Here’s a rule to remember when it comes to the level of amusement/annoyance that one might feel when it comes to the emotional responses elicited by sports fans in relation to a certain team or athlete’s level of braggadocio (ornate word, yeah, but I feel like it fits here):
A spectator’s enjoyment of trash-talking/rivalry/insults on the part of a professional athlete/coach/sports team that is elevated to pervasive media spectacle is indirectly proportional to that spectator’s relative understanding/devotion/appreciation of the game that the aforementioned entity plays.*
I enjoyed last Sunday’s playoff game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots a lot more than I should have. My enjoyment wasn’t specifically a product of the asinine and somewhat forced rivalry that the media seemed to manufacture between these two teams, but it was thoroughly enhanced by the way that Rex Ryan leveraged that media machine to bolster his team. Deadspin’s Nate Jackson wrote a great piece about Rex Ryan’s Trash-Talking that explains the coach’s motivations very well, but I still have to understand why I personally enjoyed it so much. Frankly, any situation that produces a scenario in which a professional athlete is compelled to use a press conference as an extended metaphor for foot fetishism on the part of an opposing coach seems like a hilariously refreshing change from the requisitely meaningless sports banter and godawful pre-game nonsense that seems to define most NFL Sundays. I laughed out loud when it was announced that Welker was benched for his “innuendo-filled” press conference. Suddenly, a game I didn’t give a damn about was made exponentially more exciting because of all this subtext, imagined or real. I actually thought that the Jets’ victory was a canny display of getting inside the other team’s head, coupled with an attitude and swagger that’s only displayed with the utmost confidence of teams that feel like they have something to prove.
Then, when I tried to express my joy to more stalwart NFL fans, I was met with the same basic response: “Damn, I hate the Jets and Rex Ryan. They’re a bunch of assholes.” Was I rooting for the bad guys this whole time? To see where my friends were coming from, I had to re-frame the situation: how would I have felt if I had rooted for a bragging, trash-talking NCAA men’s basketball team? Would I value the same variables and principles in the sport that I love and, more importantly, respect the most?
Hell, no. I watch college basketball without an affiliation to any team (other than possibly the SDSU Aztecs or my beloved, tortilla-flinging UCSB Gauchos) in order specifically to root for the underdogs and appreciate the mechanics of a well-played game of basketball with as little prejudice toward any program or player as possible. My enjoyment is determined by my love for the game played at its highest and most fundamental level, not for the various gossip and bad blood between the teams. Those variables might enter into my opinions of the teams themselves, but I take the most pride and pleasure in what happens on the court, and I would be loathe to root for anyone that talked as much shit as either the Patriots or the Jets did last week.
So, I guess what it comes down to is this: the less someone knows or cares about sport, the more outside factors and human drama they need to fill that sport with the same amount of passion and emotion that a true fan feels. I still don’t really care about football, but you can bet that I’ll be watching football at 3:30 PM this coming Sunday, praying for Rex Ryan to use “braggadocio” in a sentence.
*Of course, this whole rule is sort of negated if the spectator in question is a die-hard fan of a team playing their particular sport. Even as a lukewarm Chargers fan, I’m still convinced that Oakland Raiders fans watch football only for the opportunity to trash-talk and act like assholes. The whole football part is kind of irrelevant. Some of them are probably nice, though.