No cheering rule: why I never clap while attending pro sporting events

Wednesday July 3rd, 2013

The author is one of the few fans who refuses to cheer during professional sporting events.
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What is the sound of no hands clapping? The correct answer is me, at a baseball, football, hockey or basketball game, where I sit in the stands without cheering. It's a bit like being a wallflower at an orgy: You feel left out in the moment, but are happier and healthier in the long run.

This clapping moratorium -- this less-atorium -- only applies to major-league sports spectacles. I still clap at tee ball games and ballet recitals and to turn my lights off at night without getting out of bed.

And I still clap for the anthem singers and eight-year-old acrobats and servicemen and women trotted onto those fields, and the injured players stretchered off them.

But put me in a crowd of other people during the course of an NBA or NFL or NHL or MLB game and I am almost physically incapable of clapping, in the way that some men's tear ducts run dry from decades of disuse.

After 25 years of adhering to a strict code of "no cheering in the press box," applause feels like an illicit act. Whenever someone says "Put your hands together," mine remain resolutely apart.

Why? Why do my arms hang at my sides, un-high-five-able, at climactic moments of big games? Not because I'm physically unable to cheer. It's worse than that. It's because, too often, I feel intellectually incapable of cheering, as if doing so would turn a middle-aged man, rooting on a 23-year-old athlete, into something closer to a smitten schoolgirl. It seems, in a word, silly.

Thank goodness most people don't feel this way, or stadiums would be silent, save for the distant cries of umpires and beer vendors. Every contest, in every sport, would be a Miami Marlins home game, and nobody wants that.

So I'm grateful for your participation, even while I opt out as clapping's conscientious objector. I still smile inanely at my seatmates after great plays, nodding my head in tacit approval of what we have just collectively witnessed, and sometimes rub my palms together in the manner of a hungry man in an old movie who is about to tuck into a steak. This gesture looks a little like clapping, while producing no sound, and thus prevents me from being pummeled by the mob while preserving my own perverse principles.

That's exactly what happened in the last NFL game I attended as a spectator, on November 6, 2011, at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots hosted the Giants in Week 8. We didn't know it then, but it would be a preview of the Super Bowl, and when the Pats' tight end Aaron Hernandez caught a five-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 32 seconds into the fourth quarter, the home fans erupted while the legion of Giants fans fell silent.

I was sitting between my brother-in-law, a Patriots season ticketholder, and my father-in-law, a lifelong Giants fan, both of whom now live in Connecticut, halfway between New York and Boston in the Switzerland of sports states. The guy in the stadium most emblematic of that in-between status was Hernandez, of Bristol, Conn., which is -- Google it -- a 2 hour and 3 minute drive from Boston and a 2 hour and 3 minute drive from New York City.

Twenty months later, as Hernandez sits in jail charged with murder, released by the Patriots, who announced a recall of all the souvenir 81 jerseys out there -- to be replaced free of charge with a Pats' jersey of your choice -- I cannot in good conscience congratulate myself for never having applauded him. After all, I never applauded anyone.

On the contrary. Seated, silent and neutral is no way to go through life, to paraphrase Dean Wormer. Never clapping for anyone is smug and self-defeating and pointless, of course. But it seems to work for me.

Perhaps I will come to regret it on my deathbed, and attempt to release a lifetime of pent-up applause for everyone and everything I've been privileged to witness. You know how they say, at graduations and award ceremonies, "Please hold your applause 'til the very end"? Maybe, in a cosmic sense, that's what I'm doing. But unless or until that happens, I'll be sitting on my hands.

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