I’ve always loved sports. I grew up in a rural town in Indiana, and sports were one of the things that boys talked about. I sucked at talking about some of the others – most obviously girls – but I could talk sports. While technically I played sports in middle school - football (cornerback, where I watched a lot of guys run by me), baseball (where I spent a lot of time in deep center and right), and tennis (where I’d swing for the fences every time the ball came at me far more effectively than I ever had in baseball) - my love of sports was from watching them, almost any of them.
I loved watching high school sports – and nine older siblings gave me lots of opportunities to do that – and then college and pros as I got older. In high school in the 80s I had a job selling soda in Purdue’s Ross Ade Stadium (capacity, 69,000; average attendance, 17,000) and I loved it, even when I’d get heckled by disappointed, wet, cold fans who would tell me to go find the hot chocolate guy as the home team lost, yet again, in the 35°F-grey-and-sleet of late November.
When we moved to a town closer to Indianapolis and I could catch Colts games on the radio, that’s when I really fell in love. I would listen to every down of every game if my parents let me, sometimes in the car parked in the driveway because that’s the only radio that could get reception. Despite the 3-13 seasons and the freezing temps of three hours sitting in the car, I knew the roster, I knew the schedule, I knew the verbal tics of the announcers.
And I really loved it. I would read everything about the team I could get my hands on. I couldn’t sleep on Saturday nights before big games, I’d be too excited. I consumed so much football knowledge that years later, sitting in my regular sports bar with other transplanted Colts fans, I’d be the one they’d ask about a decade-old game score or the players involved in that three way trade with Minnesota and Cincy that went bad. I really loved it, and still do.
Some of my friends, my gay friends, don’t get it - certainly some boyfriends haven’t - and sometimes they’ve been super judge-y about it. I didn’t get that, at all. Not at first. If it’s not your thing, fair enough, but why is it a problem that it’s a thing for me? Why, for some queer folk, is it okay to know every Academy Award nominee, but knowing the tie-breaker rules for how teams get into the NFL playoffs is off-putting?
In 2013, I watched the Super Bowl at a (straight) couple’s house; they have a lot of gay friends and there were a lot of people over. During halftime Beyoncé performed - and I cleaned, restocked beer, and freshened drinks. I wasn’t that interested in (2013) Beyoncé - though I did learn that she had been in Destiny’s Child, whom I’d heard of, and that she was married to Jay-Z, whom I'd also heard of - I was far more interested in the game. After the power outage got resolved in the second half (the lights went out in the Louisiana Superdome for 35 minutes, leading to a suspension of play) I was excited when the teams finally re-took the field so we could unmute the TV and, you know, watch the game. One of my gay friends, who is usually lovely, said: “Like there isn’t enough football. They’ll be hours of it to go, we don’t need to hear this part.” I looked around the room – a room full of guests at a Super Bowl party – and realized that at this moment most of the people in the room were gay, and in assent. Thankfully there was another TV in the house.
If this were the only time I’d heard something like this I would have chalked it up to circumstance or a lapse in manners. But queer friends have told me “you’re not really busy” when I say I can’t go to a movie at the same time my team is playing – in the playoffs. That I’m wasting my time on a Sunday “sitting in a dark bar, watching football” when I've begged off going to brunch. And, most annoyingly, some - including some who I have just met, have given that look and said that acid, arch, reductionist, tired “Oh, that’s so butch,” when I’m off to the bar to watch sports. As if it were an affectation.
Why the disapproval?
As I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that in at least some cases the dismissal and disapproval that I’ve felt from gay friends weren’t from bafflement as much as from discomfort or even intimidation. I’ve come to learn that some gay men would feel very uncomfortable walking into a sports bar on a Sunday filled with football fans; it’s not that they’d be bored – though there’s that, too – it’s that they’d feel they didn’t belong.
