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Expat Sports Disorder: The unheralded digital affliction
With the new NFL season in full swing, it is time to reflect on those who are sacrificing a normal existence to practice fanhood from afar
The world is full of people who call on others to be more rational. I should know – I’m one of them. But if they’re sports fans, such people should put their own house in order first. Upon reflection few of us, it seems, are quite as rational as we think.
I was doing OK on this score until about age 9, when my family moved to King of Prussia, PA. We lived along an extensive narrow corridor straight out of The Shining. On the very first night a neighbor crossed the hall, stopped outside our door, and knocked. My mother gave a start; my father went to see.
“I noticed that you have here a very nice little boy,” kindly Mr. Laufer told my dad. “And I got two tickets to see the Eagles play the Giants tomorrow. If you agree, I’d like to take your little boy to see the game, at the Vet.”
Veterans Stadium was a shiny new thing back then, though in time it would fall from grace and be blown up for scrap cement. As for Mr. Laufer, old Jewish fellow that he was, my guess is that today he’d be arrested on the spot.
“It would be Danny’s honor to go with you to see this match,” my immigrant father said.
The next morning, great commotion filled the unventilated air. Paramedics stormed through the terrifying hall and carted our neighbor away: Mr. Laufer had died of a stroke! So great was my shock that I forgot all about the game. But my father, a man of focus who survived Nazi labor camp by his wits, most certainly did not.
“This match is on the television,” he said in his deliberate Romanian tones. “You will watch this match. You will learn the rules of this ‘football.’ And you will love these ‘Eagles.’ In this way, you will honor Mr. Laufer.”
So that’s exactly what I did. American football is so confoundingly complex that I still don’t know everything there is to be known, but the essence of it I figured out that afternoon. I have bled Eagles green ever since, and it has brought me misery enough to repent for any sin – my own and Mr. Laufer’s, I have to think, as well.
Philadelphia is a top-five market in America so it can buy decent teams, but a terrible curse seemed to befall them all as soon as I came upon the scene.
A constant stream of expectations raised, then dashed – such is the woeful lot of Philly fans. The Eagles making the Super Bowl only twice and losing both times — until recently (we shall get to that). The Phillies baseball team came close and did finally win the World Series in 1980 (and again in 2008), and the Flyers hockey team and the 76ers of the NBA both did well at various times, but it was never quite enough. There was no true dynasty in any sport.
I soldiered on, allowing Sundays to be drained of life by the Eagles; lamenting the Flyers’ perennial inability to elegantly pass (my father was the first to notice this odd, generation-spanning indisposition); late nights listening to the Phillies’ West Coast away games on transistor radio.
Once, high school TV camera in hand, my friend Alfred and I snuck into the Phillies’ dugout (where they sit during games) at the Vet, and after a close shave with malevolent ball boys even interviewed uber-legend Pete Rose (later disgraced, alas, on account of alleged gambling indiscretions).
This intense fandom did not make a great amount of sense. In no other way was I obsessed by the city. And even if I had been, the teams had only the most meager connection to it: the players were hired guns, and the franchises businesses first and foremost. Why should any of it matter? Why fixate on something that’s out of one’s control? Why let invaluable hours, by the truckload, go to waste?
Luckily I moved away, first to grad school in New York, and then abroad. I became and have remained a professional expatriate ever since. I’ve travelled hither and thither, and here I am in Israel, and expats are my people.
For a while this meant reprieve. It was not much fun to follow long seasons via days-old copies of the International Herald Tribune. The addiction floated away, like the fragrance of an oversweet perfume, replaced by more practical, less idiotic things.
Life was normal, or at least somewhat normal, until broadband Internet came to be. We know now what a poisoned chalice it was: the ruination of retail, the desolation of journalism, the eradication of meaningful personal communication, the plague of selfies, emojis, LOLs and personal brands.
But those are trifles when compared to the rise, with furious vengeance, of global sports.
Now every game is livestreamed across the Earth. All you need is the willingness to stay awake and to pay the handsome fees. No statistic goes unnoted in this berserk universe, no correlation unexamined; no missed foul shot need ever be missed — nor unforced errors, high sticks or fumbles on the opponents one yard line. The apps are friendly, the athleticism extravagant, the showmanship profound! It is a digital nightmare, sending constant alerts from a million miles away.
All over the world the clueless blindly harm themselves. Lower-income people vote in tax breaks for the rich. Those who benefit from trade back isolation and tariff wars. People marry unsuitably, walk off nationalist cliffs, enfeeble their minds with radical religion and reality TV, and devastate their bodies with intoxicating drugs.
We, who know better, bemoan such foolishness – and succumb to Expat Sports Disorder.
At the best of times, in laboratory conditions, sports are an agony: even the best team will not win championships most of the time; and the better that team might be, the worse shall this failure vex its fans. But to add to this distress a need to stay awake all night? To operate alone, far away from most fellow fans, beset from all sides by screeching partisans of foreign and lesser sports? It is the unheralded affliction of the digital age, the (not always) silent killer of expat decorum, conjugality and early morning meetings.
And I’m not sure there is a cure.
In Cairo, where I spent much of recent years, every US expat had an NFL favorite – even the ones with feeble knowledge of the game. One was an obsessively patriotic Texan who unaccountably loved the Green Bay Packers; another, from Minnesota, backed the hometown Vikings there. One woman from New Jersey rooted for the San Francisco 49ers for no conceivable reason, while another swore by the lowly Cleveland Browns, on account of a college experience there. Everyone knew I was an Eagles man; it was as fundamental to life in Cairo as the Pyramids, Sakara Beer or the Sixth of October Bridge.
The Eagles lost their star quarterback to a knee injury late in the fateful 2017 season, leaving me disconsolate and bereft. But the Texan insisted they would win their first-ever Super Bowl anyway. “Keep yer shirt on, Junior!” was his high-pitched refrain. He was mad as a hatter and wobbly on his feet, like a shamanic Ross Perot, which made me trust him all the more. Never underestimate the lunatic fringe.
The Eagles made the Super Bowl sure enough, against most odds, just like he said.
Despite a funeral on the afternoon of the game, I watched it with friends at a very heaving bar. The underdog Eagles were playing the New England Patriots – a genuine dynasty if ever one there was. The Eagles played well, and for once got lucky too, but the game was not in the bag until a Patriots’ Hail Mary dropped harmlessly to the ground as the clock miraculously ran out.
A hushed split-second seemed to last minutes – then pandemonium erupted in the bar (non-Bostonian expats hate the Patriots). Teary adults danced and embraced and screamed in jubilation. Avowed atheists thanked God. It is a memory I revel in today, as the Eagles have returned to the mediocrity we expect.
When I got home that morning I could hardly speak at all. I must have seemed as deranged as the Texan on a payday.
My two daughters wanted to know what the fuss was all about.
I explained that an unendurable 45-year wait had reached its just and joyful end. “This is probably the best moment of my life,” I added, with embellishment I felt was acceptable. That did not have the desired effect. In retrospect, I realize, they expected the Eagles’ win to place no higher than number three.
So I told the tale of Mr. Laufer, who might have found his peace at last.