I am a firm believer that there’s no such thing as a bad sports fan. Sure, there are sports fans who are bad people, but the act of supporting a sports team isn’t something that can be policed. Maybe you watch every game, memorize every stat, and can list the team’s starting goalie from 1964 to today, or maybe you just watch every once in awhile because you think a player is cute. In both situations, and every situation in between, you are contributing to that team’s popularity and success, and that makes you a fan.
I don’t really have a lot of problems convincing people that I’m a “real” sports fan anymore. I watch as many games as I can, and even if I don’t, I get enough live updates from social media and news outlets to form a decently logical opinion. I also can dress myself in literally an entire outfit, shirt-pants-socks-slippers, of entirely Penguins gear. I’ve more than earned my spot at the table.
Recently, I’ve noticed a different kind of fan discrimination. There seems to be a clear dichotomy between the idea of a “real” sports fan – ie, someone who pays attention to performance, stats, and numbers, versus the portrait of a more casual, less serious sports fan who is invested in the player as a person. This “emotional” sports fan knows personal facts about the athlete through their public presence on social media, in interviews, and in the press. And much like the idea of the “real” versus “bandwagon” sports fan, the latter is mainly used as a way to invalidate and exclude women sports fans.
I remember being portrayed as what I’ve termed an emotional sports fan from the beginning. As a 13 year old girl who supported the Pittsburgh Penguins, the “joke” was always that I watched the games because I thought Sidney Crosby was cute. And yeah, he is! But it’s silly to think that I watched 82 games a year just to try and catch a glimpse of Sid’s face behind his mask on a blurry television feed. And so I vehemently denied, denied, denied any attraction to the Captain, desperate to prove myself as one of the boys, one of the real sports fans.
But, in reality, I did find myself interested in the player’s life off the ice. In fact, the very thing that made me start watching hockey in the first place was HBO’s Road to the Winter Classic documentary, which highlighted the personal lives of the players alongside the drama on the ice. The communities of (predominantly women) sports fans that I associated with also developed an interest in the lives of athletes off the ice. My friends and I joked about their bad Instagram captions and questionable choices in clothing, and, yes, we knew exactly which model they were dating. We liked hearing the gossip. It was fun to be a fan in this way, especially because being an “emotional” sports fan did not prevent me from also being a “rational” sports fan. I still know and appreciate the rules of the game, as well as what my favorite players are posting on Twitter. It’s not mutually exclusive.
But my life as an emotional sports fan continued to serve as my dirty little secret. I remember during the past Olympics when NBC tried to justify broadcasting the Games on tape delay by arguing that women viewers preferred emotional stories to the sports themselves. It’s still a terrible, sexist statement that portrays women as 1) Not Real Sports Fans, 2) Emotional beings who prefer dramatic reality shows to real life, and 3) Incapable of being both emotional and rational fans. It’s a really great example of the Emotional Sports Fan myth in action. But I remember my immediate reaction being a desperation to distance myself from these female emotional sports fans, and again I overcompensated, practically yelling to anyone who would listen that YES, I, THE REAL SPORTS FAN, WOULD WATCH EVEN WITH CARDBOARD CUTOUTS IN PLACE OF THE ATHLETES, #FORTHELOVEOFTHEBEAUTIFULGAME. Even out of my awkward teen phase and secure in my above-average sports knowledge, I was still desperate to prove that I wasn’t one of those sports fans, not one of those fangirls.
But I’m now, finally, coming to the realization that the emotional sports fan is a continuation of the mythology that women are less than because of their inability to control their emotions, and that young women in particular are so irrational, so emotional, so hormonal that their interests and beliefs are laughably unworthy of consideration. Teen girls are too crazy and emotional to know real music, so we dismiss their favorite musicians. And when those teen girls – actually, those fangirls come to support the same team that we do, we brush them aside as being too crazy and emotional to be real fans. And this narrative is repeated ad nauseam whenever teen girls express interest in anything from Snapchat filters to coffee shops. Whatever they like and whatever they do is considered beneath us. So many female sports fans are so desperate to prove ourselves as not being one of those girls that we abandon ourselves and the women around us so we can be validated by men.
And to those who would paint me as an emotional sports fan, I have two things to consider. First, we must realize that there is no purely unemotional way to watch sports. We watch sports because of the way they make us feel, even if that feeling is simply rest and reprieve after a long day at work. Sports fans and athletes display emotions of anger, sadness, and joy at all points of the season without having their legitimacy as a fan questioned. And even the most by-the-book fans use meaningless buzzwords like “grit” and “character” to evaluate athletes, which are ultimately the result of an emotional analysis of a player’s attitudes and behaviors. In fact, a lot of these “character” evaluations are based on, you guessed it, gossip! Finally, think back to why you became a sports fan. So many of us are attracted to sports because of particularly charismatic or impressive athletes, like Derek Jeter, Lebron James, or Serena Williams. It’s this emotional connection that draws us to sports in the first place, that encourages us to spend the rest of our lives having our emotional state dependent on the outcome of a game. Why are these emotional expressions of sports fandom considered more valid than those of the emotional sports fan? Why do we hate on teenage girls, who check social media accounts and team videos as a part of being a fan, when their core motivation for these actions is the same as the actions of any other sports fan?
Secondly, there is nothing wrong with the uniquely female interpretation of being an emotional sports fan. Examining an athlete’s public portrayal (social media platforms, interviews, the way they conduct themselves in public) is not a bad thing, in fact, it helps me and other women to be better fans. I cannot separate on-ice performance from off-ice conduct, nor should I. If an athlete thinks social media is an appropriate place to make sexist “jokes” that perpetuate rape culture, or if they think it’s appropriate to make jokes about smallpox blankets, or if they demonstrate abusive behavior, I have a right to know so I can stop supporting them. I can’t control who gets to become a professional athlete, but I can control the name on the back of my jersey. I can keep myself from perpetuating the idolization of certain athletes. I do not have to support athletes who do not respect my basic humanity or the basic humanity of those I love. Being an emotional sports fan who is aware of an athlete’s personal life helps me to remain a fan only of those who deserve my fandom. Sure, I know a lot of useless facts about professional athletes too, but is memorizing Corsi any more useful?
Identifying as a woman while being a sports fan is not easy, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from my writings #onhere. Professional sports are inherently unequal and therefore inherently unwelcoming to women and other underrepresented groups.The stereotype of the Emotional Sports Fan is yet another narrative created by men to try and police the actions of women in the sports world. But we as women do not need to meet male expectations in order to be valid. My fellow female sports fans – the next time you see the Emotional Sports Fan narrative in action, call it out. We have a right to enjoy ourselves how we see fit, no matter what men think of it. And most importantly, let’s all personally vow to stop shaming other female sports fans, ourselves included, for displaying behaviors associated with the emotional sports fan! We must fight for an equality that doesn’t come at the expense of other women. After all, who else is going to admire a good-looking playoff beard with us?