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Professional sports are slowly returning after their sudden disappearance amid the global pandemic. This is welcome news for a lot of people, especially many men, who seem to have felt a sudden void in their life when sports suddenly vanished.
But I have to confess I don’t really care whether sports are back or not. Because I don’t really care about sports.
For much of my life, I thought: “I really should follow sports more.” It felt integral to my identity as a man, especially a straight, cisgender man aware of typical masculine norms. I often felt ignorant around other men, unable to contribute to entire conversations about the Leafs defence or who looked good in the draft this year. I could stay silent, make a feeble contribution, or walk away. But with each of those options, I felt I was missing out on an important bonding experience with other men – at least other men like myself, whether close friends or new acquaintances. They always seemed to connect and be more at ease with each other, using the shared language of sports. It seemed like an inclusive conversation that anyone could join, but I struggled to master the dialect.
Sometimes I tried filling out a March Madness bracket, or putting down money in a playoff pool. I paid enough attention to local teams and the biggest games and stars so that I could stumble along the edges of a conversation. But my heart wasn’t in it and I couldn’t understand why. Wasn’t sports supposed to be a common language for men? Whenever this happened, I would resolve to start reading the sports news every day; to watch a game from beginning to end; to master this important connection and language with other men that would mark me as fully one of them.
But honestly, I just didn’t care.
I do follow sports – a bit. I can sit and watch five minutes of any game on TV before my interest begins to wane. I can get caught up in stories, such as the Raptors championship run last year or Bianca Andreescu’s breakout summer of last year. I find the business and politics of sport fascinating, from concussion injuries and taking a knee to the decisions to resume games with physically distanced teams playing in empty stadiums.
But I don’t remember scores, wins or players. I only watched snippets of the Raptors playoffs. I couldn’t name more than five current NHL players. I don’t know who played in the Super Bowl this year.
When sports disappeared in March due to the pandemic, replaced by historic replays and desperate filler coverage, it took me a while in the confusion to realize that I no longer had to pretend to care. I do feel bad for anyone who lost an important diversion and passion, not to mention the many ordinary people who make their living through sports. But I only felt relief, myself.
As a boy and young man, I mostly hated playing sports. I was uncoordinated, untalented and a year younger than most of my classmates, so I rarely felt anything except frustration and humiliation when playing sports. I paid attention to spectator sports, initially out of boyish celebrity interest and hockey card collecting (Darryl Sittler being the icon of the day), but increasingly just because that’s what I figured I should be doing. Sometimes as an adult I got caught up in moments, such as the Blue Jays World Series runs of the early 1990s. But at the core, I didn’t really care. I felt obligated to care, because other men seemed to care, but as time went on, I knew it was never going to work. My heart wasn’t in it, but it still took a lot of time to admit that.
Two things helped me to change my views. The first was becoming a father of daughters. Having girls helped me to step outside my deeply gendered perspective to see professional sport as the ridiculously male-dominated world that it is: not just the aggressive young men on the field, but in the broadcast booths, back offices and guys talking around the water cooler. There are many female sports fans, of course, but it’s overwhelmingly a world run by men. And women’s sports, especially team sports, is caught in a conundrum, receiving less coverage because it draws smaller audiences, and drawing smaller audiences because it receives less coverage. Over time, I moved from wanting to somehow be part of that hypermasculine world – that bonding, that common vocabulary – to being happy to distance myself from much of it.
The first sports events I enjoyed watching in many years were my daughters’ soccer games. I watched only for them and their teammates, and it was fun. I know nothing about soccer. I have spent many years watching competitive girls’ soccer games and still barely know what is going on, as the other parents (not to mention my daughters) can testify, but that’s okay. I don’t mind and my daughters don’t seem to either.
The second was the growing realization that, as an adult, I could detach sports and my elusive quest for that shared male language from general fitness and exercise. That has been one of the best discoveries of my life and it has persisted unscathed through the pandemic. I ran a lot in April. I got out my bike in May. The kayak hit the water just before June. And it was all for myself, rather than a half-hearted effort to try and bond with other men over things I didn’t actually care about.
None of this is meant to gloat. Sports still means something to me, but as specific stories and memories that connect me to other things in my life like my daughters’ soccer games, rather than as a marker of masculinity. I can still recite the Blue Jays 1992 batting lineup. For reasons too obscure to explain, I feel an continuing affinity for the Richmond Tigers of the Australian Football League. And the mention of Darryl Sittler still gives me the warm glow of nostalgia.
But it took me many years to start being upfront, most of all with myself, and acknowledge that I don’t really care about sports. I’m happy that others enjoy them and I hope sports will some day return to the excitement and passion of earlier times. I might even follow along. Or I might not. Because I don’t really care about sports. And that’s the kind of man I am.
Jonathan Malloy lives in Ottawa.