Photo Credit Byron Dauncey
I’ve covered a fair amount of sports as a journalist over the years. I saw Tonya Harding’s first professional fight. I saw Mike Tyson’s almost-last. I’ve watched English football with long time supporters and interviewed a jockey or two in my day. It’s been no surprise to learn that the athletes are all individuals and as different as any of us are one from another. But the ceremony of sports and sports fandom has always struck me as having something singular and binding about it, a ritual designed to accomplish bigger ends than merely a final score.
This piece ran in Eighteen Bridges a number of years back.
David Brooks wrote a sports-related column in The New York Times in February of this year. I took special note of it because I was thinking a lot about sports at the time. In fact, days before the Brooks piece was published, I’d been in Boston watching the Super Bowl with rabid New England Patriots fans. I was watching them watch the game, in effect. Brooks happened to be writing about basketball, NBA star Jeremy Lin specifically. But he would have been wide of the mark no matter what sport he was talking about. “Jeremy Lin,” he wrote, “is anomalous in all sorts of ways. He’s a Harvard grad in the N.B.A., an Asian-American man in professional sports. But we shouldn’t neglect the biggest anomaly. He’s a religious person in professional sports.”
Since religious pro athletes are literally everywhere—the NFL playoffs themselves had for a time been dominated by coverage of the Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose take-a-knee moments of prayer had spawned their own epi-phenomenon referred to as “Tebowing”—Brooks got dogpiled online for being a pencil-necked geek who obviously didn’t understand anything about pro sports. Deadspin blogger Tom Scocca replied to Brooks with a post headlined: “David Brooks has written the dumbest Jeremy Lin column so far.”
But what my visit to Boston had proven to me was that Brooks’ bigger error was his central thesis, which came a little further down the column. “The moral ethos of sports,” Brooks wrote, “is in tension with the moral ethos of faith.”
I had to sit back after I read that, because I found myself wondering if Brooks had ever spent time with real hardcore fans. He certainly couldn’t have done what I had just done, sitting with those Pats fans in the blue and flickering light of The Fours bar in the Gardens area of North End Boston, all of our faces upturned to the hanging monitors above the bar as they meted out the information we craved about the very immediate future. What will happen? Brooks couldn’t possibly have spent any quality fan time in The Fours—or in any of the other sports bars scattered through the area: McGann’s Irish Pub, Boston Beerworks, Hurricane O’Reilly’s—because if he had he would have seen that sports in fact reveals and arouses something deeply and innately religious in fans, something that has nothing to do with the world’s official religions, with Tebowing, or with thanking your preferred saviour after hitting a three-pointer to win. In The Fours, what was reflected in all those upturned faces was something small “r” religious in structure, something crystallized in what is asked of fans and what they get back for their allegiance, hunkered over burgers and beers in sports bars and living rooms across the world. All holding their breath.
Of course, sports bloggers might well take offense with this idea, too. But I’m convicted, ladies and gentlemen. I went to The Fours, and I believe.
Boston wasn’t my first whiff of this idea, that sports might reach past reality into moments beyond. It had been simmering for at least a decade, during which time I’d written dozens of magazine pieces about sports, from boxing to football (soccer, that is) to auto-racing. In fact, the very first time I sensed something inherently religious in sport was in October 2000. I was at the Mohegan Sun Casino, in Uncasville, Connecticut, watching a fight: heavyweights Kirk Johnson and Oleg Maskaev. Johnson was a gentle-voiced and mild-mannered fighter from North Preston, Nova Scotia. I’d spent a little time with him over a couple of days, in sidebar conversations between the ritual waypoints that precede a prize fight: the press conference, the weigh in, the pregame routines, the hand taping, the silent moments before the fighter’s names are called when, if you watch closely, you’ll see the combatant retire to an inner place where he is more truly alone than perhaps anyone who has not been a prizefighter will ever understand.
