Somewhere along the intersection of ethnicity, race, religion, gender and sexuality sits your identity – that all-encompassing entity that represents all things ME. Considering the complexity of just one of those five categories (let alone all five of them together), it should come as no surprise that the process of identity formation is a long and complicated one, and is unique to every individual. So when do I find myself tackling these pressing life issues? For the last five weeks, it’s been from approximately noon to three-thirty on Sunday afternoons, as I watch my beloved Minnesota Vikings play football.
Wait… what? Did I really just transition from some really deep, personal, existential quandary-type stuff to a professional sports team that’s represented by a fictionalized dude named Ragnar who dresses up in pelts and rides around sports arenas on a motorcycle?
Discovering what makes you you is hard and complicated, right? We’ve already established that much. So, not surprisingly, it feels good to have company during the lifelong journey of identity formation. For me, that’s where sports comes in. Want to feel part of a team? Sports can do that. Literally. Sure, I might not be able to consistently make a three-pointer, let alone a free-throw, but when I play pick-up basketball with friends, I’m joined by nine other people who are sharing in this same struggle (albeit often with much greater success than me).
Professional sports teams take that sense of community to the next level. What pro sports organizations like the Minnesota Vikings highlight is the power of merging location-based culture and capitalism. In seeping the brand of its football team in Nordic mythology and pride — which is as integral a part of Minnesota’s DNA as its ten-thousand-plus lakes, passive-aggressiveness, and foods on a stick — the football Vikings are firing on multiple cylinders of identity inclusivity. So it’s almost as if by watching the Vikings every week, obsessively reading live web-chats with sports journalists who cover the NFC North during my lunch hours, and dressing my dog up in purple-and-gold on Sundays, I am in fact proving the depth of my love for my hometown and everything my hometown represents. And in a pro sports league accompanied by other locally-informed team names like the Packers, 49ers, Steelers, Texans, Patriots, Saints, and Cowboys, it’s probably safe to say I’m not alone in these displays of hometown pride.
So if I spend three-and-a-half hours every week thinking about these seemingly disparate connections, you better believe ESPN is thinking about it 24/7. In fact, one could argue that the entire existence and profitability of ESPN — the self-proclaimed “World Wide Leader of Sports” — is dependent on these types of connections. And that could go a long way in explaining why ESPN abruptly pulled out of its partnership with FRONTLINE on the production of League of Denial, the new documentary exposé about concussions in the NFL, airing on TPT2 tonight at 8:00 p.m.
In its trailer, FRONTLINE claims that League of Denial could “change the way you see the game.” ESPN and the NFL like me viewing the game as I view it now: with a focus on Greg Jennings’ receiving yardage totals, the brewing quarterback controversy between Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder (update: and Josh Freeman!), Jared Allen’s on-field calf-roping theatrics, and my dog’s horned helmet. And while those are important parts of how I watch and absorb football, it’s just that: one part of a larger whole. The other part involves a lot of things I don’t know much about, but has the capacity to completely change the way I think about the actual human beings who devote their careers, physical and mental well-being to the sport that serves my preferred mode of entertainment on Sunday afternoons in the Fall. This is why I can’t wait to watch League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth on Tuesday, October 8th. My whole identity could be riding on it.
Joel is a contributor to Rewire, and works for MN Original at Twin Cities Public Television.