A woman who follows sports is subjected to an interesting dialogue. She can’t just like sports. The topic always elicits commentary. Sometimes, it’s contentious. I’ve been quizzed about team trivia, and called a fake fan when I can’t name who was on a certain starting lineup of a certain team in a certain year. Sometimes, it’s patronizing. I’ve had dates and male bosses who have expressed genuine amusement at my knowledge of who the Bears are playing on Sunday, which basketball team is undefeated or why Lebron really isn’t all that hateable (it took me awhile to get there but I got there!). Sometimes, it’s meant to be complimentary. I have a friend who tells me I’m such a cool girl every time she hears I’m watching a game or going to meet my boyfriend at a sports bar. But why does it have to be cool girl or poseur? Why can’t liking sports be like loving the movies or Game of Thrones or ramen? In other words, unremarkable. Why can’t liking sports just make me a sports fan?
And don’t get me wrong, I AM a fan. I was born in Chicago and have been cheering for Cubs, Bears and Bulls since I could make sounds. When I was two, my family moved to Los Angeles, but our passion for our teams remained fully intact. Growing up, I didn’t obsessively follow every highlight or track stats and trades, but I cared. I wore Cubs hats and slept in Bears T-shirts and relished the fact that Michael Jordan — the ultimate GOAT — belonged to us. So, on November 3rd, 2016 at approximately 12:47 a.m., when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series after a virtual lifetime of being branded the lovable losers (they hadn’t won a championship since 1908 — that’s before television, the Titanic and the admission of Oklahoma to the Union), I absolutely lost it. I thought mainly of my deceased grandfather, a born-and-raised Chicago South Sider, brilliant lawyer, devoted family man and die-hard fan who had to be dragged from Wrigley Field by his best man on his wedding day. I cried, hugged people and fell asleep at 2 a.m. in a blur of tears and elation.
The next day I woke up on cloud nine. We were champions! Somewhere, my grandpa was smiling. It felt ridiculously good and I wanted to celebrate! I wanted to… post an Instagram! I dug up an old photo of me and my cousin Jeff. The picture was taken circa the early ‘90s at Wrigley Field. Jeff is toothless and adorable, I’m bug-eyed and smiling insanely, and we’re both decked out in Cubs gear. I cropped and filtered and wrote a caption: “My face all day today because THEY DID IT. #cubbies.” And then, I paused. I asked myself, ‘hmm, do I sound like that girl — the annoying one who plays up the fact that she’s a sports fan?’ I questioned what sort of phrase would make it seem like I’m genuinely excited about my team winning the World Series, and not simply feigning excitement for the sake of attention? I pondered, do I just do a cute parade of emojis (bear, baseball, blue heart, 100, fireball)? Do I use exclamation points or keep it somber for impact? How will I convey that I’m not simply jumping on the bandwagon? I wondered whether I should even post at all. Would a real fan just shut the eff up and celebrate in deep, prayer-like silence and gratitude?
But wait, I thought. The picture I was about to post is of me, as a six-year-old, freaking out at a Cubs game. I was there! I love the Cubs! They are my childhood and my memories, the connective tissue to my relatives and origins. They ARE me. Why was I was self-censoring? Why was I considering whether or not to commemorate an occasion that truly made me happy? Why was I so intensely analyzing what other people might think about how much I love, or don’t really love, the Chicago Cubs? Was I really debating how much my level and sincerity of fandom would be scrutinized? If I were a man, would I ever feel dumb for wanting to express unadulterated joy about my sports team? If I were posting about a conventionally girlier milestone, would I ever have pause, or try to downplay it? (The answer is no, because I once met Mindy Kaling and selfied the shit out of it.)
Sports, in the professional and recreational senses, are boys’ clubs. When a woman tries to get in on the action, she’s the exception. To some, the exception is adorable (like models going to town on bacon cheeseburgers in those old Carl’s Jr. commercials, a woman doing something typically male is seen as a ‘sexy’ unicorn.) To others, it’s annoying. And to a few, having a woman at the table is just unacceptable. Last fall’s haunting Deadspin article on the life and death of sportswriter Jennifer Frey, who despite her brilliance faced extreme industry misogyny, captures that all too well.
I was annoyed at myself for scrutinizing my level of fandom and tempering the expression of that fandom. I was mad at myself using other women as benchmarks for how I didn’t want to be perceived. I was feeling judged while also being judgy. WTF!
My insecurity about my sports enthusiasm is far from the top of my “Things That Keep Me Up At Night” list. But it does contribute to my belief that women shouldn’t feel a pressing need to self-edit or conform or rip themselves apart. I know there are bigger baseball fans out there. There are also more casual ones. And who cares?! Sometimes, I’m more interested in players’ personal lives than their batting averages. I love reading athletes’ Wikipedia pages and knowing which ones are friends in real life and who has adorable children. I could give two shits about the Super Bowl this year (except for the nachos, because duh). But I always, hungrily, want my teams to win and feel genuinely sad when they lose. I think about someday taking my own kids to a Cubs game and passing down my well-worn Chicago Bulls tees. I’ll tell them about my grandpa and about how he was the biggest fan there ever was, and that my brothers and I are fans because of him. I’ll give them a team that helps them fuel their identity and develop a sense of pride. Because, isn’t that what sports are about after all?
Photo by Camerique via Getty Images.