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With Apologies to FJM: Jeff MacGregor Explains the Universe

Hunter Thompson retyped passages written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He wanted to understand the way those passages were crafted. He wanted to understand what it was like to write a sentence like that. Not many writers inspire that type of reverence, but now and then I come across things so good I want to retype them. For instance, on the subject of whether or not football builds character Jeff MacGregor wrote:

This creates big football's attractive illusion of order. Which is one of the things I believe we find so appealing about the game: Within a fixed set of boundaries and rules and metaphors, within clear limits of allowable behavior, it appears as a world of cause and effect. It is a little theater of the known in a universe ruined by human weakness and the chaos of our constant appetites. 

Check out his archive on ESPN. Select an article at random and give it a read. If you're like me, you will click on the next one on the list. His writing is intelligent, honest, and well researched. MacGregor is truly excellent. With perhaps one tiny exception. So, with apologies to Fire Joe Morgan, and to Jeff MacGregor, we discuss, well I'm not exactly sure....

Us vs. Them

When the illogic of sports fandom spills over into real life, you don't have to play along


By Jeff MacGregor


Whose side were you on last weekend?

The University of Georgia's in their game against Kentucky, and Fish's in a discussion with my wife about what we could have for dinner instead of vegetarian pasta. My sides went went 1 and 1.

Whose side for Penn State at Ohio State?

Midwestern matters do not concern me. 

For Harvard vs. Yale?

I feel like there was an episode of the Simpsons about fifteen years ago in which Sideshow Bob Terwilliger was arrested for some kind of corruption charge and sent to a minimum security prison. While there, a crew team composed of other white collar criminals from the same Ivy League alma mater approached him about joining them to row against a crew team of other white collar criminals from another Ivy League school. If this episode in fact happened at all, and if Bob's team was Yale, then Yale, for next year. Less important than the fish though.  

For Southern California at Oregon?

Oregon. I don't care for Lane Kiffin.

If you're a sports fan,

I suppose I am. I am also fond of Boardwalk Empire, but in that case, my side frequently loses to Desperate Housewives.

and you're honest,

I was candid about the fish and my Sunday night TV wasn't I?

here's your smartphone/e-reader/newspaper scoreboard from last weekend:

For this sentence let's welcome our special guest commentator William Strunk! Take it away Mr. Strunk:


“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective
hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight

Thank you Mr. Strunk! So for instance, when there is no difference in meaning between a "smartphone/e-reader/newspaper scoreboard" and a "scoreboard" you can just get rid of "smartphone/e-reader/newspaper." What's that? You have some advice for me as well...go ahead sir:

“Omit needless words.” 


Well that's great advice which ones are....oh, you're saying that this whole thing is needless. I see what you did there. Yes I know I could have stopped at "I see" and it would have been the same's just something that people say now.

Ok, that's all the time we have, thank you Mr. Strunk!

Them 20 - Them 14
Them 45 - Them 7
Them 38 - Them 35
Them 0 - Us 1

Come again? Isn't "Them" three and three? Is this a spring game? Oh. I get it. It's one of those articles. You're going to be deep  aren't you. I just want to throw it out there, that there's still time to reconsider. You could tell a story about something interesting from these games, or you could analyze some stats! Maybe something funny? No? Shit. Ok, let me give it a whirl, the point for which you have found it necessary to lure me into what I thought was a college football article under false pretenses to make is, a bunch of teams that I don't care about played in some games. Because I don't care about the other teams and they don't effect my team, they don't affect my worldview which you have neatly divided into the things I care about "Us," and the things which I do not care about "them." In summary, nothing in the Penn State Ohio State, Harvard Yale, or Oregon USC games, all played between teams which I do not care about,  changed my point of view that Georgia is better. That is true. And really really really (shut up Strunk I know I don't need to use even one "really" I'm a damned accountant lay off) uninteresting. You can still turn back. It's obvious and dull, it's not going to get better, and you're a really really good writer....ok, but I warned you.

In fact, from every weekend. Because sooner or later everything in sports -- all the madness and passion and struggle and money -- boils down to "Us" against "Them."

Usually sooner right? Like the second you decide to engage in a sport? Teams are selected and they compete, one against the other.  

A phenomenon more exclusive than inclusive,being a sports fan with a powerful rooting interest in a single team is an act of self-definition.

The phenomenon of choosing on thing over another? Is that even a phenomenon? I would like to illustrate another example of this phenomenon if I may: I strongly prefer corned beef sandwiches to peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. I prefer them to the point where I never choose to eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches when a ham sandwich is available. I, The Quincy Carter of Accountants, am a corned beef sandwich fan. 

An ideology.

Maybe if I'm some kind of radical corned beef enthusiast I suppose. It doesn't necesarily mean that I would continue to eat it if they told me it would give me cancer or was actually made from people. 

A choice of attributes and vanities.

A choice of attributes?!?! STRUNK!!! Get in here!


Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language.”

William Strunk, Jr. quote

Damn straight.

Color schemes.

A specific attribute. Well played.

A rejection of weakness or evil or teal. An expression of tribal exceptionalism. "We're number one!" A mostly harmless mechanism for sorting ourselves into categories -- along with our differences and preferences and prejudices and delusions.

So in a nutshell, when we become fans of something we like it more than other things, and this is mostly harmless. Do you want me to stop doing it?

What does the University of Michigan stand for that the University of Nebraska does not?

Elite business education? Seriously are you saying they're the same? Ok, I'm not an expert on either place but I'll give it a shot. As the flagship universities in their states the embody the culture of the two places. Michigan the center of auto manufacturing in the United States and Nebraska a center of agriculture. I'm thinking it's just possible that these two states could produce two separate cultures to be found at their two universities.

In what way but the weather is Oakland not Minnesota?

