Wallflower at the Superbowl

I watched the very first Superbowl with my family, at least some of it. I thought it might be interesting. But it wasn’t. Not to me, anyway. And it still isn’t. Today is Superbowl Sunday, and I’m watching a rerun of Iron Man 2, let’s see, for the third time. I’m aware that most of America is gathered around the video altar rejoicing in good-fellowship and a huge feast of munchies. Sounds fun, except that I just can’t be in the same room with football. I think I know what Jews feel like when everyone else is celebrating Christmas. Just as Jews observe Hanukah instead, which never seems to be as big a deal as Christmas, my family and I had home-made pizza as we watched the movie Groundhog Day last night, as we have for the last… what? Fifteen, sixteen years at least. (In fact, there seems to be some sort of parallel between the movie’s premise, in which a man lived the eponymous holiday over and over again for at least twenty years.)

I do not exactly disdain football, or sports in general, though I admit that is my first reaction. I can’t dismiss an interest in sports as the province of dullards. My brother isn’t close to being one, nor is S.T. Joshi, nor was Paul Kurtz. But I am, as I have always been, utterly and completely baffled. Dr. Kurtz used to say how maybe secular humanists are just tone deaf to religion and its appeal. That is how I would have to describe my indifference (to put it mildly) to sports.

Keep in mind that I admire athletes. I envy their ability and discipline. I readily admit they are superior to me! And I can certainly understand devotion to a team when one’s relative is a member, or when the team is representing one’s school or town, though I have never been able to share it. (Maybe it has something to do with forced attendance at a high school pep rally, which had all the marks of a Nurnberg rally.) But why do people enthusiastically follow sports teams with which they possess no natural connection? Some years ago, when I walked into my classroom at Mount Olive College, a student asked which I rooted for: NC State or UNC. This stumped me: why on earth would I give a fig about either one of them? Why did these Mount Olive students? I still don’t get it. Do you?

I have sometimes heard it said that sports gives men something to talk about, while women spend their time discussing matters of emotional and personal importance. Going back to those halcyon days at Mount Olive again, once a couple of the (male) faculty invited me to drop in at lunchtime at the Southern Belle, a local café and hang-out. There was a surprisingly large group of young professional men and faculty sitting around a few shoved-together Formica tables—talking about sports. Honestly, I felt as if I had somehow blundered into a group of foreigners chattering in some alien language. I can tell you, it wasn’t long before I made some excuse and got the hell out of there. I had not one thing to say. I’d have been more conspicuous had I stayed and said nothing than by getting up and leaving quickly. Nice guys, but totally mundane.

I, on the other hand, am an incurable nerd, just this side (I think) of Asperger’s Syndrome. I love comic books, science fiction movies, Sword-& Sorcery fiction (which I also write), Lovecraft and Tolkien. These interests are my spectator sports, demanding no participation outside the imagination. But then football games are spectator sports for everybody but the guys on the field. What is the difference? I’m not sure I know, but let me give it a try.

I couldn’t care less about any sports team, but there are teams I follow. They’re called the Avengers, the Justice League, the Justice Society, the Legion of Superheroes. What is the difference? Both interests involve vicarious combat. Sports are often thought to channel and dissipate violent urges. And that’s a real service to society. (And you know by now, don’t you, that the business about Superbowl Sunday being the worst day of the year for wife-beating is malicious misinformation.)

What I get from superhero fiction is not that. Partly, I think, I like it because it is a fantasy compensating for the lack of justice in the decaying society we live in, wherein the innocent suffer at the hands of violent felons and then from a legal system that adds insult to injury by taking the side of criminals. And there’s no real chance that will ever change. I can only relish the complete fantasy that the bad guys might get theirs, and that is why I so appreciate the Punisher, the Eradicator, Rorschach (“Used to mollycoddle criminals, let them live.”). Wouldn’t it be great? But it’s like imagining a man can fly. Justice? Yeah, right–when pigs, or men, can fly. That’ll be the day.

But there’s also the mythology angle. The superheroes of text (Conan, Doc Savage, John Carter) and image (Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man) are like Hercules, Achilles, Theseus, even Apollo and Zeus. There is an element of transcendence and the igniting of the imagination. It gives what religion gives to believers, but without requiring belief. Does it “save” you? Well, it saves you from the crushing, numbing grind of the mundane. It does me.

H.P. Lovecraft once referred to a fellow-writer as a “self-blinded earth-gazer.” Forgive me, but that’s what I think of the sports fan—if that’s all he is. Of course, you can be both, and more. Like my brother Byron. Like Joshi, the world’s leading authority on Lovecraft.

And what about the nerd, the geek, the dweeb? I believe the stereotype (not necessarily an exaggeration!) is of a one-sided personality: everything crammed into one side of the brain with little to no wiring on the other. Aren’t these brainy folks active in the real world, too, by virtue of their tech-savvy? Yeah, sure, but my guess is their scientific genius just happens to prove useful in the real world. For them, it’s just more computer games! Which is the way it ought to be!

If I am not a dweeb, my saving grace is that I do have another aspect to me, not that it puts me in touch with the real world, mind you, and that is my religious scholarship. I have something else going on. And I readily admit that most football fans are about more than the pigskin. Or they may be. I guess I know as little about them as I do the Hottentots. But let’s agree to disagree: you take the Superbowl, I’ll take Superman.

So says Zarathustra,

Dreaming of the Superman

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