Anyone who knows me or who has read my book will not be surprised to learn that I've spent much of today watching college football bowl games
. If you're not in that relatively small demographic, you might rightly ask, "Why should I care?" Permit me to humbly suggest the answer could change your life ? even if you hate football, and every other sport, for that matter. It's also as good a way as any to introduce myself, since the question "Why do I care?" has propelled my entire literary career. (For the purposes of these blog posts, the term "entire literary career" is defined as the publication of at least, but not necessarily more than, one book
So my Entire Literary Career was prompted by a curiosity about my inability to reconcile two parts of my character. On the one hand, I aspire to be rational. I generally value logical, coherent thinking and explanations of the natural world. On the other hand, I happen to be a slightly more than obsessed fan of a college football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the same Alabama Crimson Tide, I might point out, that just a few hours ago won the Cotton Bowl. (More irrationality: I didn't go to Alabama; I went to the inverse of a football power, Columbia, which broke a 44 game losing streak when I was a sophomore.)
I wondered how to square these two facets of my personality ? why I cared so much about something that mattered so little ? and had a suspicion that the answer to that riddle might have some resonance for the legions of people who, like me, have been irrational even when they knew they were being irrational, and who, again like me, were unable to do anything about it. (Not a sports fan? Ever been in love? Are you religious? Patriotic? Join me in the dock please.)
So to try to figure it all out, I got in an RV for a football season and followed the Crimson Tide around the South for a season, and the result was my book. Never mind that the book is really a travel story with a sociological question motivating it ? for the purposes of reviews and book-store shelving, it is apparently a "sports book," with all the troglodytic connotations of that term. (One exception: my friends at Powell's, who have a label on the book that says simply "This is not a sports book.") But I aspired to make it something a bit different. What did I get out of the experience, besides an excuse to go to 13 games of my favorite football team? Truly: a new perspective on life. How did that happen? It was an accident of the creative process.
I set out with the admittedly ambitious goal of writing the best book ever written about fans. My rationale was simple: If I succeeded, great; if I failed, who would know? Setting this goal put a fair amount of pressure on myself, which resulted in long harrowing periods alone in a room and a couple of missed deadlines. (I'm going to post this week about the difficulty of writing, and how to make it easier, so stay tuned.) But it also led me to ask myself what that would mean? What quality would a book like that have?
It seemed to me the answer, beyond the obvious ? good writing, reporting, etc. ? was simple: honesty.
Most books by fans are simply paeans. They indulge themselves in each team's particular myths and glory, and never deal with the basic fact of how the writers came to like their teams in the first place.
That's partly because the answer is inconvenient. Most fans come to their teams through totally arbitrary circumstances: where they were born, who their fathers or brothers or sisters liked, etc. It's a difficult thing to admit to yourself that the reason you like something so much isn't because of some intrinsic quality that thing (team, person, nation, etc.) possesses, but because of the zip code you happen to have been born in. But to me, admitting that was the first step towards writing a "sports book" worth reading.
In fact, I found that admission incredibly liberating. It's much harder to feel animosity towards someone for his allegiance when you know the reason that person picked his side is as arbitrary as the reason you picked your own side. (I'm pretty typical: I became a Bama fan because my father went to college there, and because I grew up in Alabama, a place that certainly didn't lack for peer pressure to pick sides in football.) That left another question: if my allegiance is arbitrary, why do I care so much?
In a nutshell, the simplest and most plausible answer comes from sociologists and in particular evolutionary psychologists who argue that sports mimics age-old battles for survival. We learned eons ago that you didn't have to actually be fighting in the battle to be affected by its outcome. Once you've signed the social contract, the outcome of the group becomes, for the most part, your outcome as well, which is why can feel such joy or misery at the performance of others. And in any zero-sum contest, we naturally feel animosity towards our adversaries.
So how is any of this life changing? Writing Rammer Jammer has perhaps oversensitized me to the distinction between the rational and the emotional. But I can't watch a news talk show, read an opinion column or lord knows, read a sports column or watch a football game without reflexively trying to sort out how much of someone's reaction to something is rational and justified, and how much comes from some primal, emotional, ultimately irrational instinct. As a fan, I'd never argue against indulging in the emotional, but it seems to me the key to becoming an enlightened fan, and maybe an enlightened person, is becoming aware of the difference between those times when one is giving in to emotion and instinct over rationality. My suspicion is that a fair amount of hate in the world wouldn't survive the scrutiny of that test, and that a lot of joy might. Right now, for example, I'm pleased as a peach that the Tide won today. It's totally irrational ? as I'm well aware ? but knowing that makes the pleasure that much more profound.