It used to be that the jock/nerd binary was gospel. Most high school movies incorporate, in some way, the idea that people who like sports and people who like math just can’t get along. Think guys in letterman jackets shoving guys in glasses into lockers.
But in 2017, we’re told to resist binary thinking. Dichotomies are to be vigorously resisted because, the logic goes, there are more similarities between most groups than differences. And, to the horror of sports fans, any sort of critical thinking would reveal that they have become just as nerdy as the Doctor Who enthusiasts they ridicule.
I’m not sure it’s always been this way. Perhaps there was a time when sports fans weren’t massive dorks. I think the catalyst was fantasy football. You’re kidding yourself if you think that fantasy sports aren’t a sort of roleplaying game. The avatars are different, sure. Instead of playing a death knight, you play an NFL general manager (in my opinion, a major downgrade) and instead of worrying about your dps in a raid on the Lich King, you’re worried about Kareem Hunt’s yards from scrimmage. But you’re having fun for the same reason; you’re imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes, competing in a scenario that probably won’t ever actually happen.
Maybe you have a point, you might say, but not all jocks play fantasy sports. But the majority do own some sort of team gear. Many fans even own their favorite player’s jersey, which they will inevitably wear when they go to see their team play live.
When you put on your Karl-Anthony Towns jersey to go see the Timberwolves play, you’re taking part in a grand tradition: cosplay. You may look down on them, but you’re doing the same thing as people who put on their stormtrooper costume every time a new Star Wars comes out.
To some people, this comes as no surprise. I know personally a lot of people who have never played sports but nevertheless have an intense and genuine interest in them. Is this a new phenomenon? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s certainly a healthy and vital one.
This is perhaps best exemplified by the newest crop of sports writers who are very smart, very nerdy and very worth reading. David Roth (not the Van Halen guy) wrote a series of dorky and entertaining articles digging into obscure sports stories for Vice Sports. He’s since jumped ship to SB Nation. SB Nation has become the mothership for nerdy sportswriters; over the summer, they published the 25-chapter “17776,” a multimedia opus about “what football will look like in the future.” In an interview describing his influences, the author Jon Bois identifies his influences as NFL RedZone, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The main thread is the cultured, complete sports fan. Their passion for sports is as strong as their passion for something which elicits a lot more social stigma. The newest generation of sports fans are able to combine their interests in new and fascinating ways.
A pioneer in looking at sports as more than sports is Macalester alum Dave Zirin. Zirin, an editor for The Nation, writes almost exclusively on the intersection of politics and sports. He’s written a lot about the kneeling protests that have captured America’s attention recently, but he also focuses on topics like publicly funded stadiums and the Washington football team’s branding issue.
This is not at odds with sports; it’s good for them. Sports are, after all, culture. We often forget this. Sports are held on some sort of bizarre pedestal. They become something that can’t be dorky or political. Sports, in the popular imagination, are pure. But a basketball game, just like a movie, can be a source of drama, politics, joy, sorrow, and whatever else anyone cares to project onto it.
We should encourage people to love and cheer for whatever interests them and makes them happy. Any person can enjoy both anime and the NHL. Moreover, the passion of a true geek is inspiring. The unashamed fan is something truly beautiful, and we shouldn’t judge people by what they love. The sports nerd is critical to sports, and keeps the culture of fandom healthy and alive.