Johnson was a riddle in pro boxing at the time. At 6’2 ½” and 232 pounds, with enormous shoulders and long muscular arms, he was remarkably fast, able to combine punches in flurries more like a lightweight than a heavy. Yet something lingered over his reputation, a sense of “reluctance” in the words of ring announcer Jim Lampley just prior to the bell. When I button-holed famed boxing analyst Larry Merchant before the fight, he told me, “Johnson just seems like the perennially promising heavyweight. But people are waiting to see him beat a real, significantly ranked opponent.”
Oleg Maskaev fit the bill. Johnson had a couple of pounds on him and a few inches of reach. Maskaev’s numbers weren’t legendary either at 20 wins and 2 losses, with 15 knockouts to his credit. But the Russian born fighter, living in West Sacramento, had fought better opposition than Johnson. More importantly, he seemed to be improving. Less than a year before, he’d fought the 31-1 Hasim Rahman (a man who’d once KO’d Lennox Lewis). In the eighth round of his fight against Rahman, Maskaev, behind on the score cards, knocked Rahman clean out of the ring, through the ropes, where he crashed onto the ringside press tables in a pile of papers and computer monitors and scattering journalists.
Maskaev was proven tough, in other words. And he looked tough, with muscles like plates of armor and a head like an artillery shell. Merchant didn’t have anything bad to say about Johnson, but he spoke of Maskaev in graver tones. The 35 year HBO veteran told me, “Maskaev is exciting. And I took one look at that jaw and thought: here’s a guy you cannot knock out.”
Of course, boxing is supposed to be fifty percent mental. Cus D’Amato, who trained Mike Tyson in the early years when he was unstoppable, famously said: “In the last analysis, mind triumphs over matter, and the will to win is more crucial than the skill to win.”
In other words, Johnson could win if he desired it enough. But when I talked to him after the weigh-in, that seemed like an open question. He told me he was nervous. More than that, he was scared. “Oh yeah,” he said. “It goes up and down to the fight. Sometimes I just want to throw myself off a bridge.” He’d been praying twenty hours a day, from the time he got up until he went to bed. And when it came to strategy, Johnson merely shook his head and said, “Well I can’t slug with him. No way I’m going to knock him out.”
We went through the tape up. I watched that strange and intimate action between Johnson and his trainer Curtis Cokes, both men staring fixedly at the hands that might or might not do the job. And when Johnson knelt in the corner of his enclosure to pray one last time, a thin sheet hanging for this final privacy, I felt real anxiety. I liked the man for his honesty, his kind demeanor, for the way he pulled a younger family member close for a few words, those taped fighter’s hands so huge and ungainly as they shaped themselves for the hug. I was worried for Johnson’s family, who were there in large numbers. But I was more worried for Johnson.
Out into the thunder of the event itself, into the glittering shards of light, the strobe of cameras, the hail of noise and cries, boos and cheers, a maelstrom, a dervish, a tornado of senses. The first three rounds I stared so intensely from my seat at the press tables that I wasn’t sure I was even taking any of it in, although the story itself was plainly unfolding: Johnson was losing. Maskaev was stalking and closing, out-jabbing Johnson, snapping his head back with chopping right hands. When Johnson returned to his corner between the third and forth rounds, Cokes scolded him: “I need a little more work out of you!” To which the bewildered-looking fighter responded like a chastened schoolboy: “Okay.”
Out they came for the fourth and the sense was strong that the final punch was on its way. And it came quickly: short and sharp and brutal. Only it wasn’t a right hand in the end, but a left. And it wasn’t thrown by Maskaev, but by Johnson, fifteen seconds into the fourth round. A two-three combination, speaking technically, that is an overhand right hand then an upwards carving left hook that Johnson landed with laser precision to the tip of Maskaev’s massive jaw. But I doubt a single person present actually experienced it as a technical accomplishment. It was an event made instead of different stuff than training or mechanics, physical strength or mental calculation. It was something Johnson had created, forging it with brute will power out of literally nothing.
