Crowds Are Good

Or: how I feel less alone.

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I always thought what I loved about sports were the storylines: Opening Day! Winning Streaks! Comebacks! I figured myself the type of person who would gladly tune into ESPN 9 at 1 AM to watch two guys play lawn darts if one of them was the World Champion and there was a decent chance that an implausible underdog might upset. I told myself that my draw to sports was straightforward: The competition is what provides the drama that makes sports so magnetic, so fun, so meaningful. You’re watching the best people to ever do it…do it.

Then the pandemic hit and provided a control group from which to evaluate past experiences. After a two-month shutdown, sports returned for the first time in mid-May of 2020. It was a televised fundraiser featuring a casual, match between four top golfers. The event was billed as providing “some respite and entertainment for those tuning in across the globe” and I feel sheepish admitting I felt a brief sense of real relief when the PGA announced it. A live sporting event represented the slightest twinge of something familiar, perhaps foreshadowing more normalcy to come. I marked the event on my completely empty Google Calendar and tuned in.

The event had the opposite of its intended effect on me. Watching the golfers traipse around a quiet, empty course filled me with a sense of dread. It was yet another reminder of how strange everything was. I turned it off after an hour feeling totally unmoored. A few months later, when professional sports returned in earnest, I was equally excited. The NBA bubble promised an opportunity to experience the sport in a whole new way, with new camera angles. Baseball, which I always appreciated as the soothing background music/screensaver of my summers, would likely provide comfort. I imagined I’d watch more baseball in 2020 than ever before.

I didn’t. And not for lack of trying. I purchased both MLB and NBA TV subscriptions and read up on storylines. I was bought-in. And yes, those first few days of the NBA bubble were exciting. The piped in crowd noise was almost as good as the real thing. The billboards featuring little animated gifs of real fans were endearing. If you framed the camera angles just right (and networks often did) it was hard to tell that the games were essentially being played on Disney sound stages. Still, I never managed to sit through a game — even the close ones. Something felt broken in my brain, which interpreted what I was watching on the screen differently, like a cross between a video game and a spring training exhibition. Even playoff games, imbued with the drama and storylines and stakes I craved, looked and felt artificial — almost uncanny. I stopped watching sports almost completely.

Last year taught me that I am not, in fact, a sports purist. I don’t just love the drama or the competition or the display of absolute mastery. What I love about sports is the crowds. Which brings me to yesterday — arguably the best day for sports crowds in 15 months.

This is the sound of 30,000 Knicks fans trying their best to loosen the foundation at Madison Square Garden:

I have watched this clip roughly 347 times. It is pure electricity from the first second. In the earliest moments of the clip, the crowd is at pre-roar levels. This is a type of noise that is almost impossible to reproduce in any other format. It’s not chatter but but it’s also not flat-out screaming. It’s a strange collective act, where a group of people directs its energy at a person or team in order to buoy them. It is an act of sheer will. I’ve been in quite a few crowds doing this exact thing and yet I’m still unsure what individual fan noises are required to produce it. It is a glorious sound.

Then, the shot. The ball is released and for a split-second, the sound of the crowd dampens a bit. It feels like a collective inhale. As the ball travels through the air, you can hear the crowd — a mass of individual brains all processing the same event with their eyes milliseconds ahead of and behind each other — start to piece the outcome of the launched ball together. The pre-roar increases, like a whisper getting exponentially louder. Then, magic. The release. The roar captures a dozen emotions at once. The cheering is aggressive and intimidating and jubilant and supportive. Everyone looks very dumb but it feels very profound.

And then there’s the movement of the crowd. As the shot goes up you can almost watch the background of the video tense up, as if each pixel of your screen shrunk imperceptibly for one second and then expanded again. You’re paying attention to the ball but your brain is also registering the movement, as each fan rises from their seats cautiously. That’s when the most pleasing thing happens: The ball plunges through the rim uninterrupted by rim contact and this daggering syncs up perfectly with a whole bunch of people losing their absolute shit. There is jumping, high-fiving, interpretive dancing from Spike Lee — total, perfect, contained chaos.

It also happens in reverse. Listen to one man absolutely silence those same, jacked-up 30,000 humans later on:

Exactly 783 miles away, a similar chaos was unfolding. Golfer Phil Mickelson marched up the 18th fairway at The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island all but certain to make history as the oldest person (50 years young) to win one of golf’s four majors. Mickelson is a longtime fan favorite, and his improbable victory led the crowd to break through the ropes of the course and (gently…supportively…and probably quite drunkenly) surround him as he took his winner’s walk. It looked like this:

If that video doesn’t quite capture it, this photo does a good job. Try to find Phil:

The scene could have easily devolved into something grim — but it didn’t. The crowds let him part and surrounded the green — a sea of white dudes in pastels and white hats. As he hit the final putt to secure the win, the pastel sea did a similar tensing followed by the kinetic release. There was much pastel jumping — it looked like an exploding funfetti cake. Afterward, Mickelson called the scene “a little bit unnerving” but “exceptionally awesome, too.” 

