Saturday, January 25, 2014

Community Building: Sports and Super Bowls in Seattle

When sports works, I believe teams can foster community and identity in regions and across time. Living in Seattle through the Seahawk’s exciting and uneven climb to the 2014 Super Bowl reminds me of how forging community bonds through sport can work.

A good friend of my son’s captured this on a post on her Facebook last week. It captures the feelings that create connection and solidarilty across the generations, races, genders and geographic patchwork of the region:

“The city is on fire. I have never been so excited, never had so much hope. WE as a COMMUNITY, whatever the struggle, we are here as one! It takes a certain type of human to survive here; the weather itself is a staple to our namesake. Let's show the country and fuck it, the world what the possibilities are when you BELIEVE.”

Walking through my neighborhood downtown Ballard yesterday I waded through a sea of blue and green (lime green of all things). The Starbucks baristas eyes were lined with blue paint and the letter 12. Numbers 11 and 3 adorned half the people sitting on the street—Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson  respectively. Businesses were festooned with blue banners emblazoned with the 12 for the 12th man.

Neighborhood houses replaced Christmas light with blue and green Seahawk lights—this is a good thing to fight against the winter grey. Giant banners with the Seahawks wonderful logo, born of Northwest Indian art, or 12 pop up in yards, busses, cars and random street corners., People yell “go hawks” to random strangers who respond in kind.

People like me always write about the “soft power” benefits of athletic teams for building a sense of community. These last five weeks of Seahawk mania spread a remarkable tide of good will and festive hope and fear across the region. It confirms my own beliefs. People smile at each other as they wear silly colors. Race, age, class seem to meld across the “go hawks” signs and gestures people salute each other with.

I don’t want to sound too romantic—I know only too well about the profit and marketing and violence that is woven through the reality of modern professional football. I know sports is ephemeral, as is art and love and even toothpaste.

But I don’t care and I believe it matters. Watching and rooting for fine athletic competitors gives people a chance to appreciate the power, beauty and intelligence that humans can display. This experience encourages people to unite together and share a common set of emotions and dreams and language. These opportunities are rare.

This long crazy march to a championship game covers six months of increasing intensity and attention from people. It can go the other way, I know as a Mariners fan people just ignore or pretend the Mariner’s don’t exist by the second month. However, here are the ways that sports teams and success can help build community and identity.

1.    It creates a shared memory for people that people in the region and families and friends and school kids live through and recall. They remember it and refer to it in conversation. It marks a time of shared hope or despair. It marks a period where people focused on the same goal regardless of their other differences. It becomes a reference point to remember fondly and remind each other that we share a common place and memory and that we can have a future together.

2.   The forging of the memory itself creates a social bridge, language and common reference that invites people to speak across boundaries. It can diffuse hostility and distrust or just uneasiness. A social space where a safe and engaging language and content exists is rare—“how about this weather?”—these connections are precious and need to be bolstered wherever we can find them. I realize that part of the population will never “get” sports and this language can exclude them. Given how few and polarizing many other languages can be—think religion—I am happy for this limited but real social space and bridge.

3.   Sports teams manifest symbolic unity in ways seldom offered. People can share “their true colors.” They wear uniforms and jerseys and paraphernalia  that creates a symbolic connect and unity across divisions. These symbols tell you that no matter how different the other person looks or seems or where they live, you share this one point of emotional reference and attention in common. It bridges the differences, opens a conversation and diffuses distance.

4.   This solidariy invites people to express their support in so many ways. People become active participants to express their social commitment—how is that for an academic mouthful? Think about all the variations of costumes and body paint of the fans. People see themselves as participants in the process. The fans scream and yell and create minor earthquakes here in Seattle. They impact the game. Others pray or sit backwards or wear their winning jersey; we participate in this process and not just passively watch it. Social media amplifies the intensity and craziness of the participation for good or bad.
5.   People devote time, energy, effort, ingenuity and intelligence to express their support. This can go deep. I can find twenty Seahawk inspired cocktails in one bar walk through Ballard. Seahawk inspired meals are served, merchandise occurs on street corners and Nordstrom’s, who knew you could have a Seahawks nutcracker?  We turn this into a sacrament that we live, wear or eat.
On a personal note the Top Pot Seahawk donuts with blue and green sprinkles are really important.

American culture can fracture into micro-communities and segregate in so many ways, that opportunities to build shared experience and shared goals and emotions across these ever splintering groups should be treasured and enjoyed. Following a sports team offers a good if sometime silly way to experience and build bonds that may seem ephemeral but establish memories and connections that can last for long periods of time. I still can remember when my Kansas City Chiefs beat the Minnesota twins to win a Super Bowl and of the Kansas City Royals won the World Series. I can tell you where I was and how I watched the games. My family and regional friends all share the same moment, the same experience, the same references as we age and grow apart in so many other ways.

After consultation with friends I will be wearing my same jersey in all its blue and lime green glory unwashed for the Super Bowl. All the supporters will all be at one with our shares aspirations and shared feelings of joy and sorrow—Whatever the outcome, we have chosen to share a common emotional bond and connect in conversation and symbol with this team and “our” team. It has helped forge the “we” that modern life so easily forgets.