Bang-bang. The bullet proof Russian was down. He bounced up quickly, furious. He was still Oleg Maskaev, after all. But Kirk Johnson had become someone else. And that person stepped in and finished Maskaev, backing him up to the ropes, swarming him. Maskaev undone: unconscious first, then blown through the ring ropes, just like his victim Hasim Rahman those short months before. Maskaev crashed down through the collapsing press tables, papers flying, computer monitors toppling, only saved from hitting the concrete floor by a photographer who caught Maskaev and held him, the Russian’s head cradled almost tenderly in his arms.
Johnson stood in the ring with his arms raised, haloed in light, transfigured, transformed.
What on earth had we just seen? Transformation. Something not quite of this earth, but visited upon it: something previously impossible made possible. A moment beyond.
That interpretation is plausible or absurd, depending on your world view. Cus D’Amato, who clearly believed in the potency of the human will to bend the future to its purposes—more specifically, the potentially lethal human agency embodied by the young Mike Tyson—would probably give you a different answer in this regard than American philosopher Alex Rosenberg, whose new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is surprisingly germane to the discussion of what exactly is being experienced in watching sports and what it means to identify yourself as a sports fan. Rosenberg’s book isn’t only the latest title in a growing canon of new atheist writing, it’s the culmination of that canon, in that he blows past the hedging of previous atheist tracts and states the matter plainly: the universe is wholly and unapologetically material. Everything is matter, fermions and bosons specifically, and every event preceding or following us is explained and governed by the inviolable laws of physics in a way that is both causally closed and causally complete. Rosenberg’s universe, in other words, is wholly deterministic. Reality is nothing more or less than physics at work in all its glory. And physics just is. As a predetermined set of phenomena, past and present, none of what any of us are doing, or anything we experience, has any purpose or meaning. And given that, can there be free will or individual agency? “Not a chance!” writes Rosenberg.
Sports fans, religious or otherwise, might sense a difficulty in the brilliantly closed circle of this world view. Is it coherent? It is indeed. Rational? Supremely, I’d say. Does it, however, accommodate any of the fundamental particles of fan experience? Here we might have some problems. In a determinist universe, it’s not only free will that is a fanciful illusion. So too is desire, inspiration, even anxiety at the possibility of a bad outcome. Each of these is mere fancy in a world where matters are predetermined. Indeed, why talk at all of what is “possible” and “impossible” when the future is set? We are the billiard balls and the big bang was the break. What is possible this nanosecond is merely what was made possible the nanosecond before. Every particle, and so ultimately every planet and every person, moves in lockstep along this causal chain. There’s no swerving from the path much less any chance of creating new possibilities that didn’t exist previously. To argue otherwise, to believe that the future can in any way be affected by our conscious choices in the moment, is an essentially religious habit of mind, as Rosenberg takes pains to point out. It’s a world view dependent on nonmaterial particles, those which cannot be found in the physical realm, a crucial one of which, familiar to sports fans, would be hope.
Not all high-profile atheists measure up to this rigorous materialist standard, it has to be said. Christopher Hitchens clung to the idea of personal morality, if not absolute then relative. He even argued for the “moral necessity” of atheism. Hitchens was passionate in his views, another state of mind familiar to sports fans. But that he would think one set of ideas is better than any other, and that he would be gripped with the conviction that minds could be changed through persuasion, reveals a lingering faith in agency, reason and the possibility of change. Hitchens was never a pure enough atheist to understand what Rosenberg exhorts us to understand: that passion is pointless, that hope is a waste of time, that morality and sacred codes are a fiction, and that there are no moments beyond.
I wasn’t always a sports fan. I recall speaking up once when a junior high gym teacher berated our class for not signing up for intramural sports teams. I said: “Well, you know, not all kids are into sports. Some of us are more into academics.” That teacher carried a grudge that lasted the rest of my middle school years. “I’m going to give some team news now,” he’d say, glowering at me. “Feel free not to listen if you’re more into academics.”
