I am not a bandwagon kind of fan, having grown up around and rooted for the Cleveland Browns (and Akron Zips) all my life. A certain amount of degradation and stashing one’s clothing with said logos in the bottom drawer goes along with being that sort of fan.
So when a Cleveland Browns supporter starts praising the Cincinnati Bengals, either the Bengals are for real, or hell is gonna freeze over. Given the temperatures as of late, the former must be true.
But, why now?
In my household, I have watched over the years as my husband, Mark, and son, Davis, stepfather and son, bonded together over backyard football. As Davis grew, so did their ties, and they graduated to an interest in college football. Depending on the good years for Notre Dame and Oregon, they went back and forth, trading barbs and rants and cheers. My husband would cheer for Oregon, and Davis, well, he was often coerced into joining in the cheer for ND, with the exception of the Bush push game, when no one needed coercion.
Many tomes have been written about sports as a way to link family members together, parent to child, father to son. Raising Davis as a single mom, I too used sports to relate to him. He may think I still care and I have let him go on believing so. Or he has uncovered my ruse, because he mostly texts Mark (from Oregon) with sports and trivia. I only hear from him when he is missing Graeter’s or Skyline.
Sports can be a community link as well. Living in the city of Cincinnati, over the course of one football season, and now into a second semi-winning season (please, SI, no jinxes), when I am wearing Bengals’ gear and spot someone else sporting black and orange, there is certain ‘protocol’ we follow when encountering each other: Did you watch the game? Are you a fan? Can they beat Denver at home on a Monday nigh? Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh?
Beneath that line of questioning is a tacit acknowledgement. We all have something in common.
My daily work and life is all about connections, thus, I am considering sports in a fresh light– as community connector. I don’t mean in a pink ribbon sewn onto a jersey sort of marketing, nor is it in the realm of building sports stadiums as an economic driver.
But sports as a space, an entity, where real conversations can happen.
Many citizens I meet wearing Bengal’s jerseys or tees are often seen waiting early morning for a bus or sleeping outside a church on the stoop. Or, some are supporters but can’t afford the attire. They are the real fans.
Unlike the drunken fans at the stadium, the real ones would give anything to sit in the seats near the same said fans, to say they watched the Bengal’s last second field goal against two-time Super Bowl champions Seattle or they beheld a certain red-haired quarterback growing, right before their very eyes. And they are the ones calling Who Dey down the road when they see me on a Monday morning proudly sporting a Bengals shirt. Even my young neighbor said, “Man, when I put on my Bengals baseball cap, I get people yelling about the Bengals down the street all day.”
As the hometown for a winning team, Cincinnati has a chance to capitalize on this fervor, not through profits but through community. To begin a chat using the Bengals a starter. To continue by discussing the state of a migraine, try taking some Excedrin for your headache or Didn’t everyone love I Love Jeanie and Barbara Eden, and close the communication with, Where do we go from here, or how can I help?
This is an opportunity the All-Star Game organizers had hoped for, but didn’t provide, based on the national, corporate nature of the event. As much as the city and Reds’ ownership attempted to bring citizens together, most folks felt like outsiders when they noticed the city had been scrubbed clean of its own image for the sake of a branding that did not represent us, with the exception of a large moustache.
Each week this fall, in my writing circles with men in transition, I have been testing out the theory of sports as community connector. Because the attendance fluctuates, I ask the men to check-in with their names and whether or not they are Bengals fans.
From this singular prompt, we exchange information about city of origin (Mark, I cheer for San Francisco), passion (Dave, Who Dey), interest or non-interest (Isreal, I watch soccer), acceptance (Me, raised a Browns fan). Wealth or poverty (Who grew up with a TV, who didn’t). Family (Who watches the team and yearns for a day when they can again, with their grown son).
What if we saw sports using this perspective?
In my brief, but intriguing Internet research into this area, one study noted, albeit with some high-level language, Sport with its non-verbal communication and immediately comprehensible interaction is suited as a medium for overcoming socio-cultural unfamiliarity and ‘otherness’.
Sports do not require us to speak the same language, only utilize the same rules. Sports are a bridge across cultures and economies. Sports are a conversation starter. Sports are like politics in every way, and probably more fun.
Have we placed too much emphasis on sports and sports’ figures as role models? Probably, as those figures have become more of a curse than a balm, more a reflection of larger social issues.
But using our team as a touchstone can facilitate the breaking of stereotypes and address some social issues through our engagement with each other, one on one. We should not be hoping to broaden our community spirit. That’s for sports marketing geniuses. We should want to deepen that community sense instead.
Our commonality, a shared living space with maybe a TV, is a place where we can reach across a divide that has nothing to do with black and white – and every thing to do with black and orange.
However, the real test will be if or when the Bengals lose. Do we revert to the Bungles disposition, or gaze beyond the win-loss column to see the impact of sports in our relationships and on our own hearts?