A few years ago if you’d asked me to walk into a crowded gay Oscar party I’d’ve had a few drinks before I got there for sure – I’d’ve felt very out of place. I’d’ve been keenly aware that I lacked a shared experience and thus things to talk about; that opening my mouth would reveal my ignorance; that I wouldn’t know the cultural markers – sartorial, conversational, behavioral – to fit in. I get it.
For some queers, though, athletic contexts hold even deeper challenges: they are fraught. They bring back a moment in junior high when a conversation came up about sports that they didn’t follow, or when a dad or an older brother told them to try out for a team with an implication that this was a chance to show they were a man, and they were terrified. I get that, too. I was not and am not a graceful athlete, and athletic prowess is one key way in which males are evaluated in adolescence (and later). Some of that – feelings of evaluation and judgment – can linger, and can affect how we see ourselves as men. And my love of sports perhaps puts me on the other side of the divide from other gay men.
Not all, of course. I’ve dated ex-college athletes (hoops and soccer), I’ve had gay football-watching buds, particularly in the Midwest, I had an ex once look at me across the table in a sports bar in New York City during a playoff game surrounded by other fans of my (and now his) team and say, “Thanks for giving me this. I had no idea it could be so fun.”
So how did unathletic me develop this love of sports – all sports, but especially football, that most macho of American sports? I can't help but wonder if I love football so much, a love that really took root in early adolescence, as a reaction - using the internalized stereotype to counter my inability to deal with my own queerness. I had inklings that I was gay; in my narrow, rural world view most gay guys don’t like football; I love football; therefore I must not be gay. I don't think that's the case, but it's certainly possible. I've read enough queer biography and hooked up with enough Marines to know that there is a type of gay male who on some level tries not to be gay by doing the most stereotypically un-gay thing he can think of.
Was that what I was doing? Did my eleven-year-old self let heteronormative stereotypes define him, even in a counter-typical way? We all have normed expectations that we marinate in from birth, so what do we do as burgeoning queer children when we begin to understand that we don't fit – fundamentally can't fit – our mandated roles? Is that why I love sports, and in particular why I freakin’ love football? Is that why this particular entertainment interest of mine is discomfiting to some queer folk?
I don’t know. Maybe? But there really isn’t and can’t be an answer. I’ve learned to be a little patient with gay people who are inadvertently ignorant or rude about my particular way of being entertained by baseball on summer afternoons at Chavez Ravine and McCovey Cove or any of the 26 MLB parks I’ve been too; by basketball as I tweet incessantly about the Pacers and my college team; and by football on Sundays in the fall.
It’s a big part of who I am, and I love what my love of sports has given me. Like talking to group of four ladies of a certain age from Cleveland in big hats, sharing their brandy with me on the Amtrak bound for Milwaukee where they were going to watch their team play the Brewers. Or going to the same sports bar with the same gear for 16 Sundays in a row and becoming part of a community. Or walking into a bar in a Pacers hat when I’m in whatever city and immediately getting included in a conversation. Or sitting bleary eyed in Guam, watching a playoff game at the one open bar on the island at some ungodly hour. It’s comfortable for me in a way that an Oscar party will never be, and it’s easy, and fun. It’s my church, and despite what my team might be preachin’, I’m faithful.
And if you have a gay friend who’s sports-addled, well, first, it’s just what he’s into. He’s not judging you for not being into it or drawing any conclusions about you, but it’s a hobby, however ridiculous (and he may well admit that it’s ridiculous), and we like what we like. Second, he’s got superstitions to maintain and a schedule to plan around upcoming games, and that shit ain’t easy. If his team wins on a week when we doesn’t have his cell phone, then he’ll never again bring his cellphone to the bar to watch a game. That’s just the way it works. And finally, maybe ask to watch a game with him. Not a big game, maybe, not a playoff game his team is in, but a game. Maybe you can tell him about Destiny’s Child during timeouts while he tells you a little about what’s going on during the game. Maybe you’ll both be a little more comfortable.