Nevertheless, arriving at Queens business school some 10 years later, I suddenly discovered sports. The New York Giants, no less, who played out of Rutherford, New Jersey. They had a blue collar reputation and a blood and guts approach to the game. They were defined at the time by a linebacker named Lawrence Taylor, 6’3” and 245 pounds, who anchored a defense known as the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. Taylor was known for a cocaine problem and a frightening game-day intensity that allowed him to shred through offensive linemen enroute to tearing the opposing quarterback’s head off.
Queens B-school circa 1986 didn’t have much of a Lawrence Taylor vibe. It was the era of button-downs and power ties, ribbon suspenders and tassel loafers. And of course business students, especially finance students, were supposed to be too busy for sports anyway. But something had happened to me, arriving at Queens. I’d realized I didn’t want to be there. And I was acting out my disaffection. I was skipping classes, reading more fiction than finance. I was living way north of Princess Avenue (Kingston code for “wrong side of the tracks”) a detail about which I grew lopsidedly proud as time when by. And that pride illustrates the relative game I was playing. Somehow out of step with the culture of B-school, I was opting to define myself contra B-school. But by revealing a keen interest in what other students thought about me, either way, the contrarian strategy was no different than being a copycat.
The decision to suddenly start caring about sports, I now understand, came about in exactly the same way. Only in sports there was an added catalyst: a new roommate. Like me, he was a B-school student just slightly out of step. But unlike me, at least in my mind, he carried this off with great élan. Against the pretensions of the era, he advanced an everyman persona on all fronts. He wasn’t going into finance (despite being a near-savant in math). He wanted a job in sales. He liked Creedance Clearwater Revival, dive bars, bourbon, and poker, which (believe it or not) was seriously infra dig in the mid-eighties. He was also, crucially, an NFL fan.
The truth doesn’t always flatter on the topic of desire. To think that we catch our interest in sports like we might a common virus seems somehow demeaning. But it’s quintessentially human. And here we’re in debt to the thinking of French philosopher and historian Rene Girard, a retired Stanford professor (now one of the 40 “immortals” who make up the elite Academie francaise), who argues that all non-instinctual desire is mimetic, or triangular. There is a subject (ourselves) and an object. But there is also a model, whose own interest in the object is what ignites the flame of our desire. In his seminal book Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Girard lays out how all the great novelists seem to have understood this dynamic: Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Dostoevsky. None of those writers wrote much about sports, as far as I’m aware. But the same principles apply.
My roommate liked the Chicago Bears, as I recall, whose awe-inspiring team had stomped their way to winning in Super Bowl XX the year before. But in the 85/86 season, the New York Giants were the story. And what a season they had. Taylor was sacking everything in sight. Tight end Mark Bavaro was proving himself to be the toughest man on the planet, at one point playing half a game with a broken jaw. I remember a game late in the season when Bavaro caught a pass from quarterback Phil Sims, then dragged seven San Francisco defenders down the field twenty yards, including future Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott.
How could any of these events have mattered to me? My thirteen-year-old self would have said they simply didn’t. My twenty-three-year-old self, I now realize, had started to see the benefits of allowing yourself to care. By submitting to mimetic effects – specifically my absorption into a communion of likeminded fans, bonded by these arbitrary cares – I had freed myself from the straight jacket of determinism that must otherwise have rationally prevailed. The sports fan embraces irrationality. I wouldn’t have said it that way at the time. But I think even then I appreciated that I was at a moment in my life when I was singularly disinclined to be rational.
