Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question comes from a New Yorker who thinks sports are dumb and wonders if he can be a real New Yorker without them.
Dear Native New Yorker:
Every year around this time all the conversation in my office and at my local bar turns to sports. Baseball and football, I think, but to tell the truth I don't even know because unlike most natives, I do not give a flying fuck about any organized sports. I just can't understand why adults would spend their time watching other people perform exercise—I mean, I could see why you'd want to join a baseball league for fun, I guess, but I just can't conceive of why anyone would want to watch other humans play baseball while they sit and watch.
It's not just the boredom and sense of existential ennui that I get! I also think sports are exploitive! Some sports, like football, are exploitive because they actually brain-damage the players and then toss them out to die. Others, like basketball, because they dazzle kids in the city with completely improbable dreams of fame, which distracts them from more realistic plans. All of them are just like the Roman circuses, operated by the rich and powerful to distract the masses from the ceaseless immiseration. Like is there anything more depressing than watching poor people from the Bronx or Queens root for a team of millionaires, owned by billionaires, in a stadium paid for with their hard-earned tax dollars?
Anyway, my question is whether it's possible to be a real New Yorker and hate sports. Am I missing something critical here to the full experience and appreciation of the city?
As Jake was raised in the sports-ignoring Park Slope communist scene, this week's question will be pinch hit by Queens native Max Rivlin-Nadler:
Dear Blue Balls,
It’s clear you don’t like sports, so I won’t waste our time and attempt to point out the finer points of each game you cite. Of course, reducing sport fandom to “watching other people perform exercise” is a bit of a reach, even for a sporting naif like yourself, so I'm going to explain to you why people watch sports and why they find the need to discuss sports with others.
First however, I’ll answer your question of whether it’s possible to be a real New Yorker and hate sports. The answer? Of course you can be a real New Yorker and hate sports. Why am I writing the column this week? Because true-to-the-bone New Yorker Jake Dobkin doesn’t really know anything about sports. Would someone come up to him and question his New Yorker credentials because he can’t name who caught the final out of the 1996 World Series? No! In New York City it is perfectly acceptable to not give a shit about sports. (The final out was caught by Charlie Hayes. Wade Boggs rode a police horse. I’m getting teary just thinking about it).
(Courtesy Private Max Rivlin-Nadler Collection)
New York City—for its two baseball teams, two basketball teams, two football teams, and three hockey teams (along with a WNBA team and two MLS teams)—is not really much of a sports town. Local fandom among natives is a partisan affair, often delineated by how long your family has been in NYC, and which borough you hail from (older Manhattan families tend to like the Giants and the Yankees, jilted Dodgers fans like the Mets, and nobody who takes themselves at all seriously likes the Jets). Because NYC is so divided on rooting allegiances, it’s tough to unify the city when one of our teams wins it all. In fact, even when they do, we tend to be fairly chill about the whole affair, because as the best city in the United States, we should probably win everything every year.
It’s silly when a lesser city like St. Louis wins a championship, and downright insulting when Boston is allowed to win one. We should win everything every year. That is the assumption New Yorkers start with and that is why we’re not very good sports fans. You want real sports fandom? Go to Pittsburgh. Go to Philadelphia. Go to Chicago. Look at San Francisco. Those towns absolutely flip out when their teams are gunning for that No. 1 spot, in a way that is downright insane. Everybody cares about sports in those towns, no matter what. In New York City, the lights stay on and the wheels keep spinning, even if the Yankees are a few outs away from a championship.
Besides the factious nature of our fans, the cosmopolitanism of our city lends itself to activities besides sports-watching—we have the greatest arts scene in America, a transportation system that never closes, and bodegas that will sell you anything at all hours. On a cold night in Cleveland, there is only sports and despair.
Also, a lot of people in New York (especially young people) are from some of those same cities where people really give a shit about sports. Far from home and perhaps remembering the fond times they had in their trash-heap of a city rooting for a team named after a tire factory or something, these transplants congregate and root for their teams, texting their friends back home about what a great job the Titans are doing going after the QB and how big a crush they have on the new hitting coach. They call players by their first names and know their family history and have seen them in the local Target when they went home for the holidays. This whole sector of fandom is cute, but ultimately irrelevant, because these are not actual New Yorkers.
Now that I’ve assured you that you can be a real New Yorker without paying attention to sports, let’s address some of the other points you brought up (because as a New Yorker, I can’t let some of this shit go). I feel as though you’re confusing small talk with membership to an exclusive (and, in your opinion, dim-witted) club. Your fellow office-workers are simply looking for a way to pass the day. By bringing up sports, they, like a rock-climber attempting to find a hold, are trying to grab some conversation with a fellow human so as to have their experience of dull, monotonous existence hasten.
