Are sports the great equalizer?

A mural of the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute in Sydney, Australia (Wikipedia)

A mural of the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute in Sydney, Australia (Wikipedia)

Seamus watched the Red Sox ride roughshod over the Cardinals on Wednesday night. He sat on his dad’s lap at the bar down the street and was mesmerized by the little men swinging bats and wearing gloves.

He is a sports fan. A very small one — at just 15 months old — but he comes by it naturally, at least on his dad’s side. He has a broad array of Red Sox regalia, befitting of his grandmother’s Brockton, Mass., origins. His drawers are also stuffed with Detroit Tigers gear because his grandfather is a big Michigan fan, even though his family has been in the Northeast long enough to be real life Puritans. But it’s more than just Seamus’ outfits — he seems genuinely interested. As his proud mama, I would like to give my boy get credit for the Red Sox’s easy 8-1 victory that night, but I think that Jon Lester, Mike Napoli and Big Papi actually deserve the accolades on that one.

My husband Patrick can talk baseball with both of his parents and just about everyone else. Patrick’s parents are both big sports fans. In fact, his mom’s uncle was responsible for resurrecting Gaelic sports of old, like hurling, through the Gaelic Athletic Association. Uncle Sean O’Siochain has a stadium named after him and a wax statue in a museum. Watching him talk baseball, I had a late blooming revelation: Sports are the great equalizer (at least among men). Men can talk to each other across race and class, education and politics, because they can all (an obvious generalization) talk about sports.

I am envious of this skill, but not enough to actually start following sports. I do sit in the room with the television (working on the New York Times crossword) and kibitz occasionally. But I love asking Patrick questions about the players — he always knows something and his profiles of the players and their families helps the game come alive for me.

In the last few years, I have learned a lot about sports from my husband Patrick. He is a true student of baseball, who also loves playing and watching basketball and watching football. He speaks of the Red Sox in the royal we — as in “we just signed so and so” or “we had a lucky win, they worked us hard.” He played little league as a kid and kept it up through most of high school, and always followed the Sox even after baseball tickets got too expensive for his family to even think about going. They all love the sport, to the extent that his parents have opened their home to minor league players from the Connecticut Tigers, the Detroit Tigers’ farm team that plays in Norwich, Conn. Now those games are good old fashioned American fun! The beer is cheap, the seats are close to the action, and you see the same faces game after game.

I have no sports pedigree. I grew up essentially sports-less. I think my mom played basketball in high school and my dad was a pretty good baseball player, but sports were never emphasized in my house growing up. My sister swam in high school, my brother played soccer. I was on the badminton team my freshman year, but I never got to play.

By the time I went to Hampshire College I decided that sports were not for me. That is a shame because I see how rewarding sports can be now, through the eyes of my children. My stepdaughter Rosena is almost 7 years old and she plays in the New London Soccer League every Saturday morning. She bellyaches about going sometimes, especially now that it is getting colder, but over the last year her skills and confidence have really blossomed and she genuinely revels in her abilities on the field.

There are kids her age who are serious about the sport but they are not in this Saturday-only, no-actual-games league. This is just about getting some skills, running around and having fun outside on Saturday mornings. Seamus goes too, and spends the hour and a half kicking a soccer ball that comes almost up to his waist around the foul line. He takes in all the action on the field and we know that he is going to enjoy playing soccer as much as Rosena does, as soon as he can grow into the ball.

I know enough about sports to know that power, money, politics, race and class all intersect on the court, field, pitch and diamond. I’ve heard Edge of Sports — David Zirin’s radio program devoted to the politics of our national pastimes. I know that the history of sports is studded with iconic moments, momentous breakthroughs and hard won triumphs (it is history, after all). I know who Tommie Smith and John Carlos are — their fists raised in the Black Power salute, as they accepted the gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. I know that the NFL is minimizing and denying the devastating extent of traumatic brain injuries sustained by their players. I know about multi-million dollar stadiums blossoming like so many oversized, over-designed mushrooms in some of the poorest and most blighted cities in the country. I know about the overfed owners, the overpaid players, and the screaming, struggling fans — not to mention the “bread and circuses” phenomenon of the powerful distracting the population from revolution or even reform with pomp and spectacle.

My father-in-law knows all this too, and he is also a sports fan. I asked him why: a question that only a non-sports person like me can ask. He said that he started following sports to escape from his lousy childhood. I get that. Sports provide a sense of urgency, suspense and nail-biting tension that is completely transportive and outside of the viewer’s control. But even with all its gripping excitement, once it is over, it is over. It has no lasting consequence for the fan or their life circumstances.

He also said that there are valuable life lessons in sports. Here are a few of them:

Life isn’t fair, and neither is baseball. If it were, the Pirates and the Tigers would be facing off in the World Series. They both made it to the playoffs — Pittsburgh after a 21-year losing streak — and those cities deserve something to cheer about.

Wealth isn’t everything: You can’t buy your way to victory. The Cardinals and Sox are not the most expensive teams in the Major Leagues (although they do peddle the most expensive beer to their fans). They are numbers 15 and three respectively. The Yankees, valued at $3.2 billion came in 14th in terms of wins and the $2.1 billion Dogders were seventh, according to Bloomberg News.

Judgment is fleeting: The Red Sox were not favored this year. In fact, they started out terrible and most sports analysts wrote them off for the year. But they came back. They played hard and well, and were lucky. The team went from being a punchline to a number one pick.

That all makes sense to me — the sports-ignorant — in this sport-happy family. We are watching the World Series and we are doing it together. Even I can say that the Boston-St. Louis face-off is exciting. The Red Sox’s worst to first climb this season is being seen as emblematic of the “Boston Strong” spirit that helped the city recover from the carnage at the end of the marathon in April. So I am grateful to Seamus, my husband and his family for encouraging me to pay attention to the world around me. I’m excited to enter into the conversation that most Americans are having right now, root for a team, revel in the camaraderie (however fleeting and superficial) that vicarious winning can bring and say: “Go Sox! Go Cards!”

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