So I was mimetically absorbed into that society of fans, I was assimilated into an essentially religious habit of mind that does not accept that passion is pointless, that hope is a waste of time, that sacred codes are a fiction and that there are no moments beyond. Fans screaming in their living rooms all over North America were not accepting a determined future. They were living instead in a universe shaped by non-material particles that, while undetectable in even the Large Hadron Collider, nevertheless responded to the force of human will. Events on those distant gridirons did indeed matter to me, they had meaning, but only because the guy who’d been raised a sports atheist had become a believer and had in the process, unconsciously or otherwise, accepted the utility of hope. And so I gathered weekly with fellow members of that society, ritually restating each Sunday morning of the season that we did indeed believe. I gathered with others around that flickering flame of theoretical hope – Will Simms complete the pass? Will Bavaro make the score? – and so was wordlessly reassured that broader hopes in my life might have some grounding. Specifically, that business school might just possibly not be the end of my story.
French sociologist Emile Durkeim wrote: “There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and collective ideas which makes its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies and meetings where the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments.”
He was talking about the religious impulse. But I read that now and find myself thinking about a series of Sundays in 1986, all leading up to one really big game.
Of course, Super Bowl XXI was a great game: we won! We, because I’d absorbed the Giants’ desire to win and it was now my own. I was one of them. And what drama. We trailed the Denver Broncos 10-9 at the half but came storming back. There was a fake punt and a quarterback sneak. There were touchdowns for Bavaro, Joe Morris, Ottis Anderson and Phil McConkey. Simms came through big time, throwing for thirty second half points and completing eighty-eight percent of his passes (a Super Bowl record that stands to this day). I distinctly remember the feeling afterwards: it was as if order had been restored. As if in the frenzy of the contest there had lingered (all season and in that final game) a profound threat of the future going wrong. With John Elway’s Broncos vanquished—players literally lying on the turf, like union soldiers on the slopes of Bunker Hill—it felt both deliciously good and incredibly right. All Giants fans would have been joined in that moment.
Years later, Bill Parcells’ described the locker room feeling of that win in sacramental terms: “It’s like a blood transfer. You get theirs and they get yours.” The metaphor is intense, but perfectly apt. Sports are indeed a matter of the blood, but in two distinct ways. There’s the blood of the fans and the team, mingled through identification. Then there’s the blood of the opponent which must first be spilled before the mingling can deliver its communal benefit.
Girard is helpful here again as he points us towards an anthropological truth: that in virtually every ancient culture of which we’re aware, communities maintained internal harmony through the use of sacrificial rituals. Turning on one victim united everyone else and therefore served to keep the peace. Of course, we cringe to think about that today because we understand scapegoats to have been innocent of any real crime. Sacrifice offends our modern sense of individual freedom and equality, and concern for victims has arguably become the single moral certainty of our day.
But if we can’t use sacrifice and we don’t replace it with something, how will the blood of the community be mingled? How will we keep the peace? How will chaos be prevented? Girard argues that chaos isn’t being prevented, or not very well. History is getting more violent and conflicts more intractable around the world, in part because the efficacy of those archaic sacrificial rituals has been destroyed. Girard doesn’t want to re-invoke them. But others have certainly considered it. Hobbes, Nietzsche and Machiavelli each worried in their own way that the modernizing mind, while unleashing a sense of individual equality and freedom, also rendered ancient peace-keeping mechanisms (like sacrifice) ineffective. These thinkers believed that modern concern for victims was the legacy of Judeo-Christian narratives, something Girard agrees with. But unlike Girard, they also harbored ideas for a man-made solution to the problem of this inheritance. Hobbes’ absolutist monarchy, Nietzsche’s assertive superman, and Machiavelli’s bid to return to paganism shared a common root in this regard: they were bids to restrain the evolving modern mind, to keep its chaotic ideas about individual freedom and equality somehow in check, in order that the community might be more accepting of the rituals required to bind it.
