John Proctor, writer, teacher and our Dad For All Seasons, shows us how to root for our favorite team without checking out as a parent.
Whoever they are, they say you never regret the things you’ve done, just the things you haven’t done. But one of my great regrets is something I have done with way too many weekends of my youth, adolescence, and college days: thoroughly wasted them in front of the TV watching sports.
This is a habit I consciously broke myself of sometime in my twenties when I moved to New York. My Kansas City Royals were god-awful since I was in middle school, and I’d decided I was against baseball on principle after the 1994 Players’ Strike. College football went the way of baseball for me soon after, on similar grounds: the way both sports are run made me think of the world as a fundamentally ill place. I still watched my beloved Kansas Jayhawks during March Madness, but I was sports-free the other 49 weeks of the year.
But slowly throughout the past decade, the athletic spectacle has once again gotten its tentacles around me. Maybe it was the Jayhawks’ national championship in 2008 or the Royals’ slow ascendance to the World Series last year. More likely, it’s a product of having a full load of nephews to keep up conversation with.
Strangely, having two girls has made my renewed sports-watching feel somehow new and different. I still refuse to spend more than a couple of hours on any day watching any given game, but I do enjoy using sports-watching, particularly games involving teams I’m emotionally invested in, as another window into their child-lives.
I’m finding recently that I’ve probably made way too much of the differences between two-year-old Crazy Eights and five-year-old Checkers, particularly in their interest in sports. Crazy Eights is (so far, at least) more extroverted than Checkers, which I noticed as early as two years ago when she was eight months old and we were watching a KU basketball game with a home crowd at my father’s sports bar in Kansas. When the place erupted after a good play, Crazy Eights screamed and smiled along with them, while Checkers yelled, “Be quiet!” For at least a year after that game I mistakenly assumed only Crazy Eights would be interested in watching the games with me. What I found, though, was that Checkers was watching the games much more closely than I had suspected. She started asking questions almost incessantly throughout any given game—why the action stops, why balls are shaped the way they are, why I don’t like certain announcers—and is now beginning to speak up when my nephews start talking sports. She still doesn’t necessarily cheer during a game, so much as she talks it out.
This is all to say that I’m learning more about my children, about the sports I love, and about the joys of watching sports in general with every game I share with them. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
Get them invested. Buy them caps, t-shirts, whatever, but more importantly, invite them into conversations you’re having with family and friends about your team. Go with the love over the hate; I don’t, for example, mention my deep-seated, decades-long loathing of the Yankees, because 1) I don’t want them to see how hateful I can be over a bunch of people I’ll never meet, and 2) I deeply fear one or both of my children will decide to root for the Yankees just to get my goat. My 13-year-old nephew Payden, a born contrarian, makes a point out to cheer for any team playing any team I’m rooting for. He’s lucky I love him so much.
Tell them the rules of the game in broad strokes only. If the game is new to you, much like anything else, if you don’t know, just say you don’t know. If you’re watching a game you’ve watched since you were young, remember how long it took you to understand that foul calls in basketball and strike zones in baseball will always be contested; saying they favor the other team is part of the fun of cheering for yours.
Smile a lot, even when your team is losing. I’m pretty sure this is the most important thing I’ve learned. I’ve gotten lots of practice recently, as my Kansas Jayhawks had yet another disappointing March Madness. But let me tell you this—during every moment of their embarrassingly lopsided loss to smaller in-state Wichita State, forcing myself to appear uncrestfallen actually made me feel much better than other early-round losses—like the time in 2010 when I burst out in expletives at Farokhmanesh’s dagger shot in front of her, my wife, my mother, and my stepfather. Lucky for me, Checkers was less than a year old and remembers nothing.
Go all in on their connections and angles. I bit my tongue and went with it when Checkers insisted that the Jayhawk mascot was a chicken until she was three years old, then passed it on last year:
ME: You guys wanna wear your Jayhawk gear for the game today?
CHECKERS: Yay! Let’s get out our KU sweatshirts!
CRAZY EIGHTS: Want Caillou sweatshirt!
CHECKERS: No, it’s KU, not Caillou. K-U.
ME: Shhh…just go with it.
Don’t get upset when they say things that disrespect your team or the game. As I said before, I’m already steeling myself to have at least one of my daughters become a Yankees fan. But even this year, when KU was playing primary in-state rival Kansas State, Crazy Eights piped up, “I like the purple team.” It took me a few minutes to realize she would like any team, so long as purple was in their color scheme.
Kids should be allowed to believe in the purity and goodness of the game for at least as long as they believe in Santa Claus. Wait awhile to tell them the real reason you can’t be a Nets fan is that you refuse to fund Bruce Ratner’s wholesale gutting and whitewashing of Atlantic Yards to build their arena funded by the British Lehman Brothers and Russia’s Donald Trump. And don’t even mention that KU has a new point guard this year because last year’s point guard tweeted naked photos of himself with a local high school nurse.
Take them to see a live game, and go for the bells and whistles. If your finances are anything like mine you’ll only be able to afford one or two trips to the stadium a year, so splurge on the $10 hot dogs and cheaply made, expensively priced junk with the team logo. I speak this maxim without any real-life backup, yet. Checkers has requested, for her sixth birthday this June, to see a Cyclones game in Coney Island! She’s having a hard time envisioning what exactly that entails, though—she keeps saying how she can’t wait to go to the bar to watch a game with me. Which I guess brings me to my final thing I’ve learned: Kids remember everything.