Last autumn, I returned from a long overseas trip, showered, changed my clothes and headed to a Chapel Hill establishment to put in a proper session while taking in a full day of college football. Looking around the bar, I noticed hats and T-shirts of all hues representing colleges from around the country.
As a relative North Carolina newbie, I had expected to see the room filled with people clad in white and blue (sky or royal, your choice) with perhaps a smattering of Wolfpack red here and there. Instead, I saw groups of Alabama, UCLA, Michigan, Washington and Ohio State fans. In such an environment, I almost didn’t feel out of place in my electric neon yellow Oregon hoodie. Almost.
As I thought about it, such a scene in a region whose universities and centers of research have attracted minds from around the nation is to be expected. But, in the intervening year since then, I have traveled the country, through big city and small hamlet, and I have seen this scene repeat itself. In a bar mere blocks from San Francisco’s AT&T Park, a group of Dodgers fans drank merrily. In Walla Walla, Wash., I ran into a 15 die-hard Packers fans. In Portland, Ore., this week, I saw a dozen Virginia Tech fans holding down the bar like it was a forward operating bases on the periphery of Boise State territory.
In his 1835, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville saw that we were already a nation unmoored from place and unattached to any particular region. “Born often under another sky,” he noted, we lived in “the middle of an always moving scene… The American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.”
Had Alexis been born in the era of ESPN and DirecTV, I suspect that he may have seen things slightly differently. We are a people on the move, but as we bounce from location to location, we do bring our allegiances with us; some things remain immutable, it would seem. Change might be the natural state of the American, but it is also true that we find it easier to change houses, cities and wives far easier than we do to change the teams we love.
That DirecTV paid the NFL $700 million for the rights to show out-of-market games speaks to the lengths to which fans will go to make their long distance sporting relationships work. In fact, of all the cities I have visited, only Pittsburgh seemed 100 percent committed to its team. I saw literally no shirts, flags, banners or bumper stickers for any other team during my five days there. The unique devotion and size of the Steelers’ nation made me wonder how big a movement has to get before it goes from cult to religion. But that, another time.
The problem with bringing your allegiances with you, though, is that it is often impossible to serve two masters. Having grown up in the shadow of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium but educated at the University of Michigan, I was so deeply conflicted when the played each other two years ago that I couldn’t watch the game. Seeing those two teams clash was like being forced to sit through a televised version of my mother and girlfriend playing Russian roulette. In the end, as I knew would happen, I felt terrible about the team that lost, and conflicted about the team that won.
And, of course, it isn’t always easy to find fellow travelers to share in your joy or offer commiseration in moments of abject failure. Having spent a little too much time in sports bars the last few years, I recognize instantly the sad silhouette of the solo fan, hunched on his stool, eyes fixed too intently on the screen, hand gripping too tightly on his beer, mostly because he has nobody to talk to.
And therein lies the rub. Sports are our modern cathedrals, bringing us together in mass spaces of congregation, devoted to a shared single cause. Though that cause is certainly frivolous, it nonetheless remains one of the few we have left. So, as I sat in my Chapel Hill bar, drinking beer in my gaudy Oregon sweatshirt, I felt a little like I was praying to a god that I knew did not exist. The ritual of watching the game seemed rote and rehearsed when disconnected from a group experience, and the moment reminded me that though we bring our sports allegiances with us to remind us of the things we loved and left behind, in the end, the memory and the nostalgia can never match the genuine moments that produced them.