To Save Democracy, Be a Sports Fan
I don’t understand people who are into sports. Not in a “uwu sportsball is dumb way.” No, what I don’t understand is how you open yourselves up to heartbreak like this all the time.
I played soccer in my youth, through elementary and middle school, and even though I wasn’t very good at it, I really loved it. I liked playing midfield, running up and down the field like a maniac trying to be both offense and defense. I played goalie too, which was stressful for my mother, and my nickname was the General because I was forever bossing the defense around, if you can believe it. I was Brandi Chastain for Halloween. I remember watching the women win the World Cup in 1999 at my grandmother’s house and going absolutely nuts. My dad helped coach my team. It was a picturesque orange slices and water bottles and tights under my soccer shorts dream. My team hardly ever won, but I still have the soccer ball they all signed for me when I got most improved one season.
So soccer holds a special place in my heart, and is really the only sport I follow of my own free will. And still I flat out skipped the USA vs. Iran game of the World Cup. I was sitting in my room, physically capable of watching, flipping through old episodes of Criminal Minds instead. I did not want to open my heart to either ecstasy or despair. In 2016 I was offered a chance to go to the Javits Center on Election Night for Hillary Clinton’s victory party, and I turned it down because even though I was convinced Hillary would win, I knew that if she didn’t I couldn’t imagine a worse place to be. (Turned out to be a good choice) I have the same feeling when I see folks in the stands when their team is losing. Is putting your heartbreak on TV worth it??
I’ve caught a lot of the other games. I watched us get knocked out in our battle against the Netherlands (emotional calculus is strange but getting knocked out in the group stage is worse than getting knocked out in the round of 16, objectively. I don’t make the rules). But even in the games where the US wasn’t playing, my heart would choose a favorite in the first few minutes and then leap and contract and shatter as though I’d been following that team my whole life.
Of course, the World Cup is fraught for a multitude of reasons. FIFA’s corruption is overt and egregious. And there is no better place to see it than in the choice of Qatar for this year’s Cup - a country with almost no soccer tradition, where it’s much too hot to play during the traditional World Cup season, and where 6500 migrant workers have died since Qatar won the bid to host.
And to quote Rog Bennet from the Men in Blazers podcast: “Yes, to us, when two teams take the field, their nation's history, their nation's culture, their nation's politics take the field alongside them.” Colonizers vs. colonized, teams with refugees playing the nations that forced the refugees from their homes, players who have to choose between the country of their birth or their heritage. A whole world, riven with strife and hope, plays out in front of you.
The idea that you can keep politics and sports separate has always been absurd - sports after all are played by people impacted by politics, in cities and states and countries built and maintained by politics in tournaments hosted by political actors. But in my heart they are not just linked by these obvious forces, but by the twin forces of hope and heartbreak, the desire to be at once open to possibility and immune from disappointment. The ability to lament where you are and dream for the future.
I don’t understand sports people, but I admire them. I admire the ability to give your heart over to something out of your control. I admire the commitment to something in spite of its failures and the ability to find joy in something year after year even when it breaks your heart. In my youth I used to be a lot better at that, when I played soccer on a team that never won, when I chose soccer as my sport in high school PE even though all my friends picked something else. It is hard to love something that can be so devastating, but sometimes it feels even harder to believe in the possibility that it won’t.
John Green, internationally renowned YA author and soccer fanatic, said “The whole problem with football and other things is how bad they can make you feel, but without football and other things you don't get to feel anything.” To close myself off to heartbreak is to limit my possibility for joy and every time the World Cup comes around I remember this, the desire to harden my heart to loss and the knowledge that I haven’t spent any of the intervening four years practicing hope.
Sports and politics come together in this too. In a world where compromise chips away at our optimism and it takes everything we have to eke out wins by the smallest of margins against the most absurd of foes, to believe in possibility requires relentless perseverance and a deep commitment to showing up again and again and again, whatever the loses. To learn from them, to grow, and to meet them again and again with a sincere and hard won belief that this time it might be different.
So to save democracy this week, be a sports fan.