But even though I'm not much of a baseball fan, as I chronicled in this post entitled "On Baseball" from 2013, (in which I vowed dedication to the Minnesota Twins, which hasn't really happened yet and won't, now that my once-strong interest in the Jays has been renewed) I found myself paying attention to the fortunes of Canada's only baseball team because it has emerged as such a significant part of our national identity this year, as it did in 1992 and 1993. I, too, got caught up in the narrative of the Jays, and I have watched kids who are the same age as I was in 1992 and 1993 get caught up in the Jays fever, too. (And really, is it jumping on the bandwagon if I was a member of the Junior Jays club twenty years ago?)
I found my emotional investment in the team's fortunes increasing the further they made it into the playoffs, and I even started to find ways to watch the games. I found myself getting caught up in the personalities of the players and the minutiae of baseball statistics and the general enthusiasm about the Jays in spite of the fact that I have watched very little baseball over the past decade. I watched several games of the ALCS, including the series' concluding game and plays. I was ultimately disappointed by the Jays' loss in the ALCS to Kansas City, though certainly much less so than my friends who had waited two decades to have a competitive team again only to have their hopes dashed by the Jays' inability to hit the ball with runners in scoring position, and arguably more because of the emotional toll I knew it would take on the players and fans than as a result of how it would affect my life.
The communal nature and narrative of sports
I think the main reason I was caught up in the Jays' fever was because of the narrative it presented to an entire country. There was conflict, drama, tension, victory, interesting characters, and an epic bat flip. I recently taught a high school course in Creative Writing, and so I have been thinking about the idea of narrative anyway, but this particular circumstance has been a great example of what actor Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings movies) was referring to in this quotation in conversation with Grantland in March 2015: "I enjoy the drama of sports. I think the basic ingredients of any good drama have to do with relatively ordinary people being faced with extraordinary circumstances. How do characters act when everything goes wrong? How do they deal with stress, humiliation, injury, death, suffering, separation, and war? I see that in sports. I see people playing hurt, or playing hard even if they know they have no chance to win."
I tend to agree with Viggo - sports are compelling and invigorating at their best, and they provide opportunities for people to face extraordinary circumstances that would likely never otherwise face. Sports provides a communal experience that we can share and appreciate together, and it provides a forum for emotional expressions that many people otherwise might not choose to undergo. But what has become apparent to me over the past year, perhaps exemplified in this recent Blue Jays' playoff run, is just how far I generally am from the world of professional sports. I rarely watch sports anymore, and although I still know a lot of the players and the good teams in the four major leagues, I have less emotional effort invested in any sport probably in almost any time in my life since I started with sports when I was ten. In fact, most of the way I now interact with the world of professional sports is not by following it myself, but in reading writers who follow the sports. So what happened? As I considered this question, I thought of several different factors in my increasing disinterest in professional sports.
1. Sports are no longer as much of a part of my identity as they were when I was younger. When you pick your team(s) as a kid, you begin to be identified with your team, and their successes and failures become associated with you. I remember that within the group of boys in my middle school class that we had most of the major NHL teams represented and that it was a point of personal pride when your team beat another boy's team. But the Leafs are no longer as strong a part of my identity, and neither is hockey. The Riders have remained a strong part of my identity largely because I lived in BC for several years, and so they provided a way to be connected with my home in Saskatchewan.
2. I didn't pick teams when I was younger. I picked the Riders as Saskatchewan's only professional sports team (and yes, the CFL is a pro league) and the Leafs in part because of Wendel Clark, who played his junior hockey in my hometown of Saskatoon, but I did not have connections to any other teams. I cheered for the Jays because they were winning, but I never did pick an NFL team or NBA team to claim as my own. I suppose if I had to I would pick the Green Bay Packers (a small market team and one of the closest to my current home), although a case could be made for the Seattle Seahawks (I did live in the Northwest for several years and had several good friends who were dedicated fans), but it always seemed a little disingenuous to just pick a team, especially when those teams were already successful. Maybe I felt like I needed to earn my fandom as they had. If I had to pick an NBA team, it would probably be the Portland Trail Blazers (small market, Pacific Northwest), but again, I don't feel as though I have much reason to do so right now.
3. The time, timing, and effort required to follow pro sports. I follow sports much in the same way that I now follow a lot of pop culture such as music and movies; at some level, it is significant to my experience to continue at least a tangential interest in the subject, even just for having a basis for social interaction (especially with the teens I teach), but I am far less able to spend intense time on sports (or forms of pop culture) as a pursuit. I grant that I have a far greater capacity than most people for following things from afar, as my memory and general bank of knowledge allow me to converse and even to analyze goings-on in different disciplines despite my lack of time employed in pursuing them, but I find that I just don't have that much time for sports.
In addition, most of the major events in sports happen between September and June, a schedule that tends to overlap perfectly with my busiest times of year as a teacher. I find that I am much more able to divert short bursts of attention to sports at particular times, such as the NFL playoffs or the first round of the NHL playoffs, but that any level of sustained interest is not feasible beyond a vague understanding of how teams are doing in general. This, by the way, is one of the main reasons that I can follow the CFL relatively closely: with a season that starts in July, only four games a week, and only nine teams to know, the CFL presents a very manageable body of information with a low amount of input required.
