As I recently mentioned, on Monday, March 24th I conducted an interview on the topic of sports culture. I wanted to get the perspective of an avid sports fan in order to learn what his views are on the significance of sports in modern life, and on the debate over the name of the Washington Redskins. This is just one of multiple interviews I’m conducting on this subject, and during the course of the next couple of weeks I’ll be trying to learn from the perspectives of multiple individuals from different backgrounds.
The individual I interviewed was a man named George, who works as a bartender at a local Chili’s. I was introduced to him through a friend, who told me that George was extremely knowledgeable on the topic of sports. I soon found out that this was an understatement, and George ended up sharing a lot of fascinating information with me.
I arrived at the Chili’s early, and I was shown to the bar. While I was waiting for George to arrive, I took some time to look around at the environment. The bar area was quiet, since it was a Monday afternoon and many people were likely still at their day jobs. Two TVs hung over the bar at either end of the room, both playing sports channels. One was playing “Intentional Talk,” a sports talk show on the MLB Network. The sound was muted so the on-screen discussion couldn’t be heard, but the show moved back and forth between the discussion and clips of recent baseball games, along with statistics displayed on screen updating the audience about various games. At the bottom of the screen, a scorebar showed live updates of the scores of various spring training games taking place that day.
The second television was playing ESPN’s “NFL Insiders.” On that muted screen, three men and a woman discussed football stats, while the screen alternated between the discussion and lists of various player statistics.
George soon arrived, full of pep and energy. Since I was interviewing him during his work shift, he spent the first few minutes checking the stock levels of the bar’s supplies and getting his cash register setup. Yet even before I started asking him questions, he already started talking about sports with the other bartender.
“I can’t even hate the cowboys anymore,” he said when the other bartender brought up football. “They’re just not good.”
“Hate on principle,” the other bartender said. The directness of her comment made me smirk; even though I’m not a sports fan, I’ve been conditioned to hate the Dallas Cowboys from a young age, as are most others who live in the Philadelphia area. Rivalries, it seemed, could become a part of the entire region.
“I’m getting too old to hate,” George said.
Once we settled into a serious discussion of sports culture, one of the first things George brought up was this idea of fan identity. He explained to me that Philadelphia fans are well-known, even notorious, for their passion about their teams. “Philly fans are the best fans,” he said. “A sports franchise is supposed to take on the identity of the city.”
That identity is strongest in Philly, he explained, partially because Philadelphia is one of only three cities where all their teams for the major sports (football, baseball, hockey, and basketball) are within the city limits. This immediately reminded me of my recent trip to a Flyers hockey game, where I noticed that the stadiums for all of Philly’s teams are built within sight of each other in a closely-packed sports district. It turns out that only Philadelphia, Chicago, and Denver had such a self-contained set of sports franchises all within their city limits, and only a total of twelve cities even have stadiums for all four major sports within their greater metropolitan area.
George then started explaining the importance of this identity connection between the fans and the city. “The number one thing is not about winning,” he said. “It’s about how you reflect the fan base. Even if you have bad moves for winning, you bring fans into the ballpark.” He then proceeded to explain how some fans might complain about their team making a certain trade or a certain draft pick that they disapproved of, because the decisions don’t always seem like the types that will lead to more wins and more championships. But, he said, the teams made moves that “developed their identity with their fan base.”
I asked him to describe the “Philadelphia identity,” and he began making comparisons to other widely-known Philadelphia cultural icons. “We have Rocky,” he said, referring to the Sylvester Stallone film, which was set in Philadelphia. “People think Rocky. They think the Liberty Bell. They think the art museum. They think the Flyers.” As George explained this, I thought back to my experiences at the Flyers game. I told him about how they had played images of the Liberty Bell on the JumboTron before the game started, along with other images of American icons. Playing those images in association with the sporting even is part of how this “Philadelphia identity” is forged and reinforced.
When I asked him for more details about the identity of the Flyers in particular, he pointed out that their nickname, the “Broad Street Bullies,” says it all. “Flyers are not finesse,” he said. “Flyers have lots of hits, lots of checking.” Other teams, he explained, might have players who make careful, finesseful shots. The Flyers, on the other hand, are more likely to rush the goalie and score in a more forceful manner.
I then asked George how this “Philadelphia identity” and the “Flyers identity” connected with the fans themselves. “Philadelphia fans have sports, but that’s it,” he explained. “That’s our focal point in Philadelphia. It’s sports.” We discussed how, in Philadelphia, there isn’t much else in the local area, like New York’s nightlife or Florida’s beaches and resorts. As an example, he spoke about the Florida Marlins, known now as the Miami Marlins. He said that they are a good team (and have won two World Series championships), but they don’t draw in the fans. In fact, I found that Miami’s attendance was ranked 28 out of 30 in 2013 (with Philadelphia coming in at #8), 18 out of 30 in 2012 (with Philadelphia at #1), 29 out of 30 in 2011 (with Philadelphia at #1), and 28 out of 20 in 2010 (with Philadelphia at #2). The attendance boost in 2012 is mostly attributed to the fact that the team built a brand new stadium that opened that year.
