Q: How do you feel about football?
A: I was convinced last year to go to a game. I was there five minutes, and then I left. It’s nice, I guess, the spirit. I think here it is almost a religion, you know.
—Interview between reporter Ray Allen and University of Alabama graduate student Hailah Saaed. “Student talks about American culture.” The Crimson White, October 2014
The Willow Inn is planted near the fork of Rte. 611 and N. York road in Willow Grove, Greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Willow Inn is not an inn at all, although its architectural façade would seem fitting if you pulled into the lot driving a 1949 Ford Tudor—fresh off the dealership—looking for put-up. But, no, there is no room at the inn for modern-day travelers looking for an overnighter, much less an extended stay. Nowadays, the inn can only offer a cliquey atmosphere, fully-stocked bar, and two-star meals. But the inn remains an historic landmark, precisely because of its classic down-home appearance, and for the brow-raising fact that it’s been family owned and operated since before the United States’ involvement in the chilling Korean War. During this time in suburban Willow Grove, I’d wager many service-members holed-up in the inn for one last night with a high school sweetheart, a lady-of-the-night, or, for those with a learned and practicing morality—some time away from the cling of family in premature mourning.
Now, a two-thousand-and-fourteen fall’s invaded, winter’s coming, and here’s football—America’s sport—and the Eagles, Philadelphia’s own. It is not uncommon to see Eagles players brave the cold snow, sleet, hail (maybe even the Mary sort); and though the temperature may not drop to the extremity-bitten temperatures of those experienced in Korea, pro-football athletes share a common valiancy easily missed by the inattentive eye. NFL players have accomplished a rite of passage proven through sacrifice—prevailed over narrow margins, made it to the big game, to fame, fortune, and in the eyes of many football fanatics, to manhood.
Arguably imposed in the following essay, men and women—by directive of evolutionary nature—sub/consciously strive for a rite of passage into wo/manhood as football fanatics, who have observed football players transcend mental and physical barriers through athletic prowess. The fanatic takes avid notice of this passage, and vicariously claims their own rite through multi-modal forms, including wanton outburst, celebration, statistical knowledge of sport and sportsmen; quasi-religious interconnectedness, spirit(uality), and an “inside” form of communication. I cannot stress the phenomenon of the term vicarious enough in discussion of this complex discourse community, rooted in the vicarious rite of passage of the fanatic, or, an interception of that rite—if you will. I will keep the adjective, vicarious, at bay for the sake of word attrition, but not its concept.
- A keen and regular spectator of a (professional) sport, orig. of baseball; a regular supporter of a (professional) sports team; hence, a keen follower of a specified hobby or amusement, and gen. an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.
- Of persons, their actions, attributes, etc.: Characterized, influenced, or prompted by excessive and mistaken enthusiasm, esp. in religious matters.
Rite of passage:
A rite performed by a social group or one of its members to mark the transition from one phase of life to another. Also in extended use: a significant event or experience in a person’s life.
From the fanatic who ditches their spouse at a vinyl-riveted booth to instead hover by the big brass “C’ at an overcrowded bar, pretending to order drinks—when in actuality just wanting to view the game on the widescreen, to those fanatics noted by University of Chicago Professor Craig Forney in The Holy Trinity of American Sports “[that]…go shirtless in freezing temperatures, and…pierce or paint the body in individual sacrifice to inspire a team[,]” there seems little difference to the extreme methods of social sacrifice, just different environments. “Similar to the [athletic] sacrifices on the field,” Forney continues, “he or she [the fanatic] stomps and screams without regard for personal enjoyment, creating the most intense of sports environments in the United States” (28).
Digression to the Willow Inn, Anthropomorphism,* and a Fantasy of Friends
I drape my 1933 Philadelphia Eagles scarf around my neck like a priest’s stole and walk up the steps of the Willow Inn. Inside, I smell the familiar stagnancy of cheap beer and cigarette smoke that embraces those stepping outside and back in every so often. I know these smells not because I frequent the Willow Inn; on the contrary, it’s my first visit; but there are some scents that, given enough time within or around, resurface and remind. The bar is rectangular. To my right are two men. I come to know their names—Mark and Eric—over the duration of two Eagle’s games: one against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 26, and the other on Nov. 2 televised from NRG Stadium, home to the Houston Texans. Both of the games occur on Sundays. Closest to me is Mark. He is about fifty-years-old and has in his large hands, a large smartphone, and says, to his phone,* “Brandon Marshall let me down.” I find out that Brandon Marshall is a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, and didn’t score the points Mark needed for his fantasy football team. Mark’s attention is fluctuating from the Eagles game on the screen above him, to the screen of his smartphone that’s connected via Wi-Fi to the Yahoo fantasy football league.
