“In 2009, the Washington Capitals signed a defenseman named Joe Corvo. Corvo is not an interesting player, an important player, or a particularly good player. He’s bounced from team to team over the past decade, with limited on-ice success. A quick Google search for Joe Corvo turns up dozens of articles by sports writers and bloggers trying to justify a recent signing of Joe Corvo to their team.
Oh, and it turns up his felony conviction from 2002 for assaulting a woman who responded negatively to his advances.
Joe Corvo was not the first Washington Capital with an ugly past, but he was my first direct exposure to problematic fandom. I was raised a Capitals fan, but I was too young during the first Hunter era to know about his ugly, illegal check that knocked Pierre Turgeon out of Game 7 of the playoffs, earning Hunter a then-longest ever suspension of 21 games. When the Capitals signed Corvo, it was the first time I had to make a decision about what it means to be a fan when the team you love becomes less fully loveable.
Being a fan of a sport, or of a particular team, means a lot of things. It means sharing an identity with other fans. It means bonding with friends and family over disappointments and thrilling successes. It means caring about something, sometimes well beyond the point of reason. I know one young boy for whom sports means having a way to connect emotionally with the outside world, even when he doesn’t quite understand the rules of social interaction. Sports are one of our earliest and most enduring entertainments, and to call sports entertainment is not to trivialize them. How we choose to entertain ourselves is a hugely important choice—it defines the boundaries of “work” and “play,” it shapes our opinions, values, and culture.
When your entertainment of choice is sports, you can expect to encounter beliefs about “true fandom.” Being a true fan means watching all your team’s games through to the end. Being a true fan means buying apparel and accessories emblazoned with your team logo (but never, ever in pink). Being a true fan means rejecting anyone you perceive as a “bandwagoner,” because being a true fan above all means always supporting your team. And as is the case with many male-dominated spaces, being a woman and a fan means that your authenticity is automatically suspect (but don’t worry, your team knows you have disposable income, and they are happy to find lady ways for you to share this income).
I’m a Capitals fan, though it’s easier now that the worst thing I have to confront is that our star might be a little dirty. I watch pro football during the season, even though the local team’s name is a disgrace. Finding a balance between watching a sport that brings joy and recognizing that fandom may perpetuate a culture that allows, even causes, significant violence and harm, is a deeply personal decision. The balance I try to achieve relies on knowing that I’m using the two primary tools I have as a fan—my money and my words—in ways that bring me peace. I will not spend money on Washington football gear or on advertisers who cater to the worst aspects of sports machismo. I will not sit quietly through a discussion trashing women athletes and women in sports media. I will not stay quiet about rape culture in professional athletics because it ruins someone else’s fun.
But I also understand that everyone needs to find your own balance, and yours may not be mine. I hope we can talk about that when the puck drops.”
“The only thing I was good at in school was doing schoolwork. This alone does not make one qualified to attend a top-tier college, so for my junior year in high school I very determinedly set out to Play A Sport.
I had had pretty significant jaw surgery the year before and was under strict doctor’s orders to avoid getting smacked in the face, which eliminated basketball from the roster of potential athletic activities. This was unfortunate because as someone who has been their full adult height since age 11, I had only ever been invited to play basketball.
Since following in the steps of Jim Carrol was not an option, I looked for opportunities that didn’t involve things being thrown near my face. I knew some girls on the soccer team, plus I had pretty fond memories of being the goalie at age 6 and never having to do anything but sit in the dirt and receive my World’s Best Participator trophy at the end of the season; so I very proudly told my soccer-playing, non-cigarette-smoking friends that I would gladly help them kick their ball down the field.
The air of very, very mild enthusiasm and not inconsiderable discomfort was palpable. It was very exciting. But before I could buy my very first set of cleats, Aaron—boyfriend of my future teammate Carla and soccer player in his own right—offered to give me a ride home after school one day.
I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but I definitely got out of that car convinced that soccer was an extremely dangerous sport and I would be lucky to have even one working limb and five teeth by the end of the season. As soon as I explained that I was hoping to find a sport that would not frequently put my $16,000 metal jaws in jeopardy, he latched right on. “You’d be surprised how much contact there is in soccer! I’ve seen people get really hurt.” Especially 110 lb. semi-reformed goth chicks that did not—and still do not, please explain this to me—understand why the clock runs forward in soccer.
I don’t think we had a track team. Volleyball had too many elbows near too many faces. But we did have a brand-new swimming team, and I could swim. I took lessons and everything. I was lifeguard-certified at Girl Scout Camp one time! Water can’t shatter your face bones. And there were no tryouts.
The thing I remember most about the maybe three swim team practices I attended is the amount of pool water I drank as I flailed around the pool trying to even pretend to keep up with the rest of my team as our very skilled and very, very serious coach put us through Olympic drills. We were like catfish in an overpopulated river in a theme park, you know, with those little fish-food dispensers on the bridges. Jostling and struggling towards our end goal—not food pellets, just the promise that maybe we wouldn’t have to swim another lap after this.
I have no idea why, but I ended up getting picked to swim the 500m freestyle at our very first meet. I probably insisted on it. I’m sure I did. Why should I just ride the bench so I can say I was on swim team for two years?
So I get up on the little diving board thing, and this is where I reveal to you a detail I have intentionally withheld.
I do not know how to dive.
My mom describes my attempts at diving as, “a dead frog falling into the water.” And my swim coach noticed this, and she tried very hard to teach me how to dive into the water. I think I managed to dive successfully once, right before she agreed to let me swim the 500m freestyle.
Anyway, they blew the whistle. I tried to do the effortless falling head-forward that I was told would result in diving. My thighs hit the water first with a louder slap than you are probably imagining. At the time, I thought maybe it wasn’t that bad and soldiered on and quickly became dead last, then….worse than dead last.
I think I was maybe a third of the way through when I officially became the only person still swimming. And they didn’t just let me stop. They made me finish that whole 500m, mostly entirely by myself, completely violating every regulation about form and not touching the bottom of the pool with your feet and not crying.
I did not include any athletics on my list of extracurricular activities for my college applications. I also did not get into Harvard or Georgetown. But, weirdly, I didn’t get mercilessly mocked every day for the rest of high school, either. So it basically worked out.”
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.