I grew up in a house full of sports. I wasn’t playing them, but I was watching them, learning them, enjoying them.
Three little sisters later, our family became a sports family because of a baby who, at 2 years old, preferred basketballs over baby dolls and, at 4 years old, ran Baxter Boulevard in Portland.
We spent winter weekends at free throw shooting contests, and cleared bookshelves for trophies. She was first featured on the evening news when she was in middle school, attending a University of Maine basketball camp. A few years later, enough people were paying attention that it became known, outside of our family, that she would be transferring high schools.
That is when I first witnessed the ugly side of sports.
The phone rang, and I answered it. The man asked to speak with my sister. His voice immediately scared me, made me nervous and somehow confused. He spoke in a growl, gruff and low. I asked who was calling. He told me I should just go get my sister.
I don’t know why I listened to him. I was old enough to be taking care of my sisters while our parents were away, but not old enough to know I could ignore this stranger.
I found her, and we walked back to the phone together. She held the receiver to her ear. “Hello?”
Her voice sounded entirely child-like, all politeness and innocence. She was only 14 years old.
She said nothing more than that initial hello. He spoke for a less than a minute. It seemed like an eternity. She hung up the phone, looked at me, and burst into tears.
He had called to tell my sister not to transfer. She was barely a teenager, but she posed a threat to this grown man. He did not want her to play basketball for her new school’s team.
We never found out who the man was. Maybe he was a parent whose daughter risked losing a starting position to my sister, maybe he was just a fan. Just a fan willing to make an intimidating phone call to a girl who wasn’t old enough to drive herself to practice.
That is but one example – a relatively benign one – of the perspective that can be lost in and around sports. In a venue meant to be entertainment, a spectacle of athletic ability and strategy, mentalities erode to the point where fans get territorial, take a team’s performance personally, and forget that it’s a game they’re watching by choice, not invitation.
The Little League spectators who swear at umpires. The football fans who spend weekends as armchair quarterbacks threatening to kill the real thing. The guy who evaluates batting averages with the seriousness of the Situation Room and ignores the “fantasy” part in his league’s name. The stadiums trying to appeal to families while doubling as dangerous obstacle courses for anyone wearing the visiting team’s colors.
Thanks to today’s 360-degree access points, the noise surrounding sports is louder, and more aggressive, and more self-righteous than the noise in the huddles and locker rooms. Fanaticism is now acceptable, even encouraged, so long as it’s sports-oriented and, preferably, involves body paint or a comments thread.
I still try to love sports. I try to focus on the individuals moving as a single unit, the universal breath being taken when the ball is heaved into the air, the explanations to my kids of what a first down is.
Sports talkers, though, are slowly ruining those pure moments. Sports talkers spout opinions they change seconds later, they make pronouncements they are unqualified to make, and they speak with an assurance they cannot muster when ordering coffee. Worse, some sports talkers speak with an “off with their head” bravura reminiscent of torch-bearing throngs and revolutions against a monarchy.
I no longer watch ESPN. I don’t read sports articles. I skim past live-tweets during games. I’ve learned I must mute the extra-curricular noise to maintain any sense of enjoyment for something that’s supposed to be enjoyable.
I’ve learned the lesson I wish I’d learned before I answered the phone more than a decade ago: I’ve learned to hang up.