It happened the moment I hit “play” on the YouTube clip of Justin Timberlake’s ESPY Awards intro. I wasn't sure how but I'd completely managed to miss all the promotions for it, not to mention missing the event itself.
And then it hit me: I didn’t know because I stopped watching ESPN, stopped following sports like it was my job. The worst part? I stopped because of my ex-boyfriend.
For some girls, one of the only positives of a break-up is the reprieve from the constant deluge of games and highlights, stats and standings, the ticker tape that snakes continually underneath the surface of the everyday life of a sports fan.
I’ve never been one of those girls. I was the one who avoided making plans on big game days, the one who tried to be subtle about the fact I was watching ESPN in the bar on dates.
That all shifted during the last basketball season, with my last boyfriend. We met at a sports bar during Monday Night Football. I was an aspiring sportswriter; he was a college tennis coach. Our teams were not bitter rivals, and he wasn’t a Redskins fan. After years of dating men who didn’t really care for sports, it seemed like the perfect set-up.
I honed my ability to flip smoothly between college football games for 12 hours at a time every Saturday in the fall; he demonstrated the same skill set on the first Friday night of the NCAA basketball tournament.
One might think our shared love of sports would bring us together; instead, our passions for different sports tore us apart.
I spent Saturdays on the couch with my laptop, watching college football, blogging, focusing on dozens of games at once, unwilling to be distracted. He preferred to spend Sunday at the bar with his buddies, downing ungodly quantities of beer and wings, enjoying the NFL action more for the communal ritual it provided than any of the actual games.
When he was tired or uninterested in one of my football games, he went to bed. When I was new to basketball, I spent hours reading articles and columns online and in the sports section, trying to learn as much as I could before the next game. When I could tell he was getting bored with a football game I was watching, I shrugged, suggested he watch something in the other room, and kept watching.
But when he knew I’d never been a basketball fan – more because I simply didn’t watch it than because I didn’t like what I saw – he stopped inviting me to watch the games with him and refused to believe I was sincere if I expressed any interest.
To this day, he maintains that I “hate” basketball. I admit it’s never been my favorite sport, but the only thing I hated about it was the way he let it drive us apart, rather than using it to bring us closer together.
For my part, I failed to realize the way he felt about basketball, and about tennis, was the same way I felt about football. When he gleefully informed me that the NCAA tournament was basically a month of nonstop basketball, I dreaded what I thought would be a month-long moratorium on our already rocky relationship, when I should’ve recognized that I would’ve been just as excited if I had a month of football Saturdays coming up.
When he explained that major tennis matches could take hours, I groaned, thinking of all the time he already spent with tennis in his job as a coach, instead of realizing that, hey, I park it and watch football for just as long without a second thought.
He thought I hated the sports he liked to watch and the people with whom he watched them; I assumed he wanted time with the guys and was more than happy to do my own thing for a night. To me, it was just a game, and our relationship would still be there when the clock ran down. To him, though, the game was everything.
After we broke up, sports became a painful reminder of him, so I gradually stopped following them.
I half-heartedly watched the NBA finals because I'd grown accustomed to watching with him. I watched the final Wimbledon match, thinking of him and the tennis lesson he’d given me, even as I drooled over Nadal’s athleticism and gorgeous good looks.
But soon, I stopped watching SportsCenter on my lunch hour, because I knew he’d be doing the same thing. What had once been my favorite channel, the one I turned on just for background noise, became a constant reminder of our failed relationship.
It wasn’t until I saw the ESPY award clips on YouTube that I realized I’d cut myself off from sports, with the exception of my Friday Night Lights DVDs, after our break-up.
Instead of immersing myself in something I loved to ease my pain, I’d unconsciously removed it from my life, effectively letting him rob me of something else I held so dear.
So last night, I made a very conscious decision to turn on ESPN and caught a few minutes of College Football Live, surprised at how quickly the season was creeping up. Once again, I’ll be the one controlling the remote, but that’s not to say I won’t share. I might even welcome a distraction. After all, unless USC’s playing, it’s just a game.