Who’s got spirit, or, how I learned to hate, and then be okay with, the sport of American football

I’m not sure when I learned to hate team sports as a participant — it was probably some time in elementary school. You know the story — pretty much every nerd lived through it — unpopular, uncoordinated, and inevitably picked last. The thing is, I wasn’t completely unathletic — I went hiking with my family and took dance classes and even got a Presidential Physical Fitness award one year.

But team sports demand a certain kind of ability and attention that I was never very good at. Softball, for example, requires standing around doing absolutely nothing for very long stretches, then being ONE HUNDRED PERCENT ENGAGED AND READY when it’s your turn at bat, or when a ball in the outfield happens to come near. Volleyball requires watching constantly for a ball that may or may not come toward you. Soccer and basketball require running back and forth constantly in pursuit of a ball that you may never touch.

I am still not good at that kind of thing — being constantly at the ready for something that might or might not happen at an unpredictable time. My brain gets bored and wanders off to think about something else. So, I wasn’t good, largely because I wasn’t paying attention. This created a negative feedback loop — I was mocked for not being any good, and I didn’t like being mocked, so I disengaged further from my surroundings, and my performance got even worse.

(Although once, when I was 10 or 11, when some kids wouldn’t stop making fun of me, my disengagement strategy failed and I was CONSUMED WITH RAGE instead. I threw the bat at them and walked off the field. I don’t know if the bat actually connected with any of them — I was far enough away that I think they had plenty of time to duck. Once my anger wore off I was terrified that I would be in trouble. But the next day I went to school and everybody acted like nothing happened. AND THEY NEVER MADE FUN OF ME AGAIN. See kids? Violence is the answer…)

My immediate family didn’t watch sports on television, unless it was the Olympics. On the rare occasions when I did see televised baseball or football, I thought they seemed as boring to watch as they were to play. It was a bunch of standing around, and then something would happen. Football had the added disincentive of being utterly incomprehensible. But I didn’t yet hate it. I just didn’t care.

High school was when I learned to hate football.

I didn’t hate it because of the game itself — I went to exactly one game, and thought it was too cold to be sitting outdoors, and spent most of the time reading my book. I still found the play of the game incomprehensible, but that translates to boredom and indifference, not hatred. I started to hate football because of the cult surrounding it — the elevation of football above all other pursuits (including both drama and academics), the near-worship of the players (until their cocaine scandal, anyway), the phenomenon of female cheerleaders. And — worst of all — this thing called SCHOOL SPIRIT.

Who invented this blasphemy? When? And, for the love of all that is good in the universe, WHY?????

School spirit was this thing that seemed vaguely to be about being really into your school — at the expense of all other schools — which struck me as the stupidest thing ever, since the school you happened to be going to was based entirely on an accident of geography. So, in order to display that I cared deeply about my school (as opposed to all other schools) I was supposed to do things like wear a silly hat on Silly Hat Day during this thing called “Spirit Week.”

And this deep caring was supposed to revolve — not around academics, or arts, or community service, or anything at all that might in any way pertain to our school’s fitness to prepare us to venture out into the world as adults. School spirit didn’t seem to be about making school itself a nicer place — being kind to each other, or picking up litter, or planting a garden. No, school spirit was about one thing and one thing only: whether or not our school’s team prevailed during an upcoming athletic contest, usually football.

But the thing that made school spirit really intolerable, though, was an abomination called a “Pep Assembly.”

Just seeing those two words together still make me shudder.

Now, I’ve got nothing against “pep” in and of itself. Some people are naturally peppy — it’s their way, and good for them. But I am not such a person. I’m — well, how can I possibly explain how naturally un-peppy I am? I take after my Scandinavian ancestors, and even at my most cheerful I tend to strike people as somewhat dour. I’m also sorta gothic, and not the perky kind either. When my family watched the Addams Family movies, they instantly pegged Wednesday as me in a black wig. I’m not just un-pep, I’m ANTI-pep. And I dislike intensely any attempt to jolly me out of my natural demeanor. My seriousness and introversion and general lack of peppiness IS NOT A PERSONALITY FLAW that I am obliged to overcome, okay? GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE.

Also, I am really distrustful of a certain kind of scenario — when there’s a person standing up at the front of a big stadium and trying to get everyone in the audience on board with a certain attitude and agenda, and using all these groupthink manipulation techniques to make it happen.

