenge of a deficit in the score and overcome their problems for a come-from-behind win. Both times the Giants beat the Patriots in recent Super Bowls, the Giants were the underdog and rallied to defeat a New England team that had more talent and was supposed to win. Stories like that are heartwarming. I was ecstatic when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and especially the second time they did it, when at the end of the game the Giants defense made a play against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who is probably the single most dangerous player in the NFL.

Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods.

Why do I like sports? I like sports because I enjoy watching the Yankees and Giants play. Why do I like watching them? Because it is fun to root for the home team. Why do I root for them? Because I am a Yankees fan and a Giants fan. Why am I a fan? I guess it really all reduces to a personal decision about how you choose to express yourself and what sort of personality you want to create for yourself as a human being, and what you enjoy in life. If I wanted, I could be a “foodie,” obsessed with sushi and sashimi. Then I would be writing about Japanese food instead of sports. But that isn’t who I am. Who I am is a New York Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan. And a lot of other Americans feel the way I do.




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Home Run

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When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress adopted the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery and involuntary servitude were officially ended in the United States. But racism and segregation were far from over. In fact, relations between blacks and whites remained so tense that during the ensuing century the US sanctioned a number of "Jim Crow" laws mandating segregation under the "separate but equal" interpretation.

Laws can mandate actions, but they cannot mandate public opinion. It took the free market, in the form of "America's favorite pastime," to start ending Jim Crow.

Baseball was America's most popular sport during most of the 20th century. Whites played it. Blacks played it. Women played it. But they didn't play it together. Early segregation was a form of protectionism. African-American players, such as Bud Fowler and Moses "Fleetwood" Walker, played on integrated teams in the 1880s, but they were so good that white players began to feel threatened that they would lose their positions and their jobs. "Whites Only" signs began to appear in locker rooms.

Soon two different leagues were formed. African American fans would often attend MLB games (sitting in the "Colored" section, of course) but with very few exceptions, whites would not attend NLB games. Consequently they seldom saw such baseball greats as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, who played in the Negro League.

They might have stayed there, too, unnoticed by the mainstream history books, if it weren't for Wesley Branch Rickey and the free market. Rickey was owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted to win the World Series, and that meant hiring the best players in baseball. He also wanted to fill the seats at Ebbets Field, and that meant expanding the appeal for African-American fans. Rickey decided it was time to integrate Major League Baseball, and he was just the man to do it: a thick-skinned, cigar-smoking Methodist named after John Wesley himself.

The story of how Branch Rickey integrated major league sports is told in an outstanding new film called 42, Jackie Robinson's number for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the only number that has been permanently retired by all of baseball in honor of his courage and grit. With strong actors in both supporting and leading roles and a quotable script that tells the story with honesty and unfeigned respect, it is a film that should not be missed.

Rickey (Harrison Ford) is the quintessential libertarian hero. He wants to right a wrong he committed as a coach at Wesleyan University when he "didn't do enough for a fine black pitcher." But most of all, Rickey is motivated by profit and success. He wants to sell tickets, and he wants a World Series pennant. "Dollars aren't black or white," he says to his critics; "they're green." To accomplish both the win and the ticket sales, he hires the first African-American Major League baseball player. Rickey knows it won't be easy. By wooing black audiences, he may lose the existing white fans. One of his advisors warns, "There's no law against hiring a Negro player, but there's a code. Break that code, and you'll pay for it." But Rickey believes he can persuade people to change their opinions simply by giving them a great show. And public opinion would change laws.

Choosing the right player was essential to the success of his plan. He couldn't have a hothead. In their initial meeting, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) asks Rickey, "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" and Rickey responds, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Robinson would have to endure namecalling, physical threats, beanballs, bad calls, and more. His teammates would have to try to overcome their own prejudices, some without success.

Robinson was no pushover. Before becoming a Dodger he refused to acquiesce to Jim Crow laws. He played in UCLA's integrated team. As a member of the US military he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In the film, when he is not allowed to use a gas station's toilet while his Negro league baseball team stops for gas, he says to the attendant, "Then take that hose out of the tank and we'll get our 99 gallons of gas somewhere else." The attendant lets them use the toilet, and they buy the gas. Dollars aren't black or white; they're green.

Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he knew the power of the free market.

It isn't easy for Robinson to hold his tongue and his temper. He has to endure degradation from all sides. One of the worst offenders is Phillies’ coach Ben Chapman, who shouts racial slurs whenever Robinson comes up to bat. Chapman defends his actions by saying, "Hey, it ain't nothing. We call DiMaggio a wop. We call Hank Greenberg a kike," as though that makes it right. Rickey encourages Robinson to remain strong. "You can't meet the enemy on his own low ground," he says when the desire to fight back is almost overwhelming.

But there are moments to make one proud as well. After a cop forces Robinson off a southern baseball field for mixing with whites, saying, "That's our law here, and I'm going to enforce it," a local man approaches Robinson looking like nothing so much as a redneck racist. But he smiles shyly and says, "If a man's got the goods, he deserves a chance. I'm pulling for you. A lot of us are." Watching the tide of public opinion slowly turn produces a profound cathartic effect throughout the film.

The physical and emotional struggle Robinson endures is mitigated not only by Rickey, who stands by him like a father, but also by his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who soothes and uplifts him throughout the film.42 is as much a love story as it is a sports story.

Some of the best moments in the film occur simply when Robinson plays baseball. He had a loose, bouncing way of moving on the field. His arms seemed to stretch an extra foot when he dove for a ball, and he danced between the bases as he threatened to steal. His smile was magical. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman slips into that role with an ease as natural as the ballplayer he portrays. Waiting about a mile off base while the pitcher prepares for his windup, his fingers twinkle and dance and he bounces low in his knees, just daring the pitcher to throw him out. His relaxed smile is charming and disarming, confirming Rickey's decision that Robinson was the right man for the right time. As Mordecai said of Esther, who risked her life for the lives of the Jewish people, "Who knows but that you were born for such a time as this?" Robinson seems to have been born for his time.

Branch Rickey was born for such a time as well. He knew that laws can control actions, but they can't force people to overcome their prejudices. (Hell, it was laws and political activism that created segregation in the first place!) But he knew the power of the free market. Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he was certain that once he proved black players would make baseball better, other teams would have to follow. To some extent the worries of those early baseball players who rejected Bud Fowler and Moses Walker were warranted. Major league sports are dominated by minority players today. But the game is enriched because of it. And America is richer too.


Editor's Note: Review of "42," directed by Brian Helgeland. Warner Brothers, 2013, 128 minutes.



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