That concept—the restraint of something modern in us which carries the seeds of chaos—has a name in mythology: the katechon. The Egyptian god Horus was called katechon drakonta, the binder of the dragon, an image that also shows up in the Old and New Testament of the Christian Bible. A katechon is, in essence, a mechanism that deploys episodic violence to contain the chaos that might result if ritual were lost entirely. A katechon, in this analysis, replaces sacrifice. The Spanish Inquisition was a katechon, as Dostoevsky discloses in The Grand Inquisitor, showing a church turned aside from a (politically anarchic) Christian message of individual freedom and equality, embracing instead a realpolitik of manipulation and control. The Roman Empire, Charles the Great, the 21st century War on Terror…each of these have had a katechonic function, cathartic violence deployed (in cycles of increasing rapidity and seeming pointlessness) with the idea that peace might somehow be restored despite our modern tendency to turn aside from the rituals that previously sustained it.
This returns us to Bill Parcells’ blood transfer, which can’t complete itself without the spilled blood of the enemy. It will seem blasphemous to many to suggest that sports offers a secularized katechon to fans, serving up some kind of Sacrifice 3.0., but I think it does. We vilify the enemy in sports, something outsiders often observe as they watch fans watching the action. Chelsea fans scream abuse at Wayne Rooney just as MMA fans will know the feeling of hating a man who is in the process of pounding your favorite fighters face into a bloody pulp. That hate is not metaphoric. It’s real in the moment. It’s real and, more to the point, it’s permissible.
As Humber College philosophy professor and Girard scholar Kent Enns pointed out to me in an email: “Sports is one of the few domains where it is understood as intrinsically good to triumph over opponents/rivals…One need only imagine a (literary) author proclaiming himself to be ‘the best’ to glimpse the flip side of a culture that is simultaneously skeptical of excellence and (over-)achieving and which views the embrace of victims as one of the defining features of its morality.”
We still need our sacrifices, in other words, but we need them subtle. And in that, we reveal the surviving religious impulse. Girard writes: “Play has a religious origin, to be sure, insofar as it reproduces certain aspects of the sacrificial crisis. The arbitrary nature of the prize makes it clear that the contest has no other objective than itself, but this contest is regulated in such a manner that, in principle at least, it can never degenerate into a brutal fight to the finish.”
That sense of peace I felt after the Giants win in 1986 wasn’t permanent. My life hasn’t been, since then, governed by a sense of conflict resolved, balance restored, my actions and devotions aligned in perfection and perpetuity with a central purpose or community. But it was for a moment, perhaps even a day. Life was perfectly stable for as long as the sacrificial spell of the event lasted, until the rightness of my (our) victory was dispelled and made arbitrary again by the return of the world and my modern sense of self, free to desire, to envy, to dispute and escalate, to will myself into my own individually chosen chaos.
The ritual depends on secret codes. And codes are always cracked. The Grand Inquisitor eventually lost his grip. Hobbes’ absolutist power was deployed in variations all over the world. But it’s a hard sell, lately, without brutal force, cracking in places we never thought it would, crowds of socially-networked free individuals marching through the world’s Tahrir Squares, a sense of justice and concern for victims flowering and spreading like Moon Vine and Morning Glory.
Sports, insofar as they depend on belief, will face oddly similar pressures. Not from the new atheists, or at least I doubt it. The determinist universe challenges our fascination, mocking human agency, aspiration and hope. But it’s so technical a construct—and quantum physics is adequately understood by exactly how many of us?—that sports fans will continue to live as if human will and autonomy do exist, no matter what the brightest and largest pulsing brains among us try to sell in books billed with all due humility as our “Guides to Reality.”
For some sports, instead, it will be that concern for victims that threatens the ritual. Brain scans will tell us that football and hockey players and boxers (and potentially MMA fighters) are dying from brain damage later in life, and I think most fans will immediately agree that the ritual is not as important as the individual. Legislation will change these sports. Meanwhile, all sports will continue to be decoded and de-ritualized by commerce. I almost hate to write that, so easily is it mistaken for the agenda of Naomi Klein, Kalle Lasn and Occupy. Corporations are not the guilty parties here, in my analysis. We’re all far more culpable that the Voltarian reading of consumerism allows. We all partake, through our own mimetic desires, and in doing so, we hold out our wrists for the cuffs those nasty corporations would snap into place. The more crucial undoing of sports by this means will be de-sacralization. If sports were ever sacred, ever able to mingle our blood with others, those powers will be undone by our uncanny current-day ability to turn any locus of human attention into a marketplace. You can’t have money lenders in temples. They tend to dissipate the sense of deeper meaning, of joined purpose, that ineffable (and religious) air of common spirit.
