Cutthroat Sports Culture

The baseball playoffs test our civility

The season is changing in New England, and it’s not just because of something as arbitrary as the weather. Major League Baseball’s 2009 playoffs commence today, and it’s time to determine your loyalty.

What happens when two regions face off, determined to subdue the other? In the Old Testament, the men of Gilead asked fugitives if they were from Ephraim, demanding they utter the now-legendary word “Shibboleth.” Those who pronounced anything different became the enemy; 42,000 were slaughtered in the River Jordan.

Update the river to the Charles and test whether sports fans can pronounce the word “destroyer” to rhyme with Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and we can brace ourselves for another regional clash of Biblical proportions—if we forget our heads and mistake sport for anything more than amusement. Bostonians and Harvard peers often forget civility and manners in their fanatical support for their own team.

Tonight the New York Yankees will commence the American League Division Series, and tomorrow the Boston Red Sox will play. Fans of both teams will fret over those games, but with one eye they’ll inevitably be looking ahead to the next round—when Boston and New York will almost inevitably meet in what looks to be an epic clash.

Over the course of the regular season, the teams go head to head almost 20 times, to the point that the games and their broadcasts seem self-aggrandizing and out of touch. Ultimately the games become a spectacle for television networks and other commercial interests to milk. A Southern Californian told me just last night how he cheered for the Yankees as a young child simply because they were in the most publicized games on TV.


Bostonians and New Yorkers can never escape the extra scrutiny and attention that their sports teams and their support of those teams seem to attract. But what about college students finding themselves caught in the crossfire? Boston is a major university town—thousands of students congregate here—and surely few opted for Boston thanks only to its sports culture. Throwing one’s support to baseball’s most successful franchise or jumping on the bandwagon of any local team, however, can have serious consequences.

While mixed martial arts and other systemized forms of fighting might be closer to the days of gladiator battles, public crowds at baseball games can turn ugly. Whether it’s a fan provoking others by waving his jersey until inebriated supporters of the opposing team take the bait or a heckler yelling remarks at small children, such a gathering can create a rabid atmosphere in which people lose their sense of decency. This less pleasant side of sports has, in the case of Boston-New York brawls, even extended to the professionals involved, such as a 2003 playoff incident between Boston grounds crew and Yankees players.

Much as most athletes on Toronto sports clubs stand for Canada’s anthem though they only live there temporarily, players are fed into the grinding machine of such a rivalry from unlikely places. This year, if the Yankees and Red Sox face off, Sox Nation will call upon a new hero, Victor Martinez, who several months ago played for Cleveland. He spent most of his career there, and only two years ago faced those same Red Sox in a bitter playoff battle, then cast as a villain. He will face CC Sabathia, who also played on that Cleveland team and has been a New York icon for a few short months. Sabathia has, for the third year running, inspired the support of fans in a different city.

Baseball players, at the end of the day, are making money and most likely playing for teams they did not personally follow themselves prior to their careers. They are flawed, human professionals (a player for a playoff-contending team recently made headlines for appearing with bruises on his face incurred during a booze-fueled incident with his wife), not the champions of dueling armies.

A plea for civility certainly wouldn’t have saved the Ephraimites. But we are not dealing with warfare here, or two cultures fighting for their survival. Taking a step back, it can be easy to forget that the fan wearing opposing colors takes a class with you or—gasp—even roots for the same team as you in a different sport. This playoff season, we must remember the ways we are not so different—not the sports-cap shibboleths that divide us.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.


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