I’m from Seattle (the area if you want to be picky). Now I know that everyone likes to brag about their city being a sports town, but Seattle takes the cake. How else do the Mariners continue to have fans? Why is soccer actually popular here? And why the heck won’t the NBA move back!? In all seriousness though, there’s something a little disturbing about Seattle’s sports obsession.
The unrestrained passion that Seahawks fans display for their team seems almost all-consuming. When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, as many as 450,000 people showed up for their victory parade and it was freezing that day. As a fan I thought that was great. My team had just won the Super Bowl and it had been a long time coming. But when I took a step back and surveyed the spectacle, I got a bit concerned. I wondered if the horde of jersey wearing fans was indicative of something else. I wondered if they were just a lot of lonely people trying to satisfy their need for community with sports. I have some reason to believe that’s true.
A study conducted by Sharecare (a health and wellness website) last year said that Seattle is one of the loneliest cities in the United States. Sharecare surveyed 250,000 people to rank cities according to their social ties and Seattle ranked fifth from the bottom. This means Seattleites on average have smaller networks of friends and family that they spend life with than residents of most other cities. There’s a whole host of theories as to why Seattle is like this, but two stand out to me. Besides being one of the least churched cities, Seattle is also one of the most childless. No wonder Seattle is a lonely place.
Perhaps because it is lonely, Seattle is also a socially cold place. We even have a name for it; we call it the “Seattle Freeze.” People just aren’t that personable. They’re nice… and that’s about it.
Anecdotal evidence abounds for the Seattle Freeze.
A friend of mine told me that she and her husband were warned about Seattle’s chilly relationship environment before they moved here from Florida. She said the warnings had proven true. Another recent Seattle transplant told me that Seattleites extend the freeze to each other. She said she noticed that Seattleites like to keep their different circles of friends separate. We hike with one group of friends and see plays with another. Things get awkward for us when one of our hiking friends tells us they want to see a play.
There’s also some harder evidence for the Seattle Freeze. Earlier this year, the Seattle CityClub released their report “Greater Seattle Civic Health Index.” According to the report, Seattle ranks 48 out of 51 comparable metropolitan areas in talking with neighbors frequently and 37th out of 51 in giving and receiving favors with neighbors frequently. The report actually lists these two items as civic threats and labels them the Seattle Freeze.
But Seattle has a great sports culture. Just think about that Seahawks parade again.
“The pressure of mass numbers was lightened, the impersonality of existence was transfigured and, even if a large amount of personal anonymity remained, it was in a curious and paradoxical way, identified anonymity.” Robert Nisbet wrote those words in regards to World War Two, but they can just as easily be applied to fanatic sports fans.
Nisbet was concerned with the steady erosion of community and, as he phrased it, man’s quest for community. Modern politics and economics made traditional mainstays of community like family, church, and village less needed in daily economic life. The autonomous individual (economically at least) became a very real possible way of life.
But the reality of the autonomous individual is a little less romantic than imagined. It can be downright lonely. With the institutions that once so actively shaped life’s meaning for individuals withered, individuals seek meaning in other forms of association. Nationalism thrives off of mass loneliness. I contend that sports mania does as well.
Now don’t take me wrong: I think sports play a very valuable role both for entertainment and personal development, and even also as a way to sharpen analytical thought (Chip Kelly’s offense is a good example). Sports analysis is objective because it has to be. Coaches cannot make excuses for athletes or other coaches if they lose day in and day out. And sports do help build community.
But for all the great things sports bring to the table, sports can’t be everything. Sports cannot sustain community. We’ve all known this for a while though right? There’s more to life than sports, many a movie says. Pro-athletes everywhere tell kids to stay in school. End of story right? No.
Politics still play a role. Yes, we circle back to raw political power as the cure for our problems. We can vote for publically subsidized arenas. We can, and we often do.
This past November, voters elected Socialist Kshama Sawant to Seattle’s City Council. This is pretty scary stuff. Yes Seattle is owned by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but this is a capital “S” Socialist we’re talking about. Frequently lost in the fawning over Sawant’s crusade for power—I mean her crusade against income inequality—is that she was endorsed by the makers of Sonicsgate; a documentary about how Seattle lost its NBA team. The documentary is predictably sympathetic to Sonics fans.
And why wouldn’t it be? The SuperSonics had been a part of Seattle culture for over 40 years. They won the NBA championship in 1979. No one ever imagined they would leave, let alone move to Oklahoma City. But leave they did and with the NBA’s blessing too.
Then in 2013, as if they craved throwing salt on SuperSonic-sized wounds, the NBA prevented the Sacramento Kings from being sold to a Seattle ownership group who would have moved the Kings to Seattle. In April 2013, the NBA board of Governors unanimously recommended keeping the Kings in Sacramento. In May 2013, 22 out of 30 NBA owners voted against relocating the Kings to Seattle.
Fans were upset. They’d had their hearts broken again. They wanted to lash out.
I believe that the Sonicsgate endorsement was the deciding factor for Sawant’s victory. Yes, it’s terrible that Seattle lost the Sonics (right after getting Kevin Durant too), but electing a Socialist? Then again it’s not as if Seattle is a bastion of conservatism. Seattle hasn’t elected a Republican Mayor since 1964.
In 2012, liberal Democrat Jim McDermott received just under 80 percent of the vote in Washington’s 7th Congressional district which is based mainly in the Seattle. 2012 was also Sawant’s first go around. She received 29 percent of the vote in her campaign for State Representative in Washington’s 43rd Legislative District.
But going from 29 percent to approximately 50.5 percent is a big jump no? It’s an even bigger jump than a mere percentage switch because the City Council seat represents a wider geographic area with more voters. And it’s not as if the guy she was running against wasn’t left leaning. But he didn’t support a proposed new NBA/NHL sports arena and he paid dearly for it.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Perhaps this is all just craft beer and circuses. But maybe the cry of the 12th man is so loud because they really do want to be part of the team. Maybe they see it as their church and family. If that’s true, then much more than Kshama Sawant is on the horizon.
Unless of course we can find ways to revitalize real community. That will take some thinking.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. From page 35 of ISI’s edition of “The Quest for Community” with the introduction by Ross Douthat. Oddly, the ISBN is not listed in this edition.