Is Boston the Best Sports Town?

A week ago, I called the Boston sports media scene “over-saturated.” My specific complaint was that “the Boston sports media scene is ripe with writers who seem to enjoy exaggerating loses and undervaluing victories to the point that readers come away believing their teams are losers and and they are too for following them.”

I haven’t taken what I would call “flack” for this post, probably because I don’t have many readers, and those that I do have are mostly family who a) all come from Wisconsin and have no real ties to Boston sports, and b) love me and would tell me my article was good no matter what. But those who don’t share my blood that I’ve discussed this notion with don’t seem to agree with me. Their consensus is that there’s no better place to be a sports fan than Boston. They might be right.

There is no denying that Boston sports fans are very, very knowledgeable. Your average attendee at a Red Sox game will know every current player, plus be able to go on at length about prospects. At the TD Garden you’ll quickly find someone who could intelligently compare the Bill Russel-era Celtics with the Larry Bird-era Celtics. And after he was done, he’d throw in Len Bias, a man who never played a single game in a Celtics uniform but still earned a dark place in Celtics lore. And every Bruins fan could tell you where he or she was when Bobby Orr scored his May 1970 flying goal that gave the Bruins their first Stanley Cup in nearly 30 years. If the fan is too young to remember that game, he or she will tell you where his or her parents were. Sports fandom is hereditary in Boston, passed through families like religion or physical characteristics.

The Boston media scene reinforces and feeds our obsession. But it also breeds negativity. The most well-known writers in Boston seem to be those that complain the loudest. Even as we disagree with them, we still read them. Nobody ever says nice things about Dan Shaughnessy, and yet everybody follows him. What does this say about us? Even as we decry our most well-known sports reporter we still feel the compulsion to know what he has to say. We respond to negativity better than we respond to positivity. There are few homers in the Boston sports scene, no positive counterbalance to the Shaughnessies and Ron Borgeses of the media. Those that do not criticize tend to favor neutrality. The best example is Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, an excellent sports analyst with an unmatched ability to get information that other reporters cannot. And yet far fewer people could name him or describe his writing style. It would seem that the only way to be famous in the Boston sports scene is to be notorious. How dissapointing.

To prove my point, compare Reiss’s and Borges’s breakdowns of Tom Brady’s new contract. Reiss’s piece is straightforward, laying out the terms of the deal clearly and succinctly. Borges, on the other hand, goes on a 621-word rant about how confusing the numbers are. Are they really? Mike Reiss seams to make sense of them. Borges is not dumb, he just likes presenting information in such a way as to make US feel dumb. Such little respect for his readers is deplorable, yet they seem to respond with “thank you sir, may I have another?” Just like Kevin Bacon getting spanked in “Animal House,” it would seem that the price of admission to the fraternal brotherhood of Boston sports is abject and repeat humiliation.

All of this is compounded by the fact that, objectively, it seems to work. In an August 2 article, Forbes Magazine released its analysis of the best fans in sports. Using home and away attendance, merchandise sales, and “in-market popularity,” an undefined term that I assume means what percentage who could watch a game on TV choose to do so, Forbes concluded that the Red Sox have the most loyal fans of any major sports team in the country. The most faithful basketball fans (fifth overall) watch the Boston Celtics, and the New England Patriots come in seventh (third-highest football fanbase behind the Steelers and Colts). Whether or not I agree with the Boston sports media’s methods, I can’t deny that objectively it drives more interest in its teams that any other city in the country.

Maybe Boston does have the best fans. But the long-term psychological effect of being constantly hammered by the media has yet to be determined. The West Coast teams do not enjoy as devoted fans. But perhaps their fans are happier. There are advantages to viewing sports with a measure of disinterest: It makes the loss easier to take, but it also tempers the win, and keeps the thrill of victory from bubbling over. That might explain why when I Googled “sports riots” and looked at various “worst ever” lists, few of them included riots after victories by California sports teams (though one did mention a post-Lakers victory riot). Interestingly, most of the really bad riots seem to involve soccer, and usually European soccer. In a sport that encourages (or at least does little discourage) hooliganism, that makes some sense.

But I think Boston takes its fanaticism too far. Our hatred of the Yankees got so bad that it cost someone her life. In 2004, Victoria Snelgrove was shot in the midst of our ALCS victory riot by Boston Police officers. Accidental? Yes. Tragic? Yes. Avoidable? Maybe not. When fanaticism runs as deep as ours does, when the need to win reaches such a point that we feel like we HAVE to win to justify ourselves, control is forfeited. Fans didn’t shoot Snelgrove, but they rioted so violently, so chaotically, that police officers had no choice but to disperse the crowd with pepper spray projectiles. Signs were torn out of the ground. Fires were lit. Cars were destroyed. Had police officers not attempted to disperse the riot, the damage to the city could have been catastrophic. And more lives could have been lost. I missed this particular riot, but I was present a week later when we won the World Series. It was more subdued, but I still believe that had someone fallen on the ground that night in Kenmore Square, he or she easily could have been trampled to death.

None of this is meant to justify Snelgrove’s death. It’s more meant to point out the ridiculousness of rioting in the first place. C’mon everyone, it’s just sports! If your reaction to victory is to destroy the very city your team represents, then you need to take a step back and reevaluate your relationship and level of commitment to your team. Go to the games. Root for your teams on television. By their shirts and hats. Celebrate their wins and mourn their losses. But don’t let the fortunes of others come to define you to the point that their loss becomes YOUR loss.

In response to a similar degree of fanaticism with regards to political activism, Jon Stewart announced on The Daily Show last night that he’d be sponsoring a “Return to Sanity” rally in Washington on October 30. Perhaps Boston sports fans should attend. They might learn something.

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