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November 03, 2012

Go Giants! Confessions of a reluctant sports fan

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor


                         ©2012 Josh Litwin, Memento Press (More pix of SF Giants Victory Parade)


My hometown just won the World Series and people are literally dancing in the streets, so it's probably not an ideal time to admit that I didn't watch a single inning of baseball all season.

I may not be a sports enthusiast, but I do appreciate the way sports unites people. As the season wore on and the Giants kept winning game after game, social barriers broke down as people got swept up in the fever. Every day people wore more orange, and strangers shared impressions of the previous night's game in elevators and on the subway. On game nights,  you could walk down any San Francisco street and hear cheers pouring out of windows every time there was a base hit. Then, last Sunday when the Giants won the final game  of the World Series, the city exploded: cheering, car horns, and fireworks blared far into the night. 

Locker room culture

Growing up, I had a different experience with organized sports, which made me wary of jocks and jock-culture. The athletes at my high school, specifically the football players, were fawned over by teachers and students alike. They swaggered through the hallways, exuding Rite Guard and entitlement, and anyone outside their orbit was a target for mockery — and worse. I don't have a single memory of anyone, adult or child, stepping in to stop their bullying.  

So I wasn't thrilled when my son fell in love with sports in preschool. Since then, I've devoted thousands of hours to soccer: driving to practices and games; providing ice, bandages, and even trips to the hospital for soccer injuries; and hunting down shin guards, which inevitably go missing right before a big game.

Smells like team spirit

And I've grown to love it, even though, after all of these years, I still can't identify an "offsides" play  and I'm usually mystified about why the ref blew the whistle.  What I love is that indefinable force we call "team spirit" — the fact that, for a team to be good, all the players have to work together and have each others' backs. And that’s when the magic happens: the whole equals more than the sum of its parts as individuals who may have nothing in common work together for a common goal.

I witnessed this last week, on my oldest son's last day as a high school soccer player. He'll continue playing on his club team, but as a senior he won't wear this uniform ever again. It was a tough season: the team lost its beloved coach two weeks into the season, many players sustained injuries (including my son), and then the season ended abruptly when they were knocked out of the playoffs.

Rite of passage

His coach marked the occasion with snacks and a ceremony, right there on the field. She asked the seniors to address their teammates and talk about their hopes for the team they were leaving behind. Most of the players are Latino, and two of the seniors addressed the other players in Spanish, while a third player translated. Then, the coach asked younger players who would be taking a senior's position to stand behind that senior. It was a rite of passage — the older boys passing on their wisdom and encouragement to the younger players who would fill their shoes. A few of the seniors grew a little teary as they spoke, but before anyone could get too worked up (these were high school boys, after all) the ceremony ended with the players attempting to pour water over the coach's head.

Of course, sports don't always bring people together.  It's easy to find examples of sports-induced violence — from the looters who smashed bus windows after the World Series victory, to the thugs who beat a Giants fan almost to death after a game in LA, to the rioting that's common after British soccer matches. And an incident that was exposed just last week: football players at Piedmont High School created their own Fantasy Slut League. 

Giants' fever

Still, with confetti from the Giants parade still blowing through the streets and the glow of victory lingering in the air, I'm embracing fan-dom. I've seen the countless ways sports have added to the lives of my kids. Last week, when the ceremony was over, my son and his teammates gathered their things and straggled off the field. They were sweaty and weary and they'd lost their shot at a play-off victory, but that didn't keep them from laughing and shoving each other as they walked, or from shaking each others' hands as they headed off in different directions. In the car, my son looked back wistfully at the pitch, where a team of very young soccer players was kicking a ball across the field. "It was great," he said, talking about the season — but perhaps about his childhood, too. "I just wish it lasted a little longer."  


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