Observations on Boston Sports Culture

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I went to my first professional basketball game last night where I saw the Boston Celtics play against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden. While this was not my first live basketball game (having seen Jeremy Lin play for Harvard and lose to Cornell while he was at it) and certainly not my first professional sporting event, it was a time for me to really qualify my observations of the culture surrounding professional sports, particularly in New England.

Super Bowl LI

This was also the first sporting event I went to see in the wake of the New England Patriots winning Super Bowl LI. This past season was notable to Patriots fans because this was also the season quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for four games because he was suspected of deflating footballs that led to the Patriots securing their spot in Super Bowl XLIX. I’m not about to delve into merits of Roger Goodell’s charges against Brady or whether he was justified in benching Brady at all, but it served as a good demonstration about the importance New Englanders place on their sports teams.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, I had my “Welcome to Boston” moment when I was shopping for groceries one night two years ago after news broke that Tom Brady may get suspended for his alleged part in “Deflategate” as it came to be known. I was on line to check out behind an older man who was angrily ranting at (not with) the cashier about how the NFL was out to get Brady. He specifically cited how Ray Rice was only suspended for two games after footage of him slugging his then-fiancée surfaced whereas Tom Brady was potentially facing a four game suspension.

The comparison that came to my mind at first was the scandal surrounding Penn State University’s assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Long story short, multiple guys came out saying Sandusky molested them as children in Penn State’s showers. Not only were he and head coach Joe Paterno fired from their positions, but the NCAA also benched Penn State’s football team for the season. Penn State students rioted in reaction.

For all I knew, it could have been how the media treated the incident since fake news is not a new thing at all, but I interpreted the reaction of PSU’s students that they weren’t so upset that Sandusky was doing what he did, but rather they were upset that he got caught. PSU was known to have a formidable football team, and Sandusky’s removal almost guaranteed a decline in PSU’s performance. As far as I could tell, PSU students placed greater importance on the reputation of their football team than on the safety of children. As an Ivy Leaguer, this reaction seemed odd to me since Ivy League schools are generally known for how bad their sports teams are; Cornell’s football team was so bad that not only did coaches generally not survive a tenure longer than a couple years, but even professors made fun of the team.

Fast forward back to this past football season, and the thing Patriots fans wanted to see most was seeing Roger Goodell hand Tom Brady the Super Bowl trophy.

The Tribal Mentality of Sports Fans

It was after the Patriots won the Super Bowl against the Atlanta Falcons that I was finally able to put into words what it is that perplexed me most about New England sports fans.

As I have written in pasts posts, Bostonians are oddly insecure about their place in the world relative to New York. An example of which is this meme that I pulled from the Massachusetts Memes Facebook page.

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Everyone knows the destinations in America for pizza are New York (and New Jersey by extension) for thin crusts and Chicago for deep dish. I’ve complained ad nauseum on Facebook about the frightfully boring food scene in Boston. It’s true I’ve eaten some pretty damn good pizza in Boston, but I actually had to know where to look for it. In New York, on the other hand, I could get lost in Manhattan, walk into a completely random pizzeria, and reasonably expect the pizza to be good.

Many New Yorkers come up to Boston to escape their high-stress lives (while transplants to Boston go the other way for a more exciting nightlife), and most New Yorkers have nothing but positive things to say about Boston. The most negative reaction I hear is when a New Yorker actually moves to Boston that they discover how boring the latter really is relative to the former and how much harder it is to build a social network here than it is there.

This imagined rivalry with New York manifests itself most clearly whenever the topic of sports comes up in Boston. Roger Goodell is likely the most hated thing in Boston. Coming in second would be the New York Yankees, with their 27 World Series wins. The Red Sox had a rough run with an 86-year dry spell until they won the 2004 World Series. The Red Sox’s poor performance is traced to the “Curse of the Bambino” superstition when the Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, though I blame it on the fact that the Red Sox were the last to integrate. The Sox didn’t start recruiting non-white players until 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson joined the (then-Brooklyn) Dodgers because owner Tom Yawkey (and honestly a lot of Bostonians) was a racist and proud of it. Growing up in New Jersey, I always knew Babe Ruth as a Yankee since he actually played for the Yankees for much longer than he did for the Red Sox.

The parallel I draw to this mentality is when India played against Pakistan in the cricket World Cup in 2011. As is well known, India and Pakistan have a relationship that can be compared to North and South Korea, and the rivalry between their cricket teams reflects that.

I was sitting in Mechanical Synthesis lecture in the basement of Upson Hall. The Upson lounge was immediately above us, and people were audibly stamping their feet above us. The stamping was Indian cricket fans watching the World Cup final in the lounge. India ultimately did win and I remember seeing Facebook statuses going up where people were expressing their pride in being Indian because the Indian cricket team won the World Cup. I was thoroughly confused how somebody could be proud to be something as a result of the achievement of somebody else.

Bostonians are exactly the same way. They imagine that people in other cities are jealous of Bostonians because the Patriots secured their fifth Super Bowl win, as I’ve gleaned from trolling Boston sports fans on Twitter. It’s completely inconceivable to Bostonians that New Yorkers just have other things going on in their lives and thus don’t spend anywhere near as much time obsessing over their sports teams as Bostonians do. As far as I know, New Yorkers probably realize their football teams aren’t as good as the Patriots, but they’re perfectly content with the fact that they have bigger paychecks, the diverse culture, and better-looking people, both male and female, than Bostonians do.

As I’ve cited with Indians, Bostonians are nowhere near the only people guilty of this. My friend from high school went to college in Philadelphia. She wore her New York Rangers shirt to a hockey game once, and a Philadephian fan poured his beer on her for that reason.

Where I grew up in New Jersey was largely Yankees territory, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary for people to like teams from other places. I knew more than a few Red Sox fans in New Jersey. Back in the 1990s, when Michael Jordan was playing, the Chicago Bulls also had a following in New Jersey.

My coarse description of the typical Boston sports fan is that at least on some level, he is aware that he is a loser. For that reason, he needs to associate himself with a winning sports team so that way he can feel like he won something by extension. In Boston, it’s not “the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl!” but rather “we won the Super Bowl!”

With that in mind, Boston sports fans are also quick to abandon their teams when the team does poorly, as I’ve observed with the Celtics. As of now, the Celtics are ranked second in the NBA Eastern Conference. Consequently, I saw almost every seat in TD Garden filled last night. This is in stark contrast to the time two years ago when I first moved to the Boston area. It wasn’t until two years after I moved here that I finally saw people wearing Celtics attire for the first time. From my understanding, their season last year was their first good season in a while. New York Rangers fans, on the other hand, tend to show the Rangers love regardless of how the Rangers are actually doing.

I am also unsure why it’s possible for people of one city to harbor any jealousy against people of another as we live in an age where people are more mobile than they ever have been in history. In my own lifetime, I was born in Missouri and lived in Ohio, two towns in New Jersey, western New York State, and now in the Boston area. There’s absolutely nothing aside from logistics stopping me from packing up and leaving right now. At the same time, I know Bostonians whose families lived inside the Route 128 belt for multiple generations, thus lending to the small-town mentality most natives appear to have. Even I’ll admit that Boston isn’t terrible enough that would necessitate a large number of people leaving, but if people are at all jealous of New York, then I don’t know why they couldn’t just pack up and move to New York, which is only a 4-hour train ride away from Boston.

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