Saturday, November 12, 2016

How I Picked My Team

            I hated football when I was little. I hated it less and less over time, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, when my nephew started playing all the sports, that I actually started to like it. For the life of me I couldn’t understand how anyone could just sit and WATCH other people play a game. It was about on par with watching bugs fly around a light bulb. I felt this way about most team sports, but football was the worst because but no one in my immediate family watched it, and it was the one sport that everyone else seemed to be obsessed with. So, inevitably I’d get stuck watching it sometimes, and I’d have no idea what was going on.

            It was especially bad if we went to visit my aunt and uncle when a game was on. My uncle was a huge Ohio State fan. He lived and breathed Ohio State. Ohio State, money, business, and politics: those were, as far as I can tell, the only things in the world he truly loved. God forbid any of us kids stepped in between him and the TV when a game was on. We’d have been better off killing each other or blowing up a small country (as long as the explosion didn’t cause breaking news to interrupt the game). It wasn’t exactly a situation conducive to cultivating a love of the sport, and I was ok with that. I liked to read and write. I got good grades. I did ballet and rode horses. I didn’t need to align myself with bullies and dumb jocks, which is how I perceived most people involved in athletics.

            But as I got a bit older there was constant pressure to pick a team. Michigan or Ohio State. It didn’t matter that I hated football and never watched it. The rivalry is a big deal in Northwest Ohio. Since we’re geographically closer to Ann Arbor, but located within Ohio, people are split pretty evenly, and for some reason having an opinion on the matter is really important to a lot of people, especially when you’re in middle school or junior high and not dealing with many real-life issues. At first I based my decision on colors, mascots, and light-hearted rivalries with friends (I didn’t really understand the point of rivalries, but I was told it was more fun when you had people on both sides, so I went with it). None of it meant anything to me. It was simply a fun way to pass the time with my friends. So even though I picked a team, it never really felt like they were MY team. I had no emotional attachment like the real fans had, and despite the way my uncle treated us, I really didn’t care if Michigan or Ohio State won THE GAME.

            All that started to change (slowly) when I was about 15. I was riding in the car, my mom driving, my baby sister (around two years old at the time) in her car seat. I don’t remember where we were going, but we had to drive through Columbus to get there. When I say “through” Columbus, I don’t mean we went into the actual city. We were just on the expressway passing through. My sister was playing with a little Michigan flag her dad had given her. Other than that little flag, about five inches long, that a two-year-old in a car seat was playing with, there was nothing identifying our car as being affiliated with the University of Michigan, or anything else in the state of Michigan. I learned something that day that I wish I hadn’t.

The gestures, looks, and obscenities Ohio State fans will hurl at a two year old are pretty sickening.
            The thing that was even worse was that it wasn’t just one or two people. It wasn’t just five or six people. It was seemingly every person that saw her. They made obscene gestures, they glared, they yelled things out their windows that should never be yelled at a two year old. They even used a word I hadn’t heard before. If you have ever heard my mom when she’s angry, you know this is an incredibly surprising statement. Even though we didn’t have internet and cable back then, I knew most of the expletives. My first full sentence included the word “damned”. My mom used all the words, and she used them regularly. Except one. Since this post is about football, I’ll just say it rhymes with punt. That’s right. These people yelled that word out the window of a moving vehicle on the expressway at a tiny little girl in a car seat. Because she was playing with a Michigan flag.

            Even after that second-scariest car ride ever (it doesn’t win first-scariest because one time my dad and I got lost and ended up driving through one of the shadiest parts of East L.A. at night), I still wasn’t fully committed to having a team. If people asked who I was for, my answer was still some variation of “I don’t care about football, but Michigan I guess.”

            Later on, in college, I had another experience with sports fans. This time it was in Michigan. When a friend of mine graduated high-school, he went to the University of Michigan, and a group of us went up to visit him and see a hockey game. I didn’t like hockey either, but I did like doing things with my friends so away we went. It was cold (as it often is in Michigan during hockey season), and the only coat I had was red and dark gray. Not exactly Ohio State colors, but pretty close. My friends were worried, and remembering that drive through Columbus, so was I. After all, I was going to be on campus, without the protection of an enclosed vehicle moving at 65mph. What if someone attacked us? Sports fans can get kind of crazy. I thought about not wearing a coat, but it was really cold outside, and hockey arenas aren’t exactly known for being warm. So I wore it and hoped for the best, but I was also on edge and prepared for the worst.

I got the best.

            Not one person was mean to me. No one threatened me. No one called me a cunt. I don’t think I got as much as one dirty look, and everybody had a great time. That was when I changed my answer from “I don’t care about football, but Michigan I guess” to simply “Michigan” or “Go Blue.” However, it was still a few years before I acquired an understanding of the rules and a love of the game.

            Now, it’s definitely possible, maybe even likely that these incidents have caused a bias in my perception of the two teams over the years, but it seems like this is the norm. Sure, there are truly wonderful people who are Ohio State fans. I’m lucky enough to count many of them among my friends and family. There are also Michigan fans who are complete jerks. But my guess is that if anyone were to conduct a study—Ohio State fans would be shown to be statistically more negative, mean, and violent than most other college football fans.

            Would I feel this way if the circumstances had been different? Probably not. Would I be bleeding scarlet and gray right now if my uncle was a kind and loving person, if my sister had dropped her little flag before we got to Columbus, and if my friend had gone to Ohio State instead of Michigan? Maybe.

            But as I see the world now, based on my experiences, the things I’ve read and seen on TV, and the experiences of friends and acquaintances, here’s where I stand.

It’s safe to walk through Ann Arbor wearing scarlet and gray. It’s not safe to walk through Columbus wearing maize and blue.

That’s why I say “Go Blue.”

I want to thank my nephew for playing football and tricking me into loving the sport, and my husband for semi-patiently explaining the game to me, even when I ask the same questions repeatedly. The cats don’t thank either of these people. They hate when I yell at the TV