Read Option: The Views from the Sideline

In today’s column I discuss different perspectives I’ve encountered recently across different sports, from the spectator to the “hater” to the half-asleep flag football referee. 

Option 1: The Joys of Rooting Against Rivals

Entering the league championship round of the MLB playoffs this month, three of the four teams remaining were my least favorite teams: the Nationals, the Cardinals, and, worst of all, the Yankees. It was guaranteed that at least one would make the World Series, and quite possible that the World Series could be a nightmare scenario featuring two teams I loathed. Thankfully, a Jose Altuve walk-off home run in the ALCS lifted the Astros above the Yankees, but my hometown Nationals swept the Cardinals en route to their first franchise World Series appearance. 

Good news – if the Astros won, I wouldn’t have to bear the burden of seeing a team I despised win the title. Potentially bad news – I felt a bit like I was playing the curmudgeon to the Nationals, a perpetually disappointing team that was finally going on a Cinderella run, in a year after they lost MVP Bryce Harper. The excitement radiating in the Instagram stories of all of my friends from back in the DMV after each win made me feel guilty that I was pulling the opposite way. Plus, the Astros won the World Series two years prior and now stood as a heavy favorite. If those were simply outlines of two random teams, say “Team A” and “Team B”, I’d definitely go with the Nationals, but in this instance, I’m pro-Astros all the way. 

It comes down to this – few things bring me as much joy being a sports fan as rooting against the Washington sports teams. I grew up in the area and was inundated with DC updates through the Washington Post and talk radio as a kid, and as I became fans of teams outside the city such as the Ravens, Cowboys and Red Sox, I felt like I didn’t need to be a fan of the same teams my friends rooted for (there was obviously no turning back after choosing to root for the Cowboys). Washington sports has been a prime source of pain and agony for area residents during the 21st century, whether it is the Capitals’ postseason blues (9 playoff appearances in 10 years resulting in zero conference title berths), the Wizards’ disastrous Michael Jordan/Kwame Brown era, the Nats’ SI cover curses, Maryland football’s mediocrity or the Redskins’ extreme dysfunction. And to be on the outside looking in, I had all the ammo I’d ever need to trash talk Washington sports fans. I don’t want to seem sadistic, but watching the DC sports teams fall has brought me satisfaction and enjoyment over the years – I enjoy playing the part of the outsider, the counterculture fan.

If the Nationals win the World Series, how will I feel? A bit embarrassed, I imagine, but hopefully a bit respectful as well. The Nats’ rotation and young talent have made D.C. exciting, and I’ll give D.C. baseball fans this – they’re passionate about their team. If they can beat the Brewers, Dodgers, Cardinals and Astros, they’ve beaten the best that the MLB has to offer and deserve the crown. But I don’t 

Author’s Note: The Astros’ recent mishandling of assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s insensitive comments to female reporters have provided another reason to root against Houston, though I did not acknowledge this instance in this column. 

Option 2: Flag Football, From a Zebra’s Perspective

My first work-study job in college was a fun one. I got to put the whistle around my neck and play the part of fourth grade rec league flag football referee through the Evanston recreation system. I played seven seasons of flag football as a kid and those games remain some of my favorite memories, but I’d never had the perspective of a referee in examining the sport. These four weeks have opened my eyes to many aspects I never realized as a kid, and probably would not have as a coach. So here are my takeaways from my life as a zebra. 

One- Flag football coaches can be out of control. Most commentary on youth sports leagues focuses on the angle of negative parent involvement. Having been in rec leagues my whole life, I never really saw this, and I didn’t see it in my referee stint. Instead, it was the coaches that made me cringe at times. Some coaches were so competitive that you’d think they were coaching at the Super Bowl with their jobs on the line, not explaining football fundamentals to fourth graders. It wasn’t all negative, as some seemed made for the position – handling negative results well, giving players autonomy in the execution of the plays, fostering a generally optimistic atmosphere and showing sportsmanship. But others stuck out like a sore thumb. They questioned referee calls (we had been there for seven hours running games, mind you), scolded kids for honest mistakes and blown coverages, micromanaged the game and seemed to make the game about them. Which it’s not, and it seemed like a shame to me. But at the same time, it didn’t seem to affect the players themselves all that much, and I recall my negative opinions of coaches stemming mainly from my dad’s grievances rather than my own qualms and experiences. Still, it reinforced the notion that great coaches make a difference.

Two- referees deserve a pat on the back. On my second day, it was a cool 35 degrees and windy when we started working at 7:30 for our first game. It wasn’t until 2 that games were complete, and keeping attentive to the goings on became more difficult as the game progressed. This was different in some duties (I was the ball spotter in one game, chain gang in another), and sometimes the lull would keep me less aware than a ref should probably be. As every sports fan does, I hate on refs and bad calls, but I couldn’t imagine making the sort of decisions they have to make in a split second on that field. Then again, they probably don’t have to worry about a player running the wrong way or snapping the ball to the other team.

Three- my flag football career was a lie. Not entirely, but I learned a universal ref thing that I was never aware of as a kid. Instead of 20 minute halves, the halves would be 18, 17, or even less minutes. Some of it’s understandable, like a 15 minute final minute on regulation in which each play is incomplete (stopping the clock), out of bounds (stopping the clock), or compounded by a timeout by a wannabe pro coach (stopping the clock). But at the same time, I cherished every moment as a player and never suspected a corrupt ref would rob me of my fleeting moments of glory. Some coaches would even break out their own stopwatches to keep us in check, but when the temperatures were nearing freezing, I don’t think anyone cared too much about the clock.

Option 3: Ultimate Fan Experience: In-Person or At-Home

Northwestern has provided me the opportunities to do a great many “firsts”, like “first Cubs game” or “first college football game” or “first hockey game.” A lot of these events I watched on TV as a kid (alright, I never watched hockey), but seeing them in person was, spare a few baseball and basketball games and one depressing Ravens loss, not much of an option. I always saw going to the games in person as “the dream”, a wonderland that one could never quite experience through a television set and an atmosphere that you had to be there to fully understand.

Going to sports games is fun, especially with friends. But I’m starting to realize that watching from the comforts of a couch and a snack stash is a pretty sweet deal, too. Going to a game in person can provide a more hype build-up, firsthand memories, high-fives from fellow fans, sweet pictures and the claim that “you were there.” But watching at home is free of charge, the food is better and less expensive than you could find at any stadium, the commute consists of your bedroom to the TV, the weather is easily adjustable and the production of the television broadcast itself (including the ability to see multiple angles and hear insightful commentary) makes the game a more cinematic and informed experience. Even some of the perks of going to the game can be translated to the home atmosphere with the presence of a roomful of passionate fellow fans. These comforts have made home consumption of sports games an optimal choice in many circumstances, a trend backed up by data across sports leagues. 

There are some events that are exponentially better in person, like the state championship hockey game I watched from our raucous student section last year. Watching that game on a screen would not do it justice. But you don’t need to be at a sports game to enjoy it, and with a few simple hacks and a good group of friends, you can live like a king from your couch.

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