Sports, same as television programs and YouTube videos of sneezing pandas, are considered a comfortable, non-threatening topic of discussion among polite company. If you’re feeling impolite, tell them you think they’re a dolt for liking sports. See how far that gets you. If you’re trying to be an actual compassionate human, nod and perhaps steer the conversation to that panda. He sneezes. It is great.
So after the truly horrifying experience of making chit-chat with a co-worker about a man called “Melo” and whether he is “clutch,” you retire to the local pub, only to find your friends seated across from a television, which is endlessly playing a clip of a grown man tackling and hurting another grown man, while four other grown men ceaselessly discuss the merits and demerits of that tackle and whether it was a “clean” hit. Such cretins! And you can’t believe your friends are watching this and commenting! First off, if you don’t enjoy going to a bar where people discuss sports, don’t go to a “sports bar.” Sports bars are ubiquitous in NYC, because bars are tough businesses to run in this city and sports provide a constant stream of events to build promotions around. Wine bars and hipster bars and really classy bars don’t have televisions. It might hurt your wallet, but an avoidance of “sports bars” will certainly save you from the horror that is discussing sports.
But it seems as though you have some legitimate questions about sports which might signal something of an interest in the politics of professional sports. This is also a mark of a true New Yorker. Our fascination with sports extends far beyond the court or playing field and reaches all the way to the front office and ownership groups of our sports franchises. Given our status as the financial capital of the world, we enjoy breaking down our team’s salary cap situation, bemoan the exorbitant compensation that oft-injured and lackadaisical players receive, and question why our city government gives stadiums to millionaires (answer: because the city itself was run by a billionaire who was friends with the millionaires).
We truly relish the corrupt, celebrate the bloated, and patronize the already insanely wealthy because that is no different than every other day we spend in this beautiful, dirty monument to capitalism. Like it or not, sports fairly accurately reflects our society, and as New Yorkers, we recognize that behind every missed layup lies a millionaire who makes a heinous amount of money—win, lose, or draw.
Now to the bread and circuses part of your question (substitute bread with beer). As you’ve astutely pointed out, we’re all slowly deteriorating vessels of lessening utility, exploited by a system that enriches a few and impoverishes many—the general arc of history since the dawn of the industrial age is quite depressing (almost as depressing as all the ages before it, but not quite!). Sports, like the idiot box, cinema, and music, is a form that lets us feel as if our lives are somehow part of a narrative that ends with both redemption and immortality, our team’s greatness acting as a totem against our eventual departure from this plane of existence. We will be gone, but that one beautiful championship year will not be forgotten.
And if our team is not forgotten, neither will we, and in this sense, we live forever. Of course, this thinking allows the prevailing power structures to remain in place, because while we’re rooting for our team’s success in the divisional playoffs, we could be out there smashing the corporate oligarchy that is screwing us non-stop. This is a noble ideal to aspire to, Blue Balls, but even the revolution needs a pastime. After abolishing the Cuban professional league in 1960, Fidel Castro started a popular amateur league that features an extremely high-level of competition and has a rabid following. Even in the absence of capitalism, sport prevails.
And why does it prevail? You mention the lamentable position of the young and indigent, spending their time on the basketball court and not in the classroom, trying to get ahead in life. A young person with the deck stacked against him sees a role model in a multi-millionaire professional athlete and says, “Why not me?” You shake your head at this very notion, because obviously, the odds are so against this kid—poor and underserved by society from day one—that he has no time to waste playing games on a basketball court.
But don’t you see, Blue Balls? We’re all already out of time. Existence itself is a cruel joke perpetrated on a species whose callousness and inflated sense of self isn’t worthy of the virtual heaven around us, and from the second we’re born, unless we are spectacularly lucky, we’re all going to be dealt a series of defeats, all leading up to a great and final fall. But that kid? And that basketball? Maybe there’s something truly radical about her interaction with space and time, a strange game we’ve created where her limbs serve no utility besides helping satisfy an overwhelming urge to fling a piece of rubber through a metal hoop.
Or just on the other side of the playground, that kid taking a piece of metal and hitting a ball of string that has been wrapped with leather as hard as he can because he’s luxuriating in a moment of deep coordination, the exhilaration and relief of being truly in that very moment where you know you’ve sent that ball into the gap. If all of existence can be essentialized and commodified, then yes, Blue Balls, we are truly lost. But there is still a mystery in this world, and still a wonder to be found, even in sport. Maybe you can find some of that wonder in the sports bar or the playground, or maybe just by tracing the arc of a bird’s flight. Really, it’s all the same. Open your heart, Blue Balls, and then open it some more, until the day you die. A game with no end. Go New York, Go New York, Go!