I don’t think Mickelson intended to be profound, but he inadvertently summed up what it feels like to live in public in America right now. With cases declining and 60 percent of U.S. adults having had at least one shot, we’re getting a real taste of pre-Covid life. But there’s still risk out there for people. And, for plenty of vaccinated people, there is still so much psychological trauma to shed. I ate inside at a restaurant recently — something I’d been dreaming about since April 2020. Taking my mask off indoors with other people around was a little bit unnerving but, also, exceptionally awesome.

I spent the pandemic missing and mourning gathering in public on a personal and physical level. It’s wasn’t just the socialization, I told myself. I missed feeding off of the energy of different rooms and spaces. I missed being around other people in an ambient fashion — eavesdropping on their conversations, ignoring them, talking over them, whatever. I simply needed the energy of others.

But what the return of sports has made me realize is how much I rely on crowds that I’m not a part of in order to feel less alone. This might sounds sad, but I don’t see it that way. Quite the opposite, really.

In general, I don’t watch as many live sporting events as I did when I was younger, but I still use the sporting calendar as a way to mark the year. Winter’s doldrums only loosen their grip when March Madness begins and it’s not spring until baseball’s Opening Day. I take comfort knowing the days will finally be longer and warmer when golfers tee off on Masters Thursday. I notice summer has skated by too fast when the MLB All-Star game is advertised on TV. It’s back to school when the NFL comes back and time to put on a sweater and enjoy the moody weather when the baseball playoffs begin.

Often, I’m not even watching these events — but they matter to me precisely because they matter to other people. These games or tournaments are large rituals comprised of tens of thousands of smaller, personal rituals. Some of these rituals are problematic or gross and monuments to excess and privilege, while others are pure expressions of love and devotion. But it matters less what I think of each individual ritual and more that the rituals happen.

The conversation around the lack of in-person fans this year has focused around how it impacts the athletes. In a great piece for the Times, Matthew Futterman writes about the ways that even a skeleton crowd can change the dynamics of an event:

It was both a joy and a revelation to rediscover the power of what quantum physicists call the “observer effect” — the fact that any observation, however passive, alters an outcome — even in a half-capacity crowd of tennis fans. Sports felt like Sports once more.

After years of lip service, it seems professional sports might just realize how much they really do rely on the fans to imbue their competitions with meaning. For me, though, the presence of fans goes far beyond their potential to impact the event they’re spectating. Personally, the fans are the reason to watch. They are the storyline and the drama. I often find a monomanically focused mega-millionaire athlete hard or unexciting to root for. A city or a school or community, on the other hand is far easier to get behind. When the athletes put a community on their back, that’s where the magic is.

In 2014, Eric Simons wrote a piece for Columbia Journalism Review about how sportswriters and even science are rarely able to capture why it is we love sports. There’s a fascinating bit about connection between teams and fans (emphasis mine):

Studies of people in close relationships show that the brain is reliably confused about whether achievements or characteristics belong to the body it inhabits or to another person it is in a relationship with. There is reason to believe that watching sports engages this connection: We connect to our teams, to the players on our teams, to the other fans of our teams. We bask in reflected glory because there is some actual point of contact, at the neural level, between a team’s performance and our own self-esteem.

The last year helped me realize that my brain is confused in a different way. Instead of mapping the achievements of the players or teams onto my self-esteem, I seem to identify more with the crowds. When I’m at a bar and a baseball game is on a TV on mute, I might glance at the score, but what I’m really looking at is the stands. Sometimes I unfocus my eyes a bit and just watch the crowd behind home plate sort of shimmer as people shift in their seats or flag a hot dog vendor or get up to go pee.

I find it incredibly comforting to know that, on a random July evening in Phoenix or Kansas City or Cleveland, a mass of people got together to do a thing. Those people made plans that night and put on a jersey and probably got together in the parking lot before. A non-trivial number of them likely, reluctantly, stood up when the wave came their way. That kind of communal experience always reminds me that the world is full of people and is turning onward, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. I might not be there physically, but it’s still for me. I can ignore it or I can tap into it at any time and feed off its consistency and its energy. I can set my calendar by it.

That, for me, is the true gift of sports. I don’t always need a crowd roar to appreciate it. But I certainly won’t take them for granted anymore.

Two Perfect Animal Photos That Speak To Me:

Yep.

Aaaand yep.

I am the walrus. The internet is the dude.


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