I became aware of sports as entertainment and diversion in 1974. We lived in Raleigh, N.C. I was 5 years old.
That year, North Carolina State won the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Dad, back from Vietnam, was (as I recall) still a student at N.C. State. He might have been a recent graduate. I’m not sure, but we still lived in Raleigh, which meant we were at the epicenter of one of the great and awful spectacles of American sports – the spontaneous, post-championship celebration in the streets.
On the night the Wolfpack defeated Marquette (it was March 25), a carnival broke out on campus. We piled into our brown Pinto station wagon and crawled along the roads among a frenzied pack of Wolves, many of whom ran or stumbled along with one finger held up to the sky – N.C. State was, at that moment, Number One. And so they chanted deep into the night: “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” I held my arm out the car window and raised my index finger. I was Number One, too. We all were.
I’ve never forgotten that night, or the swirling open-air celebration, even though I later switched my allegiance to (gasp) the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Much later, I discovered the history and glory of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Between the emergence of my obsession with all things Carolina Blue and my sudden, very real addiction to the Only Football Club in North London, I was paid to write about sports.
Games and the people who play them at a very high level have, to say the least, meant a lot to me over the years. Sports was the first connection I can remember with Dad. In addition to the N.C. State championship celebration, I remember tagging along as the batboy for a Little League team Dad helped coach. He taught me and my brother how to practice fielding by tossing a pink Spalding hi-bounce ball against a brick wall (hit the ground first for pop-ups, hit the wall first for grounders). I played Little League, flag football, and youth basketball. After we moved to Florida in 1982 (mere days after Michael Jordan broke the Georgetown Hoyas’ collective heart in New Orleans), I found the Braves and the joys of spring training in West Palm Beach. I obviously didn’t know it at the time, but the move to Florida when I was 13 put me on the path to becoming a sportswriter and put me in deeper touch with my visceral connection with sports.
At no point (that I recall) did Dad or Mom or any adult figure in my life push me toward supporting a particular college or professional team. It was sort of the same with religion in our family; we attended several different churches, and I dutifully said the words and read the Book. But for the most part, my brother and I were given a great deal of intellectual latitude when it came to spiritual matters like religion and sports. (Politics, as well, but that’s another essay entirely.)
So, now, do I feel even the slightest bit guilty that when I ask my 6-year-old son and 4-year-old son to name their favorite sports team, they both say, without hesitation, “Tottenham?” No, I don’t. Especially after glancing at this doctoral thesis on how people become loyal sports fans by Jeffrey D. James of Ohio State University. According to James, it’s perfectly natural for kids to be influenced by their parents when it comes to developing loyalties in sports. Besides, James also writes that kids don’t truly develop the long-lasting, seemingly irrational attachment to particular sports teams until age 8 or 9. So, there might be hope yet for my kids. Plus, Jay qualified his instant answer of “Tottenham” by adding, “And the Rays. And the Bucs.”
And I asked him why he likes the teams he likes.
“I like the Bucs and the Rays because they’re awesome,” he said.
Fair enough. But why does he like Tottenham, a team he has seen play far more often in high-definition, pixelated form on the PS3 version of FIFA 12 and FIFA 13 than on actual live TV?
“I like them,” he said, “because you like them.”
There you go, Dr. James of The Ohio State University. Validated again. But what are the implications?
Certainly, as my early forays into Wolfpack euphoria proved, the allegiances of early youth can be fleeting. It doesn’t really matter to me if Jay and Chris retain their interest in Tottenham Hotspur soccer*. It’s a nice testament, I suppose, that my obsession with Spurs is enough to pique their interest. They both know the words to the fight songs, and that makes me feel all warm and bright inside.
*That said, if they ever come to me and confess an abiding affection for Arsenal, they will be disinherited immediately.
Of course, neither of my sons really knows what it means to love a sports team. I mean really love a sports team. As Dr. James points out, a person has to reach the ripe age of 8 to begin to develop the lifelong obsession that so many Red Sox, Packers, Kentucky Wildcats and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans profess to.
It’s a tribal thing, this choosing of a sports team. It has to do with geography, with family history. It has to do with so many little occurrences, so many forgotten conversations with childhood friends. It can be as random as what’s on TV on a given night, or what color you happen to like, or where you go to college. In some ways, I think, we don’t choose our teams so much as our teams choose us.
Dr. James concluded that the process begins with the enjoyment of a particular sport, followed by the attachment to a particular team, followed by an attachment to a particular player. Ultimately, for the franchises, it’s about creating that attachment early to ensure a lifetime of buying stuff – tickets, jerseys, programs, more tickets, more merchandise. It’s about grabbing them, keeping them, and encouraging them to pass the obsession on to another generation.
OK. I buy that (just as I bought a Tottenham Hotspur pint glass, bottle opener, coffee mug, t-shirt and two hats). And, so far, the process seems to be playing out just as Dr. James suggests it should with my boys.
Yet, what if they just don’t like sports? And what if it’s our fault? I mean, we’ve been to exactly one Tampa Bay Rays game as a family. We’ve been to zero Bucs games, and zero games of any kind for the nearby University of South Florida. Are MomScribe and I failing to expose our sons to sports in a manner adequate for them to later make informed decisions about whether they want to be true fans?
I spent thousands of hours at ballparks all over the world. My exposure to the behind-the-scenes nonsense of the sports world sort of jaded me to fandom, at least until I rediscovered it with Tottenham Hotspur in ’09. Has that affected my willingness to contribute to the full immersion of Jay and Chris into the Tampa Bay sports world of Rays, Bucs and Bulls? (I’d say Lightning, too, but eh. They’re locked out again, and hockey just isn’t on the radar for these Florida boys.)
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see about that. It’s enough for now that Jay truly enjoys playing YMCA soccer, and that Chris will almost certainly join in that fun soon. Eventually, I’ll introduce them to Little League baseball, and maybe get them shooting and dribbling and passing and defending and learning the intricacies of Dean Smith’s Four Corners offense on the neighborhood basketball court.
This is America, after all. They’ll have plenty of opportunities in the future to lose their minds over a sports team. It’s in their blood. I don’t think they could avoid it if they tried.