“So what’s the deal with fantasy football,” I ask Mark. “I’ve always wondered but never started up with it.”
“It’s simple,” Mark says, ruddy from cyclic shots of Grand Marnier and bottles of Miller High-Life, “you just pick players from all different NFL teams, like a draft, plug them in to your own team, and compete against your friends. It’s all based on a point system and the program updates instantly during games so you know where you stand. Brandon Marshall let me down.”
Mark, sparked by my interest in his interest, informs me that fantasy football wasn’t always this way.
“We used to have a flipchart…. Get ‘em baby, get ‘em,” Mark yells at the screen.*
We watch the screen; flags are thrown; an Eagle finally takes down a Cardinal who was booking toward the in-zone—penalties’ against Philadelphia.
I wonder if he calls his wife, baby, I think, looking at a discolored wedding band choking his fleshy ring finger.
“I hate a sloppy game,” Mark says. “So, we had flipcharts in one my buddies’ basement and we’d have to update our teams ourselves, and USA Today was the Bible. Whatever statistics were in USA Today we would transcribe on our flipcharts. But yeah, that newspaper was the Bible for us. Now, it’s all done for you online.”
I wonder if the internet platform of fantasy football has hampered Mark’s interaction and friendship with his buddies, as mindfully highlighted in the essay “The Meaning of Friendship in a Social-Networked World” by Alex Pattakos, founder of the Center for Meaning in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Pattakos theorizes that, “In our post-modern society, there is evidence that while we have plenty of acquaintances, more and more of us have few individuals to whom we can turn and share our authentic selves, our deep intimacies” (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, Walters 211). Common sense would lean toward the truth that Mark and his buddies’ basement fantasy football league was more authentic and supported closer friendships than those maintained through online fantasy teams.
“Hey, Dana,” Mark hails the Bartender, “an order of Buffalo wings, please.”
In his book Football and American Identity, Gerhard Falk, Professor of Sociology at State University College of New York at Buffalo—the city where football’s bestselling chicken wing garnishes originate—makes an attempted run at fantasy football, saying, “Some of those who play this game [fantasy football] say they are motivated by the opportunity to beat their friends and to show superiority in playing the game” (149). Tackling Falk, I believe fantasy football goes beyond bragging rights and quenching alpha male instinctual competitive thirst. A fanatic in most cases introspectively wishes to be the athlete on the field that has gained, in their minds, passage into manhood. As observed and annotated by Craig Forney, “Sometime after teenage years, the change from player to spectator of the sports trinity represents maturity to a more senior position in the United States” (42). The fanatic also poises to capitalize on the rite itself—to control it with a “fantasy” team, which, to an extent, fulfills the conception of passage into a position of authority and strength but nonetheless remains the only noun within this sentence flanked by quotation marks. Forney points out, “When not pontificating, a fan helps conduct ‘fantasy leagues,’ exercising the imagined ability to run a team better than the real officials of teams” (43).
Men without Women and Women without Men
Most modern cultures do not incorporate rites of passage forwarded from generations; nor do they create them. In American society—inherently fluid, rites are downplayed, falsely represented, or nonexistent. Historically, among women, fertility has been solely linked to womanhood; and in most cases, a metaphoric bell is rung with positivity—often cause for celebration. For men, rites of passages are uneven—from hunting animals to humans—and continuously changing… religiously entrenched in mental and physical endurance (a la pregnancy and labor), trampling fear and adversity Parallel to girls, a boy is claimed as a man by a discourse community made of men, and celebration normally ensues.
Today, a scattershot of “rites” may pass for youth transitions to adults—ranging from a shaky drivers license obtainment to social induction through committing murder. But for the majority of young to middle aged men and women of the twenty-first century, a (sub)conscious lack of socially collective rites may be forming a conscience-harbored failed attempt at making, and believing, one has transitioned into wo/manhood.
For women sportsfans, the patriarchy of football was not always accepting. “Prior to the 1980s, most American women were discouraged from showing interest in aggressive sports…. [But] women now make up 43 percent of American football fans. More than 375,000 women attend football games each weekend” (Falk 134)—not including the cheerleaders.
