We never really get over high school, do we? Those old cliques and old resentments still rear their heads in the most unlikely places. Jocks still pick on nerds, making them the target of their jokes and their ire. Nerds, however, now fight back. Freed from the fear of being shoved into a locker, nerds are as likely to sling insults at jocks as vice versa.
I was recently reminded of this old dynamic by a couple of concurrent incidents at the end of the year.
The first was part of the lead-up to this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame vote. While most journalists were parsing the PED quandary, Dale Murphy’s children were making an impassioned plea for their father in his final year of eligibility. One can admire the enthusiasm. However, in stating the case for his dad, one of Dale’s sons allowed his passion to get the better of him and lashed out at nerds with their computers and statistics. It was unfortunate (it didn’t help his dad’s case). It was also inaccurate (few internet writers have a Hall of Fame vote). Yet, it also exposed the old resentments. A jock doesn’t get what he wants and blames “Nerds!”
The second incident was an end-of-the-year list in some entertainment magazine. As the author looked back over the year, they declared “winners” and “losers” in pop culture. “Nerds” were declared winners for their continued dominance at the box office and for their newfound clout on the small screen. “Jocks” were declared losers, though I no longer remember why. Maybe it was an Arnold Schwarzenegger flop. Again, it exposed the old resentments, this time, with a self-described former nerd gleefully pointing out that they finally got the upper hand over the jocks.
For some reason, I’ve never been engrossed in the old debate of jocks vs. nerds. I don’t see every superhero movie as a comeuppance for those who used to make fun of me for reading comic books. And I don’t see a nerd conspiracy in new sports statistics or analytics (as I write from my basement computer).
Perhaps that has something to do with my own high school experience. I went to a small high school. A very small high school. There were 75 kids in my school. I don’t mean my class. I mean my school. My graduating class was 13. There simply weren’t enough of us to divide into cliques. Everybody hung around with everybody. I’m not pretending it was Utopia. But our divisions tended to be grade against grade rather than jock vs. nerd. Even then, we’d still hang out with the guys who were a year younger than us (I’m now Facebook friends with a couple of them).
I was admittedly on the nerdy end of the spectrum. I got good grades. I had big glasses. Sure, the other guys picked on me once in a while. But they didn’t mock my comic books. They even seemed to admire them, asking me questions about superheroes whenever they’d creep into pop culture. Yeah, they’d pick on me but it was more in the way a group of teenage guys will all pick on each other. I gave as good as I got on occasion and I was part of the same circle.
I was also on the same sports teams. I wasn’t the best athlete but our school wasn’t big enough for that to matter. I mostly played soccer but, at various times, I was also on the baseball, basketball and volleyball teams. I played soccer in the city league as well and was part of a championship team. I never played organized hockey but I was part of the afterschool pick-up games every day (I ran into one of my friend’s moms at a conference a couple of years ago and she asked me if I remembered playing hockey in the cul de sac with her son). I shared their sports obsession- even if I remembered the statistics better than I mastered the skills.
Yeah, I was a nerd but half of my friends were jocks. And it was normal to like sports and comic books. Maybe that’s why I have a small collection of sports comics, with a Brooks Robinson book as my main prize.
Today, those jock vs. nerd debates simply don’t resonate with me. Sure, I’m pleased to see the comic book characters I loved as a kid up on the silver screen. It is a bit of vindication. But there’s no vindictiveness to it.
And yup, I’m still a sports fan. I play in a church softball league. I’m not the best athlete- never have been- but I have fun and I get occasional kudos for my defensive play. I also enjoy the intellectual side of sports- OPS and WAR and UZR ratings and those newfangled stats that seem to be the source of so much turmoil. I see them as another way to understand and appreciate the game I’ve always loved to watch and play.
I don’t care if you dress up like a Stormtrooper for the San Diego ComicCon or like a Mad Max refugee for an Oakland Raiders game. To me, it’s not a sign of superiority for one side or the other. It’s a stamp of our similarity. The chasm between jocks and nerds isn’t so great. You can like superheroes and sports. You can stand with a foot in each camp. Or, at least a toe.