Good Sports

Can a Boston-loving grandson make peace with his Philly-loving grandfather?

Elsewhere in Slate today, Tom Scocca explains how the Philadelphia Eagles saved their season.

When my older son Eli was in preschool, my father gave him an Eagles blanket, an Eagles sweatshirt, and Eagles socks. Also, my husband reminds me, an Eagles football, pajamas, and a wool hat. These are the Philadelphia Eagles I’m talking about. In the house I grew up in, they are football’s holy men.

As soon as Eli was old enough to know about different sports teams, he refused these gifts. The Eagles blanket now plugs a draft in my husband’s study. And my dad has given up on making Eli into a Philly sports fan. He has accepted that his grandson has gone over to the Boston dark side, along with my husband’s side of the family.

But accepting doesn’t mean accepting graciously, for either party. My dad is a big trash talker. He likes to strut when his team is up and when it’s down. For a few years, he would call to gloat (usually before the big game, because if you’re a Philly fan that’s often your only chance). Eli was too earnest to take this in stride. He’d listen to his grandfather razz him, he wouldn’t know what to say in response, and then he’d get mad. Early elementary school, it seems, is too young to believe in your team and also joke about it. When both Philadelphia and Boston have had a team in the playoffs (the 2006 season for football, 2008 for baseball, 2003 for basketball, though that’s prehistory for my kids), Eli didn’t want to talk to his grandfather until it was over.

This is why it was a momentous occasion in our house when the Eagles beat the Giants last Sunday and Eli called my dad to offer his congratulations. Granted, the scenario made it easier than usual for him to be magnanimous. Eli’s Patriots aren’t in the playoffs this year, and in taking out the Giants, the Eagles had blocked the Super Bowl dreams of the team that dashed the Patriots’ own Super Bowl hopes last year. And so, Eli decided, he and his grandfather had a common enemy. He even went further, announcing that he would keep rooting for the Eagles this weekend as well, when they play the Arizona Cardinals, a team he has nothing against.

Eli’s ability to cheer for the Eagles strikes me as a sign of newfound maturity, right on schedule with his ninth birthday this week. Sports teams aren’t supposed to be like political parties or religions. You should be able to be a loyal fan without being an unwavering one. You can have a second-best team that might also make your grandfather happy. With luck, this helps keep fandom in perspective: I’d like to think that my kids won’t grow up believing that it’s as important for their team to win the championship as it is for their candidate to win an election (or for them to have a bar mitzvah). But sometimes, for adults as well as for kids, the distinctions between these forms of allegiance can blur more than they should.

Especially since we do plenty, collectively speaking, to instill the lesson that the choice between the Patriots and the Eagles really matters. Team loyalties cut across race and class. They give kids a reason to chat up the cabdriver or their dad’s boss. Then there’s the fun of getting together to watch a big game—the popcorn, the beer, the kids and adults sitting around and talking the same shop. Spectator sports are a leveler: All you need to participate is a little bit of knowledge and a little more swagger.

I also appreciate Eli’s fandom because he’s come to it on his own. I can get into watching football and basketball (and once in a while, the slow tempo of baseball), but I’m an opportunist who clues in for my team during the playoffs but ignores the rest of the season. My husbandhas a passing interest in professional sports but not much more—he’d rather play than watch. And since he’s generally anti-television, he doesn’t relish the prospect of an afternoon of football, punctuated by ads the kids would be better off without. In strict terms of time well spent, it’s hard to argue with him. But one of my favorite things about being a parent is watching my kids’ discover their own passions and then trying to follow their lead. If Eli loves watching football, then we can all settle in for a few quarters of postseason play. He likes to have company when he’s reacting to the big touchdown pass or moaning at the miserable fumble.

In this way, Eli is like my dad, who would turn on the TV on Sundays and naturally expect his daughters to gather around. Maybe the two of them cheering the Eagles on this weekend will only sharpen the rivalry when it returns next season. But maybe it will show Eli that the teasing and the trash talk is really about uniting around a pastime. What time is kickoff Sunday?