One is a city and the other is a state to begin with. 

Or Los Angeles unlike Houston?

I want to make sure I'm clear on this. Your question is, "How is Los Angeles unlike Houston?" I'm not sure the burden should be on me here. One is the center of the oil industry, the other of the entertainment industry, I would say their politics, demographics, economies and recreation are all pretty different. No?

What defines the West Indies or Chelsea -- but says nothing of India or Liverpool? Why Roma, never Lazio?

I'm assuming these have something to do with soccer. I don't know.

Why Tony Stewart, not Carl Edwards?

Ok, you got me here too, I don't know. I'm sure NASCAR and soccer fans have differences that tend to push them towards one rooting interest or another. But I have no idea what they are.

We arrive at every answer by shuffling and dealing our own needs and wants and neuroses and values.

We what? That would mean that we randomly pass out our wants and needs to our teams. So I shuffle my deck of wants and needs, UGA, you can have food and shelter. The Kennesaw State University you get my need to belong in a community and my want of a fish for dinner instead of vegetarian pasta. Don't you mean that we do this deliberately?

We project ourselves onto everything around us, even history.

No not history! I think the term you're looking for here is that we have a point of view.

Then -- positive and negative, right and wrong, better and worse -- we limit or expand the cast of imaginary villains and heroes in our world every time we sit down to watch a game.

We gather with other people who have similar points of view and we root for our team and against their opponent. When it's done we go back to real life.

 All football is fantasy football.

In fantasy football you do exactly the opposite of this. In fantasy football you choose your team and root for them in a completely objective fashion in order that they might produce enough positive points for you to win. There is no shuffling of neuroses and values in fantasy football. It sounds like that's how you would like real football to be. That woud suck. 

We recalibrate ourselves with every first down; with every INT; with every DeSean Jackson taunting penalty.

We get happy or sad as things go well or poorly? Yes. That happens. Then people calm down, they meet on blogs or in bars, talk about the game, and come to some opinion and they go on with life. Some people are crazy, but that's true in anything.

Good example.

Of what exactly?

Giants vs. Eagles. Sunday night. New York and Philadelphia meet again in New Jersey, as geography demands, and as pizza battles cheese steak for the umpteenth time.

It literally took me seven seconds to google Giants Eagles Rivalry and see that it was the 155th meeting. Don't bring that umpteenth stuff in here. 

51 years ago to the day that Chuck Bednarik knocked Frank Gifford cold and struck a blow for Philly; a blow for Geno's, Pat's, and Tony Luke's; a blow for every Concrete Charlie who ever played out his days in the handsome shadow of a halfback Pretty Boy.

Cool. That sounds interesting. Why did you write about everything else up until this point?

Giants-Eagles? Ever see "Big Fan"?

Nope. But I understand that it's a movie about a Giant's fan not a real guy right? I saw Rocky if I need to have an accurate picture of Philadelphians.

The imagined grudges and hurts and slights between New York and Philadelphia go back past Herman Edwards and the Miracle at the Meadowlands, back past Bednarik/Gifford,

I believe that I understand these events to have actually occured? People then felt a certain way about them and remembered those feelings in the next game.

all the way to the founding of the republic and beyond it. Back past William Penn and Peter Minuit. Back past even the dawn of New Amsterdam and Shackamaxon, back to the first families of the Algonquin in their longhouse.

You mean the Algonquian of course. The Algonquin, a subset of the Algonquians lived in what is now Quebec, and would be better used to support a hockey rivalry. But I see your point still don't have the faintest idea what you are talking about.

Hang around sports long enough and everything starts to look/feel/sound like a rivalry.

I think things in which people compete and care deeply about winning feel like competitions that people care deeply about. This does not seem surprising to me.

And that's the trouble.

That none of what you are saying is anything other than begging the question of what a fan is and historical non sequitors? 

That's the problem with Us vs. Them.

That it's a nebulous amalgam of any cliches your reader chooses to substitue into his or her thoughts? Well I agree it's a problem, but you seem to have gotten the long end of the stick on it.

 It's blinding. Paralyzing. Life is not sports.

What do life and this article share in common? Neither is about sports, or in the case of the article life. 

Whatever deep and terrifying troubles have come to Penn State were for years obscured and made worse by the reductive Us vs. Them mentality of big college football loyalty.Moral vision tunnels to nothing when confronted with the choice between some self-defined "us" and a frightening "them."

First of all "tunnels to nothing", unless you're referring to a wasteful construction project in the Rockies is not a phrase. Second, "us vs. them" has now transformed from a fan's exclusive interest in a team, to a person's abdication of responsibility in witnessing a crime. They are not the same thing.

The budget argument stalemated this weekend in Congress is every bit as parochial and narrow and nonsensical as any sports argument.

Really? There has been some pretty parochial nonsense argued about sports. What about Who's Now? No way is the discussion entitlement reform and taxation, however dysfunctional that non-sensical. At least taxes and medicare are real things which could be argued about. "Who's Now" isn't even a real concept.  

It's not a negotiation, it's not governance, it's two Bednariks in search of a Gifford. It's us against them.

Whose side are you on, anyway?

At the risk of being parochial, I'm sticking with the Fish.

Democrat vs. Republican? Cop vs. protester? Christian vs. Muslim? Harvard vs. Yale? Us vs. us vs. us vs. us.

Look around your table Thursday. Look around the room. Look around the world. There's no escaping us.

And for that we should all be thankful

Let me offer a suggestion. If you think you have found the unifying philosophy that links why people in different places root for different things, Algonquians, the Penn State scandal, fiscal responsibility, social justice, religious differences, and a Thanksgiving Miracle, and you can express it in two and a half words, may I humbly suggest that, during this fourth week in November,  you are full of something other than turkey.