Professional sports and morality
4. The amount of money involved, both from the teams and as a fan. I think this issue was quantified for me during the last NHL lockout in 2012, as the squabbling about money really made me think about the sheer amount of money that is involved in professional sports and how little it really means out of the context of pro sports. a point perhaps most brilliantly illuminated by the Key and Peele sketch "TeachingCenter". I found myself less and less interested in pro sports because of the money involved and how much it both dehumanizes the players (by evaluating them by a value in dollars) and the fans (by requiring more money to be input to be a fan of an inanimate team), and I just don't want to put that much money into being a sports fan. Sure, I would love to see a Leafs game live someday (perhaps in a few years when they have a semi-decent team), but I don't want to pay hundreds of dollars to do it. This again is a reason I can still follow the CFL, as their players are far more accurately paid according to the amount of time and effort they put into their work; to wit, the CFL's salary cap is $5.05 million versus the NFL's is $143.28 million, and the CFL even has extra players on the field.
5. The morality of professional sports. This final factor might in some ways be the most significant, and it is tied into the money spent on sports as a moral concern. This became the most clear to me with the last NFL season, in which several prominent players were proven perpetrators of domestic abuse, one of the league's longest-standing franchises continued to use a blatantly racist image despite the protestations of most media, and the two teams that played in the Super Bowl were both accused and found guilty on some level of cheating. Of course, it's not just endemic to professional football, but that was the context in which it became most clear to me that there is a moral question that must be answered: at what point is our hero worship of professional athletes nullified by their personal choices? For me, those moral questions and personal choices have begun to affect my ability to enjoy sports significantly.
I know many fans who insist - perhaps accurately so - that it is easy to ignore those personal issues and just watch the game, but I tend to think that line of reasoning is equivalent to "just listening to the music and not the lyrics" or "it's just a movie - it doesn't affect me", as on some level there is a fundamental worldview that you are actively (or subconsciously) supporting by continuing to be a fan of professional sports. Note that I am not saying that the moral questions need necessarily to lead to relinquishing sports pro sports as a source of entertainment, but that at least that fans of need to be aware of the possible moral dissonance present and make a decision as to how to proceed.
This factor has mostly affected my interest in the NFL (as explained earlier) and Major League Baseball (what with the steroids and all), but not so much the NHL, even though it clearly has some (if not many) of the same issues. Also, this moral factor has not affected my interest in the NBA, which is arguably the most immoral of all pro leagues, with the highest salaries, significant recreational drug use, a history of referees fixing games, a widespread and celebrated attitude toward sexual promiscuity and some level of acceptance for domestic abuse, as I never tended to see the NBA as a particularly moral entity in the first place.
Please don't misunderstand me that I'm justifying those things as acceptable or attempting to ignore or trivialize them; rather, I am merely commenting on the fact that even I, who I would consider to have a somewhat heightened moral compass, find myself doing the very thing that I am asserting that people like me probably should not do and enjoying sports as a functional hypocrit, aware of the ways in which sports seem to contrast with my own morality. It's not that I don't think about it, but rather that I'm trying to determine what to do it, much as I do with being a fan of movies and television that include moral concerns both behind the scenes and in the media themselves. I recognize the lack of consistency in the way I look at different sports, and I am still attempting to reconcile my own morality with that of being a fan of professional sports.
A conclusion of contradiction
Despite all that I have just written about the reasons I have drifted away from following professional sports, I still find myself a fan of sports in general who can easily be sucked in to the world of sports in spite of myself and/or my moral misgivings about some of the nature of the enterprise. I am a hypocrit in this regard, as I choose to not always engage sports on that moral level, and I would argue that, in light of the statements I have made, perhaps the only recourse I would have would be to eschew professional sports completely and to turn my back on the entire world therein. But for some reason, I can't.
There's still something deep down in my soul that cries out for the kind of fulfillment provided by following not only particular teams, but sports in general. There's something that is cathartic, that lets me "sound my barbaric yawp" in a way that nothing else does. There's an appeal to sports in the possibility of something incredible happening, like watching Bautista's home run and bat flip in Game 5 of the Toronto-Texas ALDS. There's an appeal in experiencing those emotions within a community and sharing those experiences with others. There's an appeal in watching other human beings exceed the limits that were previously understood to have governed their physical abilities. There is still a connection to my teenage self who watched SportsCenter every night and who learned all of the names and statistics and how those still matter now. There is still a sense of identity in being a fan of a team, which is probably why I still have a Toronto Maple Leafs logo on my lunch kit.
Perhaps this is the crux of my dilemma: the intellectual part of me wants to be able to quit watching professional sports, but the emotional part of me cannot. It's really not a huge jump from where I am to giving them up entirely - after all, I spend very little time and money actually watching and following sports - but that seems to be a significant hurdle nonetheless. Maybe it's because actively leaving professional sports behind is a much different step than just leaving it be, and I want to ensure a stronger personal conviction for that to happen.
So for now, I tend to think that I will continue along as I have been doing for the past three or so years: passively keeping track of professional sports with the awareness of the moral concerns and the possibility that an exciting event will override them. I'm not planning on pursuing fandom actively right now, and perhaps there even will come a point at which I am ready to turn my back on sports entirely, but this is not that point. Maybe in the meantime I can devote more attention to local and amateur sports in order to achieve some of that emotional connection and catharsis that seems to be welded to my core - or maybe I can just play more board games. But I know that on some level, no matter what path I take in both immediate and future circumstances that I will always get sucked back in when the Leafs make the playoffs - but at least it looks like I have a couple of years to work through this before that happens again.