For a person of my proclivities, winter is the best time for sports. This season includes the tail-end of the NFL season culminating in the playoffs, which is when the NBA really hits its stride, and involves the heart of the European soccer leagues and tournaments I follow. When the temperature turns south, you can find me in front of my TV or laptop, cranking up my thermostat and Guinness intake, and wondering if warmer climes would cure me of my sports fixation.
Thinking about my favorite sporting time of the year got me thinking about what it was about each of the sports I like that make them so compelling for me. Each sport has aesthetic differences, varying ways on choosing the champion, and a different media culture that either helps or hurts my enjoyment.
Let’s start with the NBA. I’m mainly a fan of the art form of sports rather than any particular team, and basketball is my favorite sport to watch in its own right. This is in part because it is the one major sport you can have a deep understanding of by watching it on TV. Because the camera encapsulates the entire floor, you can pick up on a team’s help defense, ball and player movement, and other nuances largely invisible to say, football, with its limited camera angles.
The NBA also has the best postseason. Maybe it’s just because basketball is already my favorite but I watch almost every playoff game through each round. It’s playoffs might even be too good, making it almost like a mini-season of close, compelling games with the league’s biggest stars, making the 82 game regular season slog almost ignorable. But, it is the best at revealing the best team, as there are rarely the flukey upsets that, while exciting, undermine the whole champion-as-best-team narrative. Plus, since basketball is the one sport where a single transcendent player can take over a game by himself, it is chalk full of memorable moments by its greatest players.
Basketball’s media culture is pretty enjoyable as well. The mainstream storylines can be annoying, since the non-basketball-junky crowd seems more interested in whether LeBron is a choker who can never win the big game — so much for that theory — rather than appreciating the skill set of one of the greatest players of all time, but it is pretty easy to avoid those lazy narratives. Also, there is an abundance of great basketball writing focusing on the deeper analysis of plays that can give you a whole new understanding of the game.
The NFL and I have sort of a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, its pluses are massive. Football has the best regular season, with every Sunday for 17 weeks jam packed with an almost absurd number of games. And with fantasy football, you most likely have some rooting interest in each one.
Also, its crowning achievement, the Super Bowl, is far and away the best championship game. It’s an event so huge that everyone watches, even non-fans. Despite my problems with the randomness of the Super Bowl winner, the fact that it is so hard to win does make it particularly special.
In basketball, where one player’s greatness can spur a team to a title, any one finals series is not all that important. Great players are measured by the number of rings they accumulate, as they are expected to get at least one. In football, multiple Super Bowl wins are the exception rather than the expectation.
The minuses of the NFL are what bother me. For one, as hinted at above, I don’t love their playoff system as a whole. A large part of the appeal of NFL Sundays is the sheer magnitude of the event, and the playoffs, with its limited number of games from week to week, don’t carry my interest as much.
Plus, with such a small number of one-off games, it is very easy for inferior teams to beat their superiors in the postseason. This is only a problem for me because of my major pet peeve, football’s media culture.
The football discourse, in part because of the lack of fan understanding of the nuances of the game, is plagued by the sort of facile, morality-driven narratives that don’t strike me as true or interesting. So when a mediocre team wins the Super Bowl, the entire sports media world rushes to ascribe the team dubious attributions — grittiness, self-belief while surrounded by doubters, a hot streak, never-say-die attitude, etc — in lieu of calling a fluke a fluke. From week to week the storylines can go from hot to cold; one team is the best today and terrible tomorrow. It’s all so taxing and unavoidable.
Soccer, my newest sport of choice, benefits for the exact opposite reason of some of my main problem with football: namely, its distance.
With the European leagues I’ve been following the past few years, I am able to enjoy matches from a large number of great teams across the continent all with a healthy distance from the knee-jerk, hyperbolic reactions of its media that beats even the NFL in both absurdity and ubiquity.
What all of this has shown me is how much my sports fandom is mediated through the avenues of consumption. Sports are never just sports.
There is a huge world of fan and media reaction that is just as real and important to the game as the plays that unfold on the field itself.
William Haisley is a third year law student and is the Collegian’s Wednesday columnist. Email him at email@example.com