So, a pep assembly is basically a hideous monster shambling forth from the demonic realms of my worst nightmares: an event where high school students are compelled to gather in a stadium and allow themselves to be manipulated into displaying the attitude of “pep” in the service of “school spirit.”

I assume most of you have suffered through this. Cheerleaders prance around down at the stage level and exhort members of the audience to shout in unison, usually divided among “teams” based on age cohort. “Seniors! We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit — how about you! Now sophomores! Louder!”

And you couldn’t get out of it, either. Or — maybe you could have, but you’d need a note from your parents or something. This activity was compulsory. The only way to get out of it was to retreat into the privacy of my mind — and yes, I did bring a book.

The idea was obviously to be to get us invested in a tribalistic school identity, but I still don’t know what exactly that was supposed to accomplish. Was it believed to decrease dropout rates or vandalism? Was it held to be a safe outlet for teenage aggression? Was it a tradition for the pure sake of tradition? Was it a particularly big deal during the 80s because of some Reagan-era embrace of a retro conformist 50s vibe? Was it meant to summon the Great Old Ones?

I still have no idea. But I hated pep assemblies with the burning fiery passion of a thousand exploding suns.
This intense negative emotion associated with team spirit in general and football in particular lingered. As an adult — even just a college-student-type-adult — I was grateful that nobody tried to make me care about sporting contests, or experience anything called “pep.” It was entirely opt-in, and I always opted out. The first time I was ever in the same room as the Superbowl, I was already dating Paul and one of his siblings hosted a Superbowl party. I enjoyed the party, but couldn’t tell you what teams were playing or who won. I don’t even remember the halftime act.

When the Seahawks went to the Superbowl previously, I didn’t even know it was happening until I started seeing people dressed up for it — in jerseys and team colors and so on. That was actually my first inkling that adult football fans were more like nerds dressed up for the midnight Fellowship of the Ring movie opening than anything else. There was something very different about team spirit that was truly voluntary. It seemed more like something people did just because it was fun. You root for a particular team for the same reason that you put five bucks down on a horse race: because caring, just a little bit, about the outcome makes the game itself more exciting.

But I didn’t actually start watching football myself until 2008, and it was the New Orleans Saints that did it.

The spring of 2006 was my first post-Katrina trip to New Orleans. (Also an important turning point in my life — whole story to come!) We were driving on the outskirts — possible to or from the airport — and saw a banner set up where the Saints were currently practicing (a high school, I think) that had their logo and said: The Saints Return to the Superdome. and gave a date. This simple banner struck me as very moving, an important expression of tragedy, hope, and loyalty. For the first time I noticed that the Saints logo, the fleur-de-lis, was also the emblem of the city, and that the gold in their color scheme was one of the Mardi Gras trinity.

I started to notice the Saints in a way I hadn’t previously noticed any team, not even the Seahawks. I was following the livejournal of docbrite, a huge Saints fan, and I know some of that started to spill over. The Saints and New Orleans seemed to have a meaningful relationship that went beyond a simple fan/team kind of thing. Then, that year or possibly the next year, the Saints had a good season and I made a vow that if they went to the Superbowl, I had to watch it — I mean, really sit down and watch it, not just drink beer in another room and come inside for the better commercials.

They had an even better season in 2008. For the first time ever I had the experience of seeing the tail end of a game at random and getting caught up in what was happening. Technical innovations, such as images showing which team was in control of the ball and what line they were trying to hit, made the game much less incomprehensible. And once I displayed any interest at all in football, my friend Ulysses was eagerly waiting to watch games with me and explain the finer points of what was going on. Then, in 2009, the Saints WON THE SUPERBOWL! WOOHOO! My vow had clearly paid off. And after that I had the habit of often watching football games with my friend Ulysses, as long as either the Saints or the Seahawks were playing.

I never came to care all that deeply about football per se. And I do get easily footballed-out if I watch too much of it too frequently. But I did come to really admire the skill of the NFL players, especially their stunning feats of athleticism. They often rival gymnasts and ballet dancers for inspiring moments of pure “wow, can the human body really DO that?” awe.

So, — as I originally wrote this, I was planning to watch today’s Superbowl, which now is watched. And in spite of participating, and hearing some truly bizarre noises come out of my own mouth in response to many aspects of game play, I still feel a bit like the hype is for people other than me. I enjoy that everybody’s so into it, without 100 percent feeling it myself. It’s able to seem cute and fun because participation is one hundred percent voluntary. Even when I watch the game, nobody expects me to display anything like “pep.”

Also, as an adult, there’s booze.