Phil Simms sensed that when presented with the new Disney campaign in 1986. He declined for weeks, remembering his resistance later: “That was messing with the football gods, the karma of the game.” But when the Giants won, the cameras were waiting. Simms said the words, again and again and again, his pretend-enthusiasm flagging: “I’m going to Disneyland!”
Everybody knew he wasn’t, which was no problem at all for Disney. But it was for sports fans, as the game was desacralized one increment further. Don’t blame Phil Simms. The world was moving around him. Go to a hockey game now and you can hardly see the ice surface for the thicket of sales messages. I remember interviewing Chelsea fans in a pub off Kings Road in London in 2005. They lamented the passage of the game from tribal to commercial (I was evidence of the commercial, we all understood—a Chelsea fan from half a world away). At the same time, one fellow noted, “… in the old days the stands were full of garbage and piss.” Plus, they could all agree, being bought by a Russian oligarch (no deep West London family connections there) was about to give them the first title they’d seen in fifty years.
What was unsaid, of course, is that the spectator endlessly lambasted from all sides with player salaries and trading prices, team payrolls and television viewership statistics, cannot help but come to interpret the game in easier and more material terms than previously. The blood transfers and moments beyond quietly fade. The ritual itself fails as it becomes a transaction. And when the community understands itself to be merely a customer, the jarring outcome may still produce intensely mimetic effects, but these won’t be positive. The blood will not be mingled. And in those moments we might well expect to see more generalized violence going forward, to see seemingly inexplicable bursts of all against all. Mailboxes through department store windows. Police cars burning outside the Vancouver Post Office.
In 2003, I went to Memphis to see Tonya Harding’s first professional fight. She stepped into the ring with Samantha “Booker” Browning, top fight on an undercard opening for Mike Tyson’s last win. A cheap transaction, that one. No ritual in it. But, in a way, I was glad to be there, to have the bookend experience to the one I’d had in the Mohegan Sun Casino three years prior. There were no believers in the Memphis Pyramid. We hardly blinked when Harding got her ass handed to her by the gal from Mantachie, Mississippi, who looked like she could handle herself well enough in fights that didn’t involve rings and gloves. Afterwards, Harding stood in the hallway talking to the smirking members of the press corps, and her thin lips trembled white with rage and indignation. She never believed the story would turn out any differently. Transformation had never crossed her mind or ours.
I visited with my ex-roomie from Queens that same trip to Memphis. He’d landed in the South, as I suspect he always wanted. He was perfecting a good ol’ boy routine and a mean technique for slow cooked brisket. We reminisced a bit, not overly. But we did touch on Super Bowl XXI. My ex-roomie remembered an interesting detail. He recalled how after Mark Bavaro’s touchdown, the tight end touched his knee to the endzone in a moment of prayer. The memory did not please my ex-roommate who said: “I never liked him after that.”
My admiration remains undimmed, however, as I think of that knee touch as something that all fans do internally anyway, whether they turn their face skyward to a god whose name we’ve heard or to some trace element left in the universe that still grips us, those non-material particles.
After B-school, I fell out with the NFL and the New York Giants. I missed entirely that the Giants won Super Bowl XLII in 2008 in a thriller that crushed Patriots fans, whose team would have finished the season an unprecedented 19-0 if they’d won the trophy. The game revolved around what surely would have been a “moment beyond” for those watching live at the time: the so-called Helmet Catch by reserve wide receiver David Tyree. Down 14-10 with just over a minute remaining, quarterback Eli Manning slipped three tackles before spotting Tyree up the middle. The pass was high, but Tyree climbed up and snagged it with one hand, pressing the ball to his helmet as he crashed to the turf. The drive was alive and New York went on to win 17-14 in what was considered an upset.
