Lessons from Fandom

For those of you who are not inclined towards professional sports fandom, forgive me. I don’t know how many more times I will have the opportunity to write an article like this one, and every now and then, you just have to scratch that itch.

Our eighth grade students were born in 2002-2003. That means—if they are rooting for their Boston-based home teams—that they have witnessed eight local professional sports championships in their fourteen years of life.  

Sports, I have come to realize, defined the better part of my childhood. I grew up in Connecticut on the front lines of the Red Sox/Yankees border war. My state had one professional sports team, the Hartford Whalers, and my father, a lawyer, worked for the team. I also grew up in the Bird-era heyday of the Celtics. My grandfather was a diehard NY Giants football fan. And, I grew up in a state with one of the best bumper stickers I have ever seen: “UConn, where men are men…and women are champions.” I offer this today for a variety of reasons: 1) It is remarkable what childhood memories take hold for us; 2) As a parent, I’m struck that what I hope will stick for my children seems to run diametrically opposite to my own memories of childhood; and 3) I am fascinated by the notion that my childhood, one spent reconciling heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss—consider the ’85 Patriots, the ’86 Sox, and the ’87 Celtics alone, if you’re trying to conjure something up—stands in stark comparison to the experience of my children. (The ’07-’11 run of championships in this town made us a source of national envy). So, what will that mean in the context of their identity development as young adults?

When I look back on my childhood, I realize that in 1986, Bill Buckner actually made me stronger. (Yes, it took thirty years for me to be able to write that sentence.) I learned to reconcile the notion that losing happens, both to us as athletes on our town or school sports teams, and also to the teams we love, and the players we idolize. I remember paying attention to the way these grown athletes chose to behave in the wake of defeat (because that always seemed to be what happened to them), and looking to find my own comfort in the way they handled themselves in those moments. So, if I can safely assume that my wife and I have passed along some of our genetic fanatical appreciation for pro sports to our children, what messages are they receiving? What are they learning? I haven’t yet encountered a parent who wants their child to grow up in a world where everything comes easy. Where the good guys always win. So, what now? The Red Sox broke an 86-year curse in 2001. Then they broke the 3-year curse in 2004. And the 3-year curse again in 2007. And then the 6-year curse (a cold interminable six years) in 2013. So much for any lessons about delayed gratification.

And now, as we head into a weekend when many of us will have our eyes trained on the television on Sunday night as the Patriots try to lock up their legacy as one of the great teams in sports history, I wonder…what lessons are my children learning here? What are the memories that stick for them? The ’86 Celtics magic was due in large part to the collective failure of everyone else. As a fan, I felt I had somehow earned that trophy with them. What happens when our kids grow up in a world where excellence is the rule and not the exception? And, what will happen in a decade when this unprecedented run of sports excellence moves on to another city?  

Or, perhaps more critically, what will messages of excellence mean to them when they have been performed against a backdrop of social media, more immediate access to the player experience where role modeling may not hold up the way it did in my childhood, (I have had a number of conversations about whether or not Bird, Magic and Jordan would be as revered if they grew up in the Twitter-era, but I digress), and allegations of cheating have followed star athletes and teams like a set of cursed groupies. Of course, I don’t know. The teacher in me hopes that we are all taking the time to remind our children of the context into which fandom might be placed. The parent in me hopes that that my kids hold onto the trip to the aquarium as tightly as they do Malcolm Butler’s interception. But the kid in me… the one who could tell you where he was when Bird stole the ball, when Foulke pitched the ball to Mientkiewicz, when Viniatieri kicked that field goal in the snow…he’s hoping that he and his children have one more joyous memory to hold onto after this weekend.

Thanks for enduring me, everyone. Go Pats. Have a Super weekend.

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