Saku Koivu just announced his retirement. I find it hard to really think about anything else other than participating in the collective remembering of his career in Montreal and Anaheim that is going on through various social media outlets. He never won a Cup with Montreal (or Anaheim), but he was team captain for a long time, and he was a source of joy for some truly terrible years for the Canadiens.
I’ve always wanted to write a post about how sports remains, for me, one of the last places of irrationality that I can enjoy. I grew up in Montreal, where hockey is quite literally a religion and thus I cheered for the Canadiens. My dad taught me to hate the Maple Leafs and all the New York teams. But he also took me to baseball games; I still get upset about the lost season that the Expos should have won, and how we lost our baseball team. I’m an academic, but sports have been a place where I could just…cheer.
I loved being a part of something bigger than myself. Koivu’s retirement is another reminder of the community that forms around teams. I often will live-tweet Canadiens games, and so have an odd sub-set of hockey fans who follow me (Come for the hockey! Stay for the social justice and pedagogy tweets!). I get excited at the Olympics, especially the swimming. I still get misty at the playing of the Canadian national anthem. It’s something I share with a lot of different people that I meet, because even if we cheer for a different team, many of us still have a team that we root for wholeheartedly.
But it’s not so easy anymore, is it, especially for a woman. Big money, big scandals, issues of race and class and corruption and jingoism and double-standards and rape culture and violence and homophobia… As a small, insignificant example, in a short period of time, the good memories of Koivu (who is Finnish) are clouded in social media by the criticisms he endured through his entire career for not being able to speak French. That is, obviously, the least of the current problems facing major sports leagues (and in this I include the NCAA), but the point is that even someone as beloved as Koivu is in Montreal, his place as captain of the team and all-around great Habs player was in question because of language, which, in Quebec, is closely tied to nationalism. This past Sunday was worse; I could no longer stand to watch the talking heads bend of backwards to try and defend an abuser. Sports can no longer be mindless for me.
There is an inherent irony to this situation with football for me. When I was 17, I was in an abusive relationship. It was a awful, confusing, and lonely time of my life. But on Sundays, two of my best friends came over to watch football with me; it developed that I had both cable and a decent-sized TV, which neither of them had at their houses. We cheered, we ate junk food, we joked around, we just spent an enjoyable time together, and for five or six hours, I felt safe and less alone. All these years later, and sitting with friends and watching football brings back those good feelings for me, in the same way baseball will always remind me of my dad, and hockey will remind me of some of the happier moments of my childhood and adolescence.
These are the reasons why it’s so hard to quit watching sports, as an individual and as a society. Maybe we will lose the taste for the violence of football, in the same way that boxing is no longer the dominant sport it once was. I am one of the many parents who is apprehensive about letting my son play football, with the rise in concussions and what we now know are the long-term consequences. And maybe my kids won’t watch football in the same way I did because they will be so much better informed about the consequences and the culture it appears to promote, a culture I wasn’t interested in investigating. Or maybe they’ll be college basketball crazed because we live in Kentucky, which is a whole other set of issues.
I don’t know how to end this post, because I’m honestly not going to stop watching football anytime soon. Or hockey. But the way I frame the sports for my family will be different. Certainly, I heard my grandfather complain about how basketball went downhill when…well, I’ll let you fill that in, and my dad complain about how money ruined hockey, but I dismissed it as old men waxing nostalgic and being old. But I now know there was never really a “golden age” of sports of any kind. There has never been a perfect year or team or league because it’s humans playing a game for other humans. Not to excuse any behavior, but to show that looking back on some non-existent golden age keeps us from working to fix the issues that are staring at us today.
I want sports to survive. And I want them to change for the better.
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