Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sports are a religious experience

When I was watching Wednesday's Tigers/Twins matchup on ESPN, the prevailing storyline--and one that's been beaten into America's consciousness in every city for the last two years--was the Tigers as a rallying point for the struggling Detroit citizens. The Tigers have one of the higher attendance of any MLB team in the country, a fairly staggering stat given how hard Detroit has been hit in relation to the rest of the country. Aside from the fact that Detroit is, at its core, a sports town (Hockeytown, the Tigers, Pistons, a fairly rabid Lions fanbase, and Michigan and Michigan State's programs a few miles down the road) the outpouring of support and attendance is somewhat unprecedented.

But the notion that sports will somehow save the city is laughable. The media tried the same story with MSU's basketball team making a run in the NCAA Tournament this year (eventually being brutalized, in Detroit, but North Carolina). Next it was the Red Wings, who were heart-breakingly beaten in the Stanley Cup Finals in a rematch against the Penguins. Now it's the Tigers turn to be a rallying point for the people in Detroit.

But this is all bullshit. Color commentators talk about giving the city hope. Helping the fans through a difficult time. And yet, when the teams lose, there's never the "hope is lost" stories. The media is aligning themselves for a story in the future, and that's fine. Laughable but fine. Because whether or not the Tigers or Red Wings or Spartans win their respective championships, Michigan's unemployment is still one of the lowest in the country. The abandoned eye-sore buildings are still standing. The public school system is still bankrupt, corrupt, and a complete mess.

I'm not ashamed to say much of my emotional well-being is tied to the success of Michigan athletics. Last year's 3-9 Wolverine's campaign was a fairly devastating year. It was the first year in the previous four that I didn't have season tickets, as I had graduated and relocated to Cleveland. Watching the season away from the comfy confines of Ann Arbor's Big House was even more difficult. Not that I would've handled the losses any better there, but at least I would've been able to commiserate with 110,000 other people every week.

This year, I found a student transferring out of Michigan and willing to sell his tickets for a criminally low price. I purchased them and have only missed the Eastern Michigan game, one in which, feeling comfortable about the team's chances, decided to stay in Cleveland to see some friends from out of town.

The season has been remarkable. People often ask me, "Who do you go to the games with?", to which I respond, "Myself." But that's not entirely true. I go by myself, but I'm surrounded by wide-eyed freshman and joyous ushers. We experienced the Notre Dame upset together and the too-close-for-comfort Indiana comeback. But whether we had won or lost those games, we had experienced them together.

It's that shared experience, those memories, that you can't get anywhere else. Going to see a movie may suspend your reality for a few hours, but there's no takeaway. If you were to ask me what my most memorable moments were from the last five years of my life, I'd tell you Henne to Manningham, :00 seconds left. Triple overtime, Michigan State. Tate Forcier, Notre Dame. There are people that share those memories. They have emotions about those moments and feel the same things I feel: happiness, excitement, comfort, relief.

These are the feelings that Detroit fans are searching for. The Tigers are not a rallying point or a bringer or hope. That's overbearing and contrived. But going to a sporting event of a team you love is a moment that can never be taken away from you. More so than any other form of entertainment, sports are an escape that you can revisit with people again and again and feel something, anything together--happy, excited, comforted, relieved--regardless of what else is happening in your life.

When the Tigers inevitably lose to the Yankees or miss the playoffs altogether, people are still going to be without jobs and the city is going to be as decrepit as it ever was. It won't be the Tigers' fault. And putting that on them is unfair. Sports are not a bastion of hope. But they are a memory.


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