The matter of sports teams as a means to signal regional identity and affiliation is not a frivolous one. Regardless of your personal view of professional sport or its place in your life, it exists as an undeniable presence and force in our communal landscape. It is a transcendent arc in a communal narrative, allowing otherwise disparate citizens and unlikely companions a common thread; a starting point. It facilitates conversation, interaction, understanding. When there is nothing else there is the weather, and there are sports. It can – at its best – act as a great leveler. Its draw is immune to race, gender, and socioeconomic standing. It is debatable whether a professional sports team is shaped in its city’s image or vice-versa, but either way they are often mirror reflections with the collective joys and scars of each perfectly charted to the other, a chart that can offer as much despair as it does hope. So no, this is no frivolous matter.
To the initiated, professional sport is a secret handshake, a password, and a badge all rolled into one. It unlocks generations of tradition, heritage, camaraderie and kinship. Like nationality it is conferred by place of birth; like religion, preordained through bloodline, often treated as a literal birthright.
What, then, of the uninitiated…of the new recruits? Of a person who is transplanted to a new - a foreign – geography? For these poor souls, professional sport is an outstretched hand, serving as a means of community assimilation and socialization. It is not the only means, mind you, but it’s of the more powerful. It can give a newcomer a vested emotional interest in a new place; a reason to be a part of the community, transforming the new 'home' team from one in name only to one of desire. It is a welcoming agent for the displaced, those who are otherwise strangers in strange lands.
The power of assimilation via sport as it concerns newcomers, however, has been compromised in our digital age. No longer do transplants latch on to the mascots of their new geography. There is today a choice where yesteryear there was not. And while we are as mobile as ever, we are at the same time paradoxically as connected to home as ever. In our digital age, we never have to leave it. The reminders and touchstones are always there…a satellite, an app, a wireless signal away. And we long for home. We pine for it; and we get there through sport, the same agent that has all the power to connect us to our new place. In this, sport offers us nostalgia and hope, of our youth and our innocence, of all that was ever good…the promise of the past. So for as much power as sport has to indoctrinate us to a new geography, it has equal power to tether us to our native place, because our sports teams are a reflection of us or us them and it is important and powerful to always be reminded…to always know…where you came from and what it was that shaped you and contributed to who you are. The person who forgets where they are from knows no community, knows no loyalty, knows no legacy.
For as much as we welcome assimilation to a new geography, it will never become us. It did not shape us and we are not of it nor them…we are other. So it is important – crucial – to remind them that we are not of the same cloth, not of the same legacy. And this not out of spite or disdain, but out of respect for boundaries and the context of composition. We don’t aim to reject our new environment, because part of our reward as Americans is our diversity of cultures, histories, and identities. We celebrate the other…the unique and disparate identities that collectively constitute our national fabric. To reject a new geography out of hand, therefore, would be to reject that which makes us us…that which makes us great…and would be un-American; an affront to our history.
So a balance is sought between the foundation of the past and the girders of the future. For some, it is a difficult balance to strike. And when the sport of our new geography fails us…because we can’t let go of our past, our home…we seek a lifeline. We require another means of indoctrination, another proverbial flag to fly in celebration of the now, and - god-willing - the future.