Three women sit at the Willow Inn bar. They appear to be paying little attention to the game and are the only individuals wearing Eagles fan merchandise (the female bartender, Dana, also sports an Eagles tee). Although out of earshot, I watch authentic communication transpire. Cathy, who I only know as Cathy because Dana belted, “Cathy, do want a glass for your Yuengling?” is talking with the second woman, while the third lightly smears her finger over and over on the face of her smartphone. I imagine the woman on her smartphone exchanging jabs on the Yahoo fantasy league, bingeing on players and stats—in heated competition like Mark. But instead she contends to text, wait, giggle, text, wait—giggle. I can’t say for sure; perhaps her team was simply kicking up dirt in the eyes of opposing teams. But never did the men or the women sitting at the Willow Inn bar acknowledge each other—face to face, voice to voice, or otherwise.
Mark mentions that his fantasy team spankboys was a pun derived years ago, “[when] The Eagles were going to spank the Cowboys.” Again, I wonder about Mark’s wife—if she’s aware that he’s formulated a fantasy football team called the spankboys. Supposing she is aware, this would provide a reasonable explanation why she doesn’t accompany him. Alternatively, if Mark’s wife knows about spankboys and is proud of Mark and his team, and validates Eagle fanship, then further explanations must be gathered as to why she wasn’t there to support him.
And where was Cathy’s significant other? She’s wearing a wedding ring like Mark; and the other two women going solo as well—guised in Eagles regalia, talking in legitimate conversation but lifting eyes to the game only sparingly—only connecting with the men in the room with joyful outbursts of woo-hoos, there ya go’s, and that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout’s . These united bursts remind me of the vocalized echoes of Evangelistic egging—fanatical in its own rite. Similarly, when the tides of the Eagles game turns: you gotta be kiddin’ me’s, and oh no’s, and good god’s erupt—as when an evangelistic agenda evolves into a discussion of evil.
Enter the Outsider
To the right of Mark sits Eric. Eric says approximately five words during both games combined, but he does a lot of listening—most often to Mark. Mark especially likes to whisper to Eric, but whispers became normal audible ranges under the influence of alcohol and it’s easy for me to understand what Mark is saying. Eric nods his head, an acknowledged gesture of agreement; a form of communication that—in my experience—is a communicatory phenomenon only men with men seem to get away with.
“Whispered” chuckling becomes more frequent when Robert approaches the bar and sits to the left of Mark, who quiets down and goes back to orchestrating his smartphone screen with doughy fingers. Robert is the outsider fan: an Eagles fan, yes, but too much of an intellectual—watches the sport for the fun of it, maybe knows some statistics and names to throw around in conversation, but isn’t a fanatic. An outsider fan routinely explores other avenues to gain or simulate rites of passage. Robert’s rite, as I come to find out, holistic life-success and positivity. How do I know? When the game is over and barstools scoot in sound of defeat, Robert hands me two pieces of paper—one includes a sketch of four interconnecting circles labeled:
To the right of the sketch is Investor’s Business Daily’s “10 secrets to success.” On the second paper, the lyrics to a Sly & the Family Stone song called, “Stand,” are printed. I attempt to give the papers back to Robert.
“Please, keep them,” he says.
Inasmuch as the papers offer valid advice, I cannot see the forest for the trees. Importantly, I cannot deny the sense that through this transfer of information between Robert and me, I was tagged an outsider as well.
Many Americans live a kind of inner dream, or an ideology of what it means to be a man or woman. Granted, professional athletes—in this scenario the Philadelphia Eagles—are a modern example of individual team players who have adapted, overcome and potentially gained a sense of manhood. But even for the athlete, this may not be enough. Why; because it is often not recognized within their own social discourse community. In professional sports, competition, pressure, and performance are never fully achieved while in active roles. An athlete rarely says “O.K., I made it to the NFL, now I can stop.” No, they say, “I made it to the NFL, now I have to make it to the Super Bowl.” Transitions are largely continuous in life—as are rites of passage.
But for fanatics, a very real—in actuality translucent—rite is often all that’s needed to fulfill a sense of achievement and passage into wo/manhood. Spectator sports can fill a void in the conscience—even to the point of fanaticism that is often cultivated young and only wildly overgrows with age; often to the pivotal point when an epiphany occurs in the form of a stumping question: what was it all for.
Allen, Ray. “Student Talks about American Culture.” University Wire. Oct 16 2014. ProQuest.
Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
Falk, Gerhard. Football and American Identity. New York: Haworth, 2005. Print.
“fan, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 30 October 2014.
“fanatic, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 30 October
Forney, Craig A. The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baseball, and
Basketball. Macon, Ga.: Mercer UP, 2007. Print.
Pattakos, Alex. “The Meaning of Friendship in a Social-Networked World.” Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters. Everything’s an Argument: With Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013.
“rite of passage, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 3 November 2014.