We are proud to present the first installment of our newest series Politics on the Field. Each week Recomposition will bring you an article for the next month and a half focusing on the connections between sports, politics, and our daily lives. The series will feature some history, an interview, narratives, and a little bit of theory. Our first work comes to us from John O’Reilly in Minnesota and is about his experiences working at a liquor store. Sports is often there in the background shaping our interactions, defining relationships, and reflecting the struggles and aspirations of workers. In Hat Trick O’Reilly reminds us of the role of sports setting out the divisions and unity in our lives.
At first, I’ll admit, I was faking it. A few weeks into my job as a cashier and stocker at a discount liquor store in a tough neighborhood in St. Paul, I bought a Twins hat. I didn’t really care much for the Twins. But I’d lived in the Twin Cities for a few years and I liked the logo of the team. Instead of representing some mascot, the logo, just the letters T and C nested within each other, is simple and spoke to me as representative of my adopted cities. Wearing that hat seemed cool. I could rep my new allegiance to the area I’d grown to love so much.
I had just graduated college in St. Paul, the financial crisis was in full swing and I divided my time between a department store at the Mall of America and this liquor store. I had to wear a black button-up shirt and khakis at the department store and wasn’t at that period of my life very good at dressing myself, so I managed to purchase and wear the ugliest slacks and most ill-fitting shirt that I could find. Unsurprisingly, I hated that uniform. At the liquor store, we wore jeans and grey polos with a booze brand emblazoned over the chest. I primarily wore one declaring itself Arbor Mist; many of my coworkers preferred the Smirnoff one. I thought Arbor Mist was funnier. It was written in a fancy flowing script that could have been a name, and many times customers squinted at the label and asked me questions beginning “Excuse me…Arthur?”
I bought the Twins hat to fit in there. I won’t lie. All the other men who I worked with had ball caps. Mostly Twins, but some other teams as well. I felt self-conscious enough as the only college graduate among the employees, something which my coworkers ribbed me about constantly. “Man, you’re smart, what are you doing here?” I said I didn’t know, I wasn’t that smart, I just needed a job and that I lived pretty close. All of which were true things. I had thought I was smart before I got hired at the liquor store, but it turns out that anthropology doesn’t mean much when you need to figure out how to handle an angry drunk twice your size. There was plenty to learn here. The hat helped me blend in.
And boy, did I blend with that thing. Many times at 7 am, taking pallets off a truck in a forklift, or taking apart a pallet and stacking cases of booze, or stocking bottles on the shelf as fast as possible before the store opened, someone would ask me what I thought about how they did last night. What did I think of their chances in the playoffs? What did I think about a certain player? I really never followed the Twins that closely, so I would offer some vague generality about their prospects, or turn the question back to my coworker. “I don’t know, what do you think about him?” But it was great. I’m a good talker but I love listening, so I just wound a coworker up and sat back. Focusing on something besides my hangover or my sleepiness or my boredom was great. These guys, who had barely finished high school, knew so much about the Twins that I could never keep up. Baseball has always been a statistician’s game, but that’s just the start. The most frequent topic of debate was coaching strategy. My coworkers were just interested in topping each other in the game of “who knows the most facts” that the stereotype about diehard fans maintains, but they had high level debates about coaching. The level of abstraction was seriously intellectually engaged.
We were imperfect people, many of us deeply flawed. Alcoholism was something that nearly everyone struggled with. After the store closed, management would get us a six-pack or three and most people would drive home over the limit. I remember chasing my whiskey shots home down the highway, hoping I would get off the interstate before it caught up with me. The place was steeped in horrible sexism and virulent racism, perpetuated by an all-white and Jewish management team which encouraged it in misogynist hiring practices and white-supremacist attitudes towards our primarily black clientele. Elaine struggled with mental illness and dependency issues, unintentionally putting herself in a vulnerable position which the horrible lecherous general manager took advantage of. The father and son team of Joe Senior and Joe Junior did the owner’s personal bidding and obeyed his every petty whim in a cringe-inducing caricature of historical Jewish-black relations in America. I’m pretty sure Anthony was a straight-up woman-hater. It was a not a good place.
But, we had sports. The big screen TV at the front of the store brought us together. Baseball’s season seemingly never ends and so there was plenty of time to watch the Twins. And then there was football season. Growing up a nerdy kid in a border town between Wisconsin and Minnesota, I had never had much interest in the perennial Vikings/Packers debate that divided my town’s bars. But upon moving to St. Paul and attending a snooty liberal arts college, I embraced my Wisconsin roots and learned to love the Packers just to spite my rich colleagues and their poo-pooing of such plebian pursuits. At the liquor store, we could all agree the Twins were great, and I could stand alone as a shining beam of confidence in the greatness of Vince Lombardi’s dream amidst the heathen Norsemen that surrounded me. It was great fun. Baseball all summer and fighting about football all winter.
When there was a game on, stock guys like me would emerge from the back and cashiers would walk away from their stations during a slow moment to watch. We dragged ass getting back to work, despite many exhortations and threats by the bosses to do our damn jobs. We were incorrigible. Management struggled to disperse us because they, too, wanted to watch the game. “Man, look at how lazy they are,” we would grumble to each other when confronted with the sight of a handful of bosses sitting around watching the Twins getting walloped. We knew that they didn’t do anything all day in their offices, but it was galling to watch them do nothing in the spot where we wanted to be doing nothing. A game gave us something to do besides work and we were thankful for the opportunity. It’s been years since I worked at that liquor store and I don’t miss it much, but I do wear that Twins hat every day. I’m not faking it any more.
Working people are divided by so much. We are divided by race, by gender, by education, by disease, by job, by plain old luck. But we have sports. It’s something to talk about, to while away the time thinking about. Sports can give us some meaning and some shared language to interpret the confusing and alienating world that surrounds us. When we feel like nothing can change in our lives, we can at least project some of our fears and hopes onto a group of grown-ass men wearing silly uniforms playing with balls. It’s silly, but it’s fun. We want to believe in something.
Marx commented in “The Poverty of Philosophy” about how the working class needs to be not just a class in itself but for itself, acting in its own interests. In sports, we can see a shadow of that prophecy. We are not simply the people from a certain area where a team plays, we become the people who are for that team. We are that team. Their struggles are our struggles. We cheer our victories and mourn our losses. My mother starts screaming every time someone gets near Aaron Rodgers, our team’s quarterback, like he was her own son. We take on an identity that transcends our personal identities. While racism, sexism, and homophobia haunt locker rooms and living rooms, the fight against them in sports is advancing and winning. It’s important that we don’t ignore these real differences which exist, much like the real differences and imbalance in power within the class that divide us. Yet everyone who is a fan finds a greater purpose in their team when the time comes.
This unity is ephemeral. When the game ends, when the season winds down, we find our attention diverted away from the thing that unites us. Our shared sense that this fight matters falls away when the fight ends. Nonetheless, it’s important to see that this is not a false unity, it’s simply a temporary one. The class, divided in reality, pretends for a just a few minutes that we all share one thing: our team. Sports offers us a vision of what the working class might look like when it is invested collectively in triumph and defeat. Because we really want our team to win.
John O’Reilly is a member-organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World and a member of Recomposition’s editorial collective. He lives in Minneapolis and currently teaches English as second language to refugees in the Twin Cities.