Russell Martin watched an 89-mile-per-hour cut fastball zip past him. It was an easy take—a good foot outside of the zone, bringing the tally to two balls and one strike. A favorable count for a hitter. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto received his catcher’s return toss and readied himself for another delivery. But something wasn’t right. The 27-year-old hurler, enjoying another dominant season, was known for his confidence; his trademark move was an exaggerated shimmy in the middle of his windup, as if to say to the soon-to-be-victimized batter, “I’m so good that I can dance while I strike you out.” It was Cueto’s assuredness, after all, that had earned him the start that night: this was win or go home, a one-game affair between bitter division rivals to determine which team would advance to the playoffs and which would see their months-long season end in sorrow. But now the right-hander was visibly rattled: he took a slow lap around the pitcher’s mound, knocked the dirt off of his cleats, wiped his hands on his pants. Maybe his nerves had something to do with the 40,000 Pittsburgh Pirates fans, who had filled PNC Park to capacity and were spilling onto the nearby Roberto Clemente Bridge, shouting his name in an incessant, rhythmic chant: “CUE-TO, CUE-TO.” They had been doing this all night, and it was clear that they were finally getting to him. As Cueto stared off into the distance in an attempt to compose himself, the baseball came loose from his glove and fell to the ground.
It rolled just a few feet away, and Cueto nonchalantly bent over to pick it up. But he wasn’t fooling anybody: in unison, the spectators let out a cheer so loud I swear I could hear it from my house less than a mile from the stadium. On the TV broadcast, play-by-play announcer Ernie Johnson remarked presciently, “Well, this standing-room-only crowd [is] trying to get under Johnny Cueto’s skin, and they might be.” Seconds later, Cueto grooved a pitch right down the middle that Martin promptly deposited in the left-field stands for a home run. It would prove to be the game’s decisive score, earning the Pirates their first playoff appearance in 21 years.
The morning after Cueto’s ill-timed slip, since mythologized in baseball lore as “The Drop Seen ‘Round the World,” the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured two separate stories about the impact of the Pirates fans on the outcome of the game. Crammed into the leftmost column of the spread in small print are two other headlines, evidently of less concern: “Budget fight, Obamacare are political perfect storm” and “Netanyahu stands firm against Iranian nukes.”
What do we make of the fact that far more popular energy—both in the moment and in news coverage the following day—was concentrated on a single man wearing a uniform of imagined significance dropping a single, tiny mass of leather and cork of equally imagined significance than on a federal government shutdown or geopolitical disaster and the prospect of nuclear annihilation? It’s a question we face every time the proverbial water cooler is regaled with talk of standings and slam dunks rather than disquisitions on climate change and systemic racism: Why do sports consume so much national bandwidth and brainpower in the face of our planet’s many pressing crises?
The easy answer is to say that people just don’t know—or, perhaps worse, don’t care—about what’s truly important. From within the ivy-covered walls of Princeton, where we like to think about Big Serious things that usually end with –ism or –ic, it’s tempting to dismiss the obsessive Pirates fan as uneducated and uninteresting. I know I feel a twinge of embarrassment admitting to my humanities friends that I like to unwind by listening to Dave O’Brien and Dennis Eckersley (the TV announcers of my favorite Red Sox) debate the meaning of the term “cheese” as it relates to the velocity of a fastball; I reflexively tab away whenever I’m watching a football game and I hear my roommate come in. But to relegate sports to the realm of the frivolous and petty is to forget their position at the center of the American consciousness—and to do so in a way that perpetuates the centuries-old elitism and classism (oops, there go my -isms) of academia. To make the point, let’s think for a second about the nature of a sports fanbase. I’ll use that of my hometown Steelers as an example.
If Steelers fandom were a religion, Steelerism would, according to the number of people who have liked the team’s Facebook page, clock in somewhere around the tenth-most widely practiced faith in the world. Is that analogy entirely fanciful? A friendly sports bet: ask a dozen Pittsburghers (or Yinzers, as we call ourselves) what their plans are on Sunday between the hours of 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. I’ll wager that six of them will tell you they’re watching the game. Another two will chuckle in disbelief and call you a jagoff—of course they’re watching the game. Let’s say the other four are grocery shopping. Rest assured the in-store speaker system is carrying the broadcast. It’s a church of sorts, complete with its rites and sacred texts: the seldom-washed Ben Roethlisberger jersey, the Terrible Towel, the Gospel of Blitzburgh. It’s something millions of people build their lives around for five months out of the year—and spend the rest of the liturgical calendar getting ready for.
In his bestselling Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari outlines the usefulness of popular narratives and beliefs, which he dubs “fictions,” in facilitating interpersonal exchange: “Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story … and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.”
