My Inner Teddy

“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose…the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”

-George S. Patton, 1944

“Stop with the wins! We want the draft pick!”

“Time to put the tank in full motion. Enough with the meaningless points.”

-Top-voted Facebook and NHL.com comments from Buffalo Sabres fans, 2015

The Teddy Roosevelt in me (and I do not claim to hold much of a candle up to the man, but I like to think we share a sentiment or two) is desperate to cry out about the softening of the American sports fan. He wants to bemoan the growing power of the worrying soccer mom and the anti-contact football suburban satellite parent. He would preach the virtues of the challenge of defeat to the little league administrator who has eliminated the three-strike rule He must question the young modern sports fan as to his growing support for the European game of soccer over the American inventions of basketball and baseball. Patton himself declared, and rightly so, that the bellicose American youth of his day, such as he saw them, admired chief among athletes “the toughest boxers.” How would the man who made the Nazis tremble react if he saw millions of American students tuning in to watch a Swiss (emblazoned with his own initials in gold) exchange fuzzy yellow balls across a British grass court against a long-haired Spaniard?

I sat down with a handful of friends this past Sunday to watch the home opener of New York City Football Club in their game against the New England Revolution. “Football” in this sense, of course, not taking the same connotation that President Roosevelt would have chosen. I sat down, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed the many Federer and Nadal matches that I have devoured over the years, just as I have skipped over hundreds of NFL games that I could not have cared less about if I tried. The chest-thumping John Wayne acolyte might very well dismiss me as an un-American sports fan, a soft spirit unrepresentative of middle-American values. (My favorite sport after all is the old Canadian game on ice, and what signals weakness to the would-be John Waynes of the world if not the word “Canada”?)

My inner pragmatist and historian, however, feels compelled to recall that it was the very bastion of old-school American values, Teddy Roosevelt himself, who championed so ardently the demilitarization of American football. It was the princeps of the Rough Riders himself who, in no small part out of fear for his dear son Teddy Jr.’s health and wellbeing, petitioned first Harvard’s football program, and soon the Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Seeing the increasing danger that the brutality of these character-building sports posed, the war veteran helped push for changes such as the forward pass that, in the long run, made the game more complex, more nuanced, strategic in the way the modern fan loves.

It is the same no-little-league-strikeouts generation of sports fan that has embraced the game of soccer, marveled at the skill of the modern baseball pitcher, chosen mixed martial arts over traditional boxing. It is a generation that seems interested in a new set of subtleties of sport, and shows a willingness to adopt team games such as soccer that might provide a touch more intellectual complexity to the average viewer than the “champion marble shooter” Patton’s young ones admired. Indeed the European version of football is in fact the one that spawns so many so-called hooligans, the fans so willing to torch cars and assault opponents.

This is not to say that the modern sports fan is of some greatly increased intelligence, or that the Ron Swanson-quoting NASCAR fans of the country follow sports made lesser by their more traditional and dated nature. Most importantly, it is not to say that the softness of the current generation is without detriment to the moral fiber and constitutional hardiness of today’s young athletes. But in reflecting on the willingness of Sabres fans to tank (a willingness reflected in NBA fans, recently, as well), it is necessary to remind my inner Roosevelt that while deliberately losing is undeniably a shameful tactic, the element of strategy it creates for standings-basement teams is, if nothing else, an interesting component that reflects the state of the modern sports fan. We take the good with the bad.

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