But this past season, I started watching football again like a lot of other non-active fans, because an overtly religious Tim Tebow grabbed the headlines for a while. Tebow took Mark Bavaro’s quiet moment to a whole new media-saturated level, irritating some, thrilling others. To me, he merely served as a reminder of what I think still struggles to be the heart of these games, despite safety concerns and the impingement of the commercial explanation: that act of the human will against what reason tells us the universe is supposed to allow. That we matter. I also noted, of course, that Tebow was a Bronco, that long ago foe whose defeat had once seemed so righteous and proper and personal.
The playoffs un-folded. Super Bowl XLVI rose on the horizon. The field winnowed out to two teams: the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. Once upon a time there would have been no question where to go watch with the hardcore, on-the-ground fans. But by 2012, I hadn’t been a New York Giants fan in 25 years.
So I went to Boston, where the fans pack in around the Gardens on Pats game days, into bars like McGann’s Irish Pub, Boston Beerworks and Hurricane O’Reilly’s. I went to The Fours, once rated Best Sportsbar in America by Sports Illustrated, where the history of Boston professional sports hangs on the walls and ceilings. Photographs and rowing shells, and jerseys of course, those talismans of careers gone by: Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Cam Neely. Before the game there was impressive craziness in the streets, a Celtics game just out and the most watched game in American television history about to begin. The police were putting up barricades already that would gate and corral us after the game down designated streets and away from any area where a large crowd could gather.
I took a seat at The Fours bar, ordered a burger and beer. I waited for the mimetic effects as they might unfold within me. Would I become a Pats fan, energized by the excitement of the fans around me? Or would something in my psyche recall 1986 and channel the requirements of that long ago moment?
Neither, as it turned out. Instead, it ended up being the strangest sporting event I think I’ve ever watched. I was not particularly vested. I was not bonded mimetically either to the desires of those around me or those 360 kilometers away to the south. But I was more alive to the force of human will than I’d ever been, released in a way by not being mesmerized myself. I could feel the will more purely somehow, for my own hopes not being aroused, my own blood not overly mingled.
You probably know the outcome, so I won’t dwell on recounting it. Only this: as the fourth quarter began, the Patriots ahead 17-15, there was in The Fours a palpable fear. Quarterback Tom Brady, who will surely go down as one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history, had been here before, leading the Giants in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl 2008. The question hung in the air, in each face turned upwards, reflecting that flickering blue light of the monitors: will history be overturned, or has some rigid pattern in history just now been detected? The room pulsed with the collective will for the future to be different this time than it was those four years prior. But it wasn’t to be. A turnover, a punt, another punt. And Eli Manning had the ball in his seemingly favourite position: deep in his own half with time running out.
The Giants won. I felt the moment for them, remembered the feelings I would have felt. But I didn’t cheer. I walked out with the defeated instead into the cold Boston air. Back across the North End to the Fairmont Battery Wharf where there was a Super Bowl party winding down, women in pearls and men in corporate casual, quietly considering how the future had eluded them. This time.
Manning was giving his interviews, telling people he was off to Disney, as I sat down to a lobster roll at Aragosta. The bartender said, “Yeah, we’re on suicide watch about now.”
I walked down Hanover Street later, taking the air. I heard voices all round me, strangled and angry. Someone yelled, an inarticulate garble of rage. Someone else. And then someone else. It was real, the air alive with genuine anguish. The voices were joined in the moment.
An hour later, the air had turned. Quiet descended. Peace and restoration. I thought of Kirk Johnson in the glittering halo of ring lights, transformed. Boston, in its loss, was transfigured, too. Super Bowl XLVI had passed. The new season had already opened ahead with its new potential for passion, for the mystery of its embedded codes, for hope. There was hope there in the smoky Boston air. New hope, from nothing.