Our Games, Our Bubbles, and Ourselves: David Roth's Weak in Review

Some thoughts on screaming at sporting events, and echo chambers.

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Nov 11 2016, 9:34pm

Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I didn't really care about sports, at least in the ridiculous and consuming way that I have gone on to care about them, until I started cheering for a shitty team. The teams that I cheered for as a kid were successful and popular, not because I had chosen the most successful and popular teams; I don't recall this sort of aspirational sorting going on until the ambient social panic of middle school started doing its thing on the brand-sensitive minds of my classmates. It was just that the teams that played near my home were good at that time. They had talented athletes and smart management, and if the sports section revealed that the best players seemed to get kicked out of nightclubs and into possession and assault charges with surprising frequency, that all registered mostly as a sort of broad character trait, like a mustache or one of the unforgivably wet-looking perms that were then in fashion. The teams were TV shows that I watched, and everyone else watched them, too. I found that I could have conversations with adults about Mark Bavaro or Lenny Dykstra, and be on roughly the same level as them. This was less because I was a precocious kid and more because most conversations about sports unfold at something like a nine-year-old's level.

This got more difficult when the New Jersey Nets entered the equation, because no one cared about them and because everything about the team was so deliriously shitty. Season after season of 18-point losses to the Indiana Pacers—the Nets teams of my youth played against, and reliably lost to, the Pacers an astonishing 51 times per season—unfolded in a concrete arena that was filled with either the taunting cheers of visiting fans or the deep-sea rustle of fans muttering to themselves or calling for a beer. A volunteer brass band that sat in the upper tank would play a leering version of the "Mm-mm, Good" theme from the Campbell's soup ads when the Campbell's-sponsored dance team left the floor; no one was paying them, so no one bothered telling them to stop.

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It was quiet enough in there that every shout for cotton candy or for defense or for whatever registered in some way. When I was 11 or so, I yelled, "Lohaus, you're terrible" at the bristle-headed Milwaukee Bucks big man Brad Lohaus from an inexpensive seat, and Lohaus turned around and looked right at me. I don't remember him looking offended or hurt or anything; his Bucks were almost certainly winning by 18 points at the time, so presumably he could absorb the slings and arrows of a brace-faced doofus who had somehow talked himself into believing Sam Bowie was appreciably better. I remember it mostly because it was the first time I realized that the things I yelled could actually be heard.

That was why I loved going, more than anything the team did or could do. I was there to yell, both because I had backed into the idea that supporting this team—a wasteland of checked-out mediocrity stretching back a decade and more, the property of a bunch of exceptionally litigious but otherwise profoundly mediocre local swells—was a stand on principle and because I needed so badly to yell. The games were not quite games for me. They were exorcisms, and I turned myself inside out at them in the process of turning every uncomprehending and desperate and rageful unfinished emotion in me into noise. I wanted the team to win, because it was important to me to believe that such success was possible, but mostly I needed them to be there. I needed a hope, and so I needed an enemy. The doomed team and the indifferent owners, the brutal concrete rectangle in the swamp that I'd chosen as a church—the shabbiness of all that was immaterial. I didn't notice. I meant no offense to Brad Lohaus, really. It wasn't about him.

If I have grown up and quieted down some since then, I have also not really changed what I need from my teams and games. I care about the meaningless things and awful stupid teams that I care about not because I'm expecting or demanding to be rewarded in some way; I don't expect it, and anyway I'm not the biggest on parades. The caring is the point, and so the investment rolls itself over and compounds and grows. I care about these meaningless things because it's safe, and because I enjoy it. I watch to see talented people do cool and improbable things with their bodies and to catch a sort of contact high from the intensity of the moment, but more broadly and more correctly I go to forget myself. My daily life, like yours, is awash in worry and care even under the best of circumstances; I cannot fix the things I want to fix or protect the people I want to protect, and there is no forgetting that. Of course, I can't fix the Mets, either, and I am honestly beginning to have some doubts about the efficacy of my prayers for Noah Syndergaard's elbow. But this is what I like, so I do it anyway. The goal is to get what joy from it that I can, but the point is still to turn these inward-facing things outward, to take the chaos in me and point it in a safe direction—away from my face, definitely, and at the Washington Nationals as necessary.

When you see the election results. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I have read everything that everyone has written about the presidential election this week, and I am happy to report that it worked. Having assimilated all the available information, every chart and jeremiad and obituary, every bit of bad news about swastikas and slurs on lockers and churches and good news about unexpected acts of empathy and lovingkindness, every recrimination and counter-recrimination, every instance of panic and shock and relief and disbelief, I now understand how the country came to elect one of the worst and most vulgar men of his generation to its most important political office. You've probably heard the answer before, but I'll tell you: it's bubbles.

It's not the bubble in which I live, my corner of the world or my industry or the internet or the great sprawling national hierarchies of privilege and want. It's not the one from which the political media Got It So Wrong, or the one from which you or I consume that reporting, or don't, or the ones from which politicians politic or voters vote. There is no particular bubble that is more important or more objectionable or more impermeable than any other, not the bubble over some prosperous boomtown's vegan smuglands or the bubble over a seething locked-in suburb-beyond-the-suburb shot through with secret decay and shame. It is just bubbles and bubbles inside other bubbles, bubbles all the way down. The bubbles graze each other occasionally on the way to work or in stadiums or bars, but remain intact. Put them all into a confined space and shake it up, and they will effervesce; they will blow the dang top off. But that is different than saying they burst.

The idea of a world without anyone else in it, or at least a world in which the rest of humanity is a shade less human and less real than you are, is somehow both a paranoiac's delusion and a familiar daily reality. It seems like it should be debilitating, but somehow it is not. People walk around like this. The white NFL player who told Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman, after the election, that "Trump is creating a more blue-collar America, and at its core, our sport is a blue-collar sport" was not lying or obfuscating with any malice; he was simply saying what he wanted to be true as if it actually was true, and so just relaying the facts as they arrived to him through the prism of his own convenience. When Stan Van Gundy asserted that Trump was in fact an avatar for much more sinister things, for six salty minutes, he was doing the same type of reporting, although he had at least looked around the room and noticed other people in it before doing so. The bubbles protect, but they also distort, and in so doing they make a thousand little paradoxical miracles: action without impetus, consequences without causes, sprawling and merciless bigotries without individual bigots carrying them out, a world that makes perfect sense to the beholder and precisely no one else. The bubbles are climate-controlled and comfortable and antiseptic; there is room inside for one person only. They're lonesome, and people absolutely do go crazy in there.

I have wondered, many times, why I invite more worry, even of the relatively light and consequence-free kind that sports provides, into a life that is already full of it. I can give the answer now that I didn't know how to give when I was a kid, when I chose the stupid Nets and was rude to poor gawky Brad Lohaus. I care about this because I care too much, I want too much, I need too much to just keep all of it for myself. It's because I want to fill the empty spaces with noise, my own and the noise of everyone there with me, screaming in affirmation or dissent at the same game. I want to be there with you, with everyone, giving all that care to each other, giving it all away.

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