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April 19, 2013

Home field advantage

UChicago athletics offer all the beauty of sports with none of the usual drawbacks of being in the stands.

This past weekend I watched the UChicago men’s soccer team play a friendly game against Loyola. The intensity of the morning sun had led me to believe it would be a nice day, but wind raked the Stagg bleachers, and I had to shout to speak to the people right beside me. UChicago lost by a single goal—the result of a messy squabble that ended with a Loyola player tucking it home from close range. But, despite the bad weather and the loss, I enjoyed myself immensely. There was a serenity to the proceedings. I was watching a sport that I love without the trappings that encumber professional or high-profile college sports.

Earlier this year, I went to watch the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. It was cold. The concessions were ridiculously expensive. The logistics of getting in and out of the stadium were poorly managed. It was by no means an unequivocally bad experience. The crowd atmosphere was certainly more positive than what I’ve seen at European games; there were more kids, there was less taunting. And yet, despite the higher-quality soccer on display relative to our team, I much prefer watching our good-natured lads in maroon.

UChicago sports may no longer be considered a long-standing joke, but going to watch them is still seen as an unusual way to spend an afternoon. Since the teams aren’t ranked high nationally, it’s fair to assume that we’re not watching the best, or anything even near the best. If we had a basketball team like North Carolina’s, we would have the privilege of possibly watching the Michael Jordans of the future—an opportunity very few sports-lovers would eschew. However, for that privilege, we would have to suffer drunks, taunters, brawlers, and, worst of all, adult face-painters. Followers of Maroon sports aren’t watching world-beaters, but the tradeoff is the sort of sports-viewing tranquility that is increasingly valuable today. When I watch my nephews play soccer in the suburbs, irate parents yell at the referee for the duration of the game. At UChicago, aside from the rare “X school was my safety school” taunt, we’re spared those unpleasantries. The game proceeds on the green, and the handful of spectators watch in a dreamy, meditative state. Test cricket often proceeds in such a manner. Because it isn’t a mob, the audience realizes that the collective “we” that tribalism imparts to sport is an illusion. Instead, it just watches the orientation of minds and bodies bent toward a single purpose. The sport is stripped of its allegiance narrative. It’s like you stopped by a park on your way home and happened to glance at a high-quality pick-up game. You aren’t invested in a particular outcome—it is the ongoing action of the present that is intriguing.

This isn’t to say that we should go to sporting events and not root for our team. I have seen games here where the audience is raucous and the support is strong. Those games have their charm too. But still, at every UChicago sporting event that I’ve attended, there’s a single moment during which I realize the opportunity for unsullied, non-corporatized appreciation of athletic ability we have at our disposal here. Sure, that athletic ability isn’t hugely remarkable, but if it were remarkable, then it would be corporatized. It’s a catch-22 all over again.

In the UChicago vs. Loyola game, there was one moment that stood out to me. First-year Jorge Bilbao picked up the ball close to the left byline. He looked for someone to pass to. A defender closed in on him aggressively. In one-tenth of a heartbeat, he nutmegged his marker—meaning that he knocked the ball in between the defender’s legs and retrieved it, leaving the defender shamefaced and behind him—and was quickly beyond him. There was a collective gasp from my fellow bleacher-mates. The move resulted in a chance, but nothing came of it. The trick was difficult to execute, effective, and aesthetic—the qualities that make sport appealing to many of us. Like many others across the globe, I consume vast quantities of sports media: fueling some of the largest non-productive industries in the world, filling pockets with sordid amounts of money, all for flashes of brilliance similar to Jorge’s.

The weather is improving, albeit gradually. Our UChicago athletic teams are gearing up for their spring seasons. They’re realistic; they don’t expect hordes of spectators. If you do go to a game, regardless of the sport you choose, you may surprise yourself. We don’t have to buy cable packages or illegally stream from questionable Web sites just to satisfy our craving for the eternal that’s in sport. Just head on over to Stagg and you might luck out.

Raghav Rao is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.

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