Being a sports fan is to realize, at some level, just how silly it all is. You are watching people: bat a ball with a wooden stick; hit a puck while wearing ice skates; try to deposit a small dimple-shaped ball into a hole several hundred yards away; injure each other's brains in a tableau of masculine aggression; slice a ball over a net into an impossible corner for their opponent to reach; use their feet to move a (soccer) ball down a field; or shoot a ball through a hoop attached to a net.
Stepping back, the emotional investment in all of this is amazing. But that's the point -- in the moment there's no stepping back. Perspective is for losers. Let the emotions fly, high five your friends when things go well, hang your head when they do not.
I experienced all of this last weekend, as the Northwestern Wildcats made their first ever trip to the NCAA basketball tournament. The bracket I filled out in advance had Northwestern winning it all -- a ridiculous claim, of course, but it felt good to assert it. They squeaked through in the first round, against Vanderbilt. Then the mighty test, against # 1 seed Gonzaga, awaited.
During the first half the Cats looked terrible, and were down 38-20 at intermission. (For a long time they had only scored 6 points). There were a lot of hanging heads in dismay at the Northwestern alumni watch party.
But then the Cats awakened in the second half, clawing back to within 5 points: 63-58. Here the crucial sequence occurred. Gonzaga goaltended against NU, in what should have been 2 points for Northwestern. (This is not just an admittedly biased fan talking; the NCAA confirmed this after the game). So it should have been 63-60, with momentum clearly on the Cats side.
Goaltending was not called. In response Northwestern coach Chris Collins stormed the court while the ball was in play, causing a (deserved) technical foul. Collins's actions were justified in the moment, I say; sports is about emotion, not logic. But they were costly too. Gonzaga made both free throws on that technical foul. Instead of 63-60, the score was 65-58. The Cats could not surmount that deficit, losing 79-73.
Counterfactuals are the glory of sports. Had goaltending been called, say Cats fans, Northwestern would have been won. Well. Maybe Gonzaga would have responded with a flurry of 3 point shots and won the game that way. We'll never know. This is why Cats fans will say forever that the refs blew their chance at their first ever Sweet Sixteen spot. I'll join the chorus sometimes, while knowing that the real story is more complicated.