Saturday, April 30, 2011

Montaigne, Real Salt Lake, and This Fan's Life

In the introduction to his multi-volume collection of essays, Michel de Montaigne humbly wrote that he was the subject of his own book.

In a similar way, I am the subject of this blog post. And to quote Montaigne, you probably shouldn't waste your time reading about such a "frivolous and vain subject." But whether you continue reading or not, I will write this little confession anyway; I need to confront my demons so that I can move past the pain.

As a young boy, I was a rabid football fall. I am now embarrassed to say that I loved the Cowboys and I loved BYU's football team. Even though there were some painful losses (I remember hurting for weeks after Dallas lost to Philadelphia in the NFC championship game in 1981), Dallas won the Superbowl in '78 and BYU won the national championship in 1984. I was under the youthful illusion that championships would be a regular thing. The oft-repeated "Wait 'til next year" filled me with hope instead of dread.

Then I began cheering for the Mariners.

After decades of losing, they finally made the playoffs. The greatest day in my life as a fan was when the Mariners beat the Yankees in extra innings of the final game of a playoff series in 1995. It helped that my favorite player, Edgar Martinez, had the game winning double. But of course the Mariners went on to lose in the next round. They would lose the ALCS again in 2000 and yet again in 2001, despite winning a record 116 games that year during the regular season. In my heady graduate-school-years I had given up on football and was not very interested in watching basketball, so I had nothing to fall back but my own sorrow.

So amid the pain, I started researching and writing about sports. I think I began writing on sports as a way to distance myself from the pain of watching my teams lose (again), as a mechanism to allow me to cope with the hopelessness the Mariners continue to inspire. I could follow the games from the detachment of the ivory tower. I could look at the suffering fans as objects of study, as poor schmucks whose love for their team was deterministically dictated by their social class and cultural habitus. I was insulated from suffering by Bourdieu and Elias; protected by Huizinga and Corbin.

But then I unwittingly let myself love again.

In October 2008 I was asked to give a presentation on sports as part of our university's outreach program. To entice public school teachers to attend lectures by university professors, the organizers offered complimentary tickets to the first soccer game at the freshly minted Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. They had several extra tickets, so I went and watched a 1-1 draw against New York. Maybe it was the red card against New York (and it is fun to hate teams from New York), maybe the ambiance, maybe the fact that my children and wife enjoyed the games, maybe the way soccer in America made me feel subversive... but I was hooked and attended the team's playoff games that fall. I went to several games in 2009, including their improbable 1-0 win over Columbus in the playoffs and then went to the party to celebrate their surprising MLS Cup win. In 2010 I went to most of their home games. And this year I haven't missed a game.

I am now unable to detach myself from this team and maintain any critical distance. I have a cap signed by midfielder Will Johnson. I bought a jacket and a flag. I somehow let myself become a mindless fan. And I enjoyed every second of it until Wednesday night.

Against my expectations (and those of the 20,000 others present at the game) Real Salt Lake lost the Concacaf Champions League final to Monterrey, Mexico at home 0-1. My heart was ripped out. I feel gutted. My sleep is haunted by nightmares of the loss.

Why did I let myself be tricked into re-entering the world of fandom? Why did I abandon my comfortable perch in the detachment of academia? In short, Wo is me.

But even now, in the haze of melancholy brought on by the team's loss at the brink of a championship, I still like this team. Their payroll is six times less than the team from Mexico that beat them. They are composed of players rejected by other teams and other leagues. They play with creativity and a bit of anger. Their players have interesting life stories. And.... I'm sounding like a fan again...

I am at the moment of decision. Do I return to the indifference of scholarship, or embrace a team that will inevitably break my heart? I am experienced enough to know that a team from Salt Lake cannot continue making it to championship games, old enough to know that in sports hope is usually dashed. Am I willing to take the emotional beating Real Salt Lake will give me?

RSL plays Portland tonight at 8:30. Where is my flag?


dastew said...

As a Red Sox, Jazz, and Sabres fan I can certainly appreciate your pain. I was sad to see RSL lose the CONCACAF championship. However I think it's too soon in the RSL existence to have an existential crisis about rooting for them. They did remarkably well to get to the point they were at. Now you can say "there's always next year" without that glib expression seeming like desperation or self-delusion. Their history is too short to know you will be disappointed next year.

Further, any Sox (either color), Cubs, Bills, or Canucks fan will tell you that in some ways losing it all when you have the chance to win is part of what defines the community of fans. It's easy to root for the Yankees because they always win. But when you are a Red Sox fan you're not an individual fan you're part of a nation. Who knows, maybe RSL being so close but losing will help build a small deviant soccer nation in the valley. (Like being a democratic in Utah)

Corry Cropper said...

Good point. Suffering will only make me stronger, right? It's true, I do like RSL because soccer is the underground sport here. If I lived in Europe, I'd have to pick another sport...

Robert J. Hudson said...