ESSAY BY DALE KEIGER
Allegiance is a curious thing. For most of my adult life I have preferred to avoid joining whomever would have me as a member. As a kid, I lasted about 18 months as a Boy Scout — didn’t much like the other Scouts, liked the grownup leaders less. As for the usual sorts of personal identification with God, country, heritage, social class, race, birthplace, community … eh. If I identify with anything, have faith in anything, it’s as a writer, but if you think that qualifies as being part of a club or community or movement, you’ve never really known a writer.
But an imagined archaeology of my closet would reveal layers of sports loyalties: DC United soccer, Johns Hopkins University lacrosse, Baltimore Ravens football, Ohio University football, Cincinnati Stingers hockey, Cincinnati Bengals football, Cincinnati Reds baseball. I have driven 400 miles to cheer for a team in a national championship game, and 400 miles back glum over a loss, and once attended six events for six different Johns Hopkins sports in a seven-day span; one of those involved a 320-mile round trip to catch three glimpses of some cross country runners. Didn’t seem odd at the time.
I know why I watch sports, beyond an appreciation of the power and grace and courage and skill of the athletes. A sporting event is one of the few places in my life where I can witness, and if I’m lucky experience, simple unalloyed joy, a burst of ecstatic happiness that transcends description, and on rare occasion a deep contentment that can last for weeks. And the opposite — do not underestimate the pleasure to be found in the deep ache of a heartbreaking loss.
So the lure of spectating is no mystery. But why do I cultivate loyalty to individual teams? Why this afternoon will I pull on a Johns Hopkins sweatshirt before I drive off to watch a lacrosse game on a gray, cold, and drizzly day? Why do I turn over a portion of my emotional equilibrium to young men who chase a ball? Why do millions of us derive a bit of cheer from glancing at a stranger and noting her baseball cap, his replica jersey, a whole family in garish team regalia?
I think it’s because sport gives every one of us a chance to belong to something, even if we’re moody grumps who consider “joiner” a pejorative. No matter how isolated, disaffected, disenfranchised, or alone you might feel, or might genuinely be, you can make yourself a member of a community by doing nothing more than wearing a ball cap or turning on the radio at game time. Nobody can tell you that you don’t belong, that you don’t fit in, that you don’t have enough money or status or friends or connections. One day you declare your allegiance and that’s it, you’re a member in good standing and anybody who doesn’t approve can take a hike. You get to share in the joy, share in the glory, and share in the misery that sometimes is the most bonding of all, because you belong. Your attendance will be noted, your vote will be counted, and you will have as much right to cheer and holler and cry as anyone else. Sometimes nothing feels better than that. Sometimes it’s all you need.
So before you leave for the Fargodome, or for what has become that annual January trip to Frisco, Texas, you pull on your green-and-yellow Bison jersey. Or you pull on the hoodie, or you put on the cap, or you don all three. You do this. You do this even if you have no plans to leave the sofa that is your reserved seat for the television. You might have done this every day of the week leading up to the Jacksonville State game — you remember that one, for the fifth straight national championship? Afterwards, I bet you didn’t want to take any of that stuff off because it felt so good. I live in Maryland and have only a few ties to North Dakota State, but what the hell … Frisco 2017? Who’s with me?
DALE KEIGER is editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine in Baltimore. He has been a Cincinnati Reds fan since age 6.