Consider now that the slogan “Steeler Nation” adorns countless doormats and bumper stickers across western Pennsylvania. Sports fandom is a fiction through and through—an extremely powerful fiction with the capacity to unite strangers unlike any other fiction in modern America at that. When I see someone walking down the street with a Red Sox cap on, I’m immediately drawn to them. I’ll wave, tell them I’m a lifelong fan, ask them their opinion on whether Eovaldi or Sale should start the Wild Card Game. I know the awesome electricity of taking my seat in a sold-out crowd at Fenway Park in Boston. There’s an intoxication to being surrounded by thousands of people who share the same fiction as you do, who also live and die by every fictional crack of the bat and bang-bang play. And because the Pirates are usually awful, their games rarely reach maximum attendance, perhaps explaining why it meant so much when the ball fell out of Cueto’s glove on that chilly Pittsburgh night in 2013. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for a Buccos fan—the exultant payoff for years of fruitless belief, and the knowledge that everyone else is feeling the same thing.
In short, sports matter. People care about them deeply, and they materially affect the ways in which Americans interact with one another. To me, that’s reason enough to stop turning our noses up at them, to stop disregarding what is perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of the day. Now allow me to suggest something even more controversial: not only do sports matter, but their fans aren’t as far removed from Princeton and our Big Serious studies as we might think.
There’s this scene in Moneyball, probably the best sports movie of all time, in which Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), the savvy general manager of the Oakland Athletics, is addressing a room full of overly optimistic scouts. He distills the difficulties their team faces into one acerbic line: “The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams.” He pauses. “Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.” In the 2002 season that is the film’s focus, the Athletics had a payroll of $39 million, less than a third of that of the New York Yankees, who had eliminated the A’s from the playoffs the year prior and were now wielding their immense wealth to lure Oakland’s best player to the Big Apple. Beane’s message to his staff was that they would have to innovate. If they were going to compete, they would need to find ways to tinker at the margins and identify value where other front offices couldn’t (or didn’t bother to). It was a nice theory, enabling the A’s to reach the postseason again despite losing most of their talent to richer teams. In the end, however, they were knocked out in the first round just like they had been the season before. Shortly thereafter, my Red Sox, another wealthy franchise, attempted to hire Beane as their general manager, offering him what would have been at the time the highest salary in the history of professional sports for that position. Beane, a romantic, declined, and in 2003, the A’s were eliminated in the Division Series for the third season in a row—this time at the hands of the Red Sox. The next season, as the movie’s closing title card informs us, Boston coupled Beane’s data-driven philosophy with a mountain of cash to win their first World Series in 86 years.
I would have put a spoiler alert ahead of that last bit, but, as most working people will tell you, there’s nothing unpredictable there. It’s an old story: the rich gut the poor, and when the poor prove resilient, the rich appropriate their means of resistance and get richer. The underdog doesn’t just win.
I don’t know many Yinzers who want to spend their Sunday afternoons analyzing the wealth gap. Certainly, it isn’t my idea of a relaxing way to recharge before the week. The seminal literature on the subject has a few too many footnotes for the backyard barbecue. But I’ve heard many cogent halftime rants concerning the greed of owners, the injustice of the so-called franchise tag, and the not-so-coincidental coincidence that football’s most dangerous positions are principally manned by players of color while quarterbacks and kickers are overwhelmingly white. There have been plenty of seventh-inning-stretch discussions about the commodification of players, the ludicrous pay disparity between minor- and major-league contracts, and the ethics of having a disproportionately white press decide who gets into the Hall of Fame from a disproportionately Latino league. And of course, from Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s to Megan Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, and LeBron James in more recent times, sports figures have often been at the forefront of tectonic shifts in U.S. politics and society. In other words, sports are a metaphor, a prism through which urgent issues—the kinds of issues academics think they’re exclusive experts on—are refracted and magnified onto a facade of rivalries and superstars and athletic display so that they become easier to spot and more interesting to engage with. And hey, if you yell loud enough, you might just affect the outcome. (Can we say that about Congress?)
There are, of course, many problematic features of the American sports landscape. It’s hypermasculine. It’s violent. It’s often too refractive, obscuring the very dimensions of race and class that we had hoped it would render visible. These are all valid critiques. I also don’t claim to be the spokesperson for all sports fans. For some, sports are just an escape, a way to attain that heady togetherness of the Cueto dropped ball and nothing else. That’s okay too. But professional organized athletics aren’t going anywhere; stands packed with conspicuously unmasked fans following the relaxation of pandemic protocols are ample evidence of that. We ought to recognize sports for what they are: an integral part of this country’s culture, a source of true meaning for millions, and, whether in the living room, the bar, or the booming stadium, a potential vehicle for progress.