The low attendance doesn’t seem to be entirely due to poor performance, since while the Marlins ranked #29 in performance in 2013, they were #25 in 2012, and #22 in 2011, and #17 in 2010. So why would the team’s attendance be so consistently low (ranking 28th, 28th, and 29th for the three years excluding when the new stadium was built), when their performance only matched that low ranking in one of those years? George told me that it was because Florida has a culture that is more focused on resorts, families on vacations, and senior citizens who have retired in the area. They simply don’t have the same focus on sports that the Philadelphia area has.
After having learned about Philadelphia’s sports culture and the way culture can vary from one city to another, I asked George what he thought about the Washington Redskins name change debate. He explained, “Fans don’t see the Redskins name as a problem. A very small group of people are offended by the name. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t know if it was meant to be an insult when they came up with the names. Look at what was acceptable language in different eras.”
When we started discussing language and the evolution it’s taken over the years, George pointed out the differences between sports team names during the late 1800s and early 1900s compared to those today. He pointed out that newly formed sports teams, like those found in major league soccer, tend to use more “modern” names, like the Houston Dynamo, the Philadelphia Union, and the LA Galaxy. Since major league soccer wasn’t founded until 1993 (compared to major league baseball which was founded in 1869 and the NFL which was founded in 1920), the naming traditions some from a very different cultural viewpoint. Many forms of language that were accepted in the years when other sports leagues were founded are no longer accepted today. Teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, therefore, gained their names during an era of language that is no longer appropriate today.
After giving this topic some thought, George said, “Does it make it right, necessarily? No, I don’t think it makes it right. Is it a form of genocide? We as humans take things from the past, and there’s this sense that we’re making fun of something that’s extinct.”
“It’s tough, though,” he added, “because there’s so many arguments. It’s not right, though. Everybody has a tolerance for pain. If you find words painful, you can’t help that sometimes. Is that a form of cultural extinction? Is that what we’re doing to people?”
Since we had begun discussing baseball more than any other sport, I decided to ask George how he felt about the efforts to change the offensive names and mascots like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo. A recent Twitter movement has sprung up under the hashtag “#DeChief,” encouraging people to remove the Indians’ logo from their hats, jerseys, and other sports gear. Some fans are now starting to attend games wearing their “dechiefed” gear, while others protest that anyone who doesn’t like the mascot should root for another team.
“They’re trying to go with the ‘C’ more than the chief logo,” George said. “There’s this identity with that. It’s tough. It’s definitely a tough gray area. You feel differently about it every day. There’s tradition, and there’s offending people.”
One of the TVs above the bar had started playing a baseball game, the Cleveland Indians vs the Cincinnati Reds. We discussed the game for a time. Then, just before I left, George said, “Here’s my best advice: Don’t get involved in sports. Too many wasted emotions. It’s fun, though. You have to compete with somebody. Some people take solace in being able to compete with themselves. ‘Can I do this, can I do that.’ But baseball is head to head. There’s somebody else that is going to lose.”
After the interview was over, I had some time to reflect on it and to consider what I learned. I definitely felt that George and I had a good discussion, and he revealed a lot about the nature of sports and identity. I was also pleasantly surprised about how smooth the discussion went, even when we touched on sensitive topics. This was good, since as I discussed in my pre-interview post, I was hoping for an open flow of communication that would help both George and myself to discuss and learn as we went along. George’s introspective questions about the morality of the situation and about cultural extinction led me to believe he was considering ideas he hadn’t considered before, and I certainly know that I was.
Of course, one limitation of this interview was that George is a Philadelphia fan, rather than a fan of the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians. If possible, I may try to seek out a fan of one of those teams in order to learn what they have to say about these debates. Though George did tell me that if the name and mascot of one of his Philly teams were to be changed, he would probably find that upsetting. When I consider everything George said about a sports team being a part of a city’s identity, and how the team works to connect with the culture of the people who live in their area, it makes sense that people would take it personally. The challenge, then, is to address the need for change while still keeping in mind the emotional impact it will have on fans who see their sports team as a part of their identity. From what I’ve seen in many of the online debates I’ve witnessed, many sports fans react harshly, which makes it difficult to have a discussion about the need for change. In fact, a study that I read (Fandom and Psychological Enhancement: Effects of Sport Team Identification and Imagined Interaction on Self-Esteem and Management of Social Behaviors, Keaton, et al, 2014) stated that “When identity or ego becomes threatened (such as after a loss) much research finds that aggressive behaviors occur because highly favorable views of the self are disputed by others” (p. 4). If fans strongly identify with their sports team, and that sports team’s identity is disputed by others, it makes sense that fans would end up taking it personally.
I plan to keep these ideas in mind in my future interviews. I have several others planned this week, and I’m hoping that they will also go smoothly. My conversation with George went well largely due to the rapport we built up early on and how comfortable we became with the discussion. I think it also helped that I was able to share my own experiences with him, such as when I discussed my recent trip to the Flyers game. It helped us to establish a connection and it helped fuel the conversation that followed. With any luck I’ll be able to establish similar connections with the others I interview.