Commentary: ‘Scrupulosity Rooting’ for sports with a social consciousness keeps you in reality

Writer and producer Peter Mehlman at his home.
Writer and producer Peter Mehlman is no longer rooting for a team just because it’s his hometown team. He’s rooting for the athletes and teams that are promoting social justice and racial equality.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In the summer of 2020, someone named Cameron Champ kept appearing on golf leaderboards. In HDTV, he looked hot off the PGA assembly line: white guy, zero body fat, joylessly perfect swing and total blindness to a world beyond 18 holes.

My first thought from the couch: another golf robot. Hope he hooks his drive into the lake.

Then, in late August, Champ showed up at the BMW Championship wearing one black golf shoe and, Sharpie-d along the heel, a white golf shoe with the words “Jacob Blake BLM.”


Turns out, Cameron Champ is a biracial, socially aware professional golfer.

Holy rara avis, Batman! I hope he wins the next 10 majors.

Aside from the reassurance that I’m still wrong about everyone, the Cameron Champ revelations embodied a big twitch in my little sports world. Society is now an active ingredient in my rooting.

Cameron Champ showed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement by writing "Jacob Blake BLM" on one of his shoes.
Cameron Champ showed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement by writing “Jacob Blake BLM” on one of his shoes while competing at the BMW Championship in August.
(Associated Press)

After decades of mindless fandom, I’m like the Tinder client who suddenly changes his preferences from “leggy/fun-loving” to “literate/vegan.” Beginning roughly Jan. 20, 2017, at 12:01 p.m., when our 45th president was inaugurated, my team loyalties have come with socioeconomic strings attached. Player stats got bundled with off-the-court conscience. And really, when champions are enhanced or degraded by their RSVPs to White House invitations, I’m pretty sure Scrupulosity Rooting is “a thing,” maybe even bordering on “a syndrome.”

Either way, my couch life has changed.

I’ve become a better fan by embracing society’s invasion into sports. You’re not me? Then you may very well be sickened by it enough to misquote Chrissie Hynde: “The phone, the TV and the news of the world got into sports like a pigeon from hell.”

Duly noted. But for now, let’s focus on me.

“Naomi Osaka wears masks with the names of police brutality BLM victims at the US Open: she instantly jumps next to Serena as my favorite WTA players.”

Like most sports fans, my rooting interests have usually been rooted in next to nothing. To reconstrue a quote from (ick!) Hannibal Lecter, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” In childhood, a team played half its games in my area code? I adopted it. A free safety lived in my neighborhood? Go, Giants. Dad loved the Yankee slugger? Mickey Mantle was God. Never mind that I grew up in Queens and God grew up in Oklahoma thinking that Flushing was only a verb. In sports, divinity is a buffet.

Granted, I was sporadically gripped by personalities who had the poor taste to taint sports with truth: Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Marvin Miller, Bill Russell, John Carlos, Howard Cosell, Dave Meggyesy, Jim Bouton. I’d detour into their legal cases or read their bestselling books, but there was always the GAME wooing me back to blessed unreality: gushing stats, oozing slo-mo, Roone Arledge’s crowd shots, Marv Albert’s descriptive brilliance, the silent beauty of Walt Frazier, the sight of Arnold Palmer smoking cigarettes on the fairway just like my father.

Heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali training at N'Sele Gym in Zaire on Oct. 23, 1974.
(Horst Faas / Associated Press)

Wow. Ditching blatant injustice for trivial distraction was dreamy.

Later, as a pseudo-adult, I began feeling slightly queasy about the social silence of megawatt athletes. Long before the warping of the word platform, I wondered why they never used their platforms. But as a cum laude rationalization major, I decided it was as unfair to equate (oh, let’s say) Michael Jordan with Bill Russell as it was to compare the power numbers of Sammy Sosa and Babe Ruth. Not only that, I reasoned that Ali-Ashe-Flood were the anomalies; Nike-Reebok-Adidas pitchmen, the norms. Not only that, I realized that most athletes were just kids, immunized against societal ills by parents, coaches, boosters and their own breathtaking physicality.

I still just wanted to enjoy the GAME.

Well, goodbye to that. Too much has happened in the world to keep believing that sports play an effective defense against reality, that fields, courts and rinks are pockets of Camelot.

In all his brilliance, LeBron James’ game was never esthetically pleasing: Since his get-out-the-vote efforts, his jumper looks so much more fluid, no?

Admittedly, it’s been a bit disorienting to see a Corey Seager homer smack into a row of cardboard cutouts, or to momentarily confuse Aaron Rodgers’ passer efficiency statistics with the positive COVID numbers in Wisconsin, or to accidentally say “LGBT” when I meant to say “NBPA.” And when it turns out that the beautifully progressive NBA lost $200 million of Chinese money because of former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s admirable support for protesters in Hong Kong, it’s hard to know what to think.

At times, this confusion bleeds into hypocrisy: reflexively forgiving Justin Turner for his infectious World Series celebration purely because he seems like a really good guy.

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner celebrates the team's World Series triumph.
Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner celebrates the team’s World Series triumph while standing next to his wife, Kourtney Pogue, on Oct. 27.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

But there are also unforeseen benefits to Scrupulosity Rooting: Referring to my team as “we,” feels less mentally defective if my team lines up with my political views. Years of self-loathing for having wasted my life watching sports has trickled down to occasional twinges of guilt for wasting my life. Pulling for humans who won’t shut up and dribble blunts the social impact of clanked foul shots in crunch time. Hearing NFL fans boo at players locking arms on opening night while the play-by-play announcer ignored it made it easy to zap off the TV … because I’m taking a stand, damn it!

What was I thinking betting the Texans with the points?

Oh, crap. Forget that. Principles, people!

Another upside to Scrupulosity Rooting is how it allows for jumping on and off bandwagons. Naomi Osaka wears masks with the names of police brutality victims at the U.S. Open: She instantly jumps next to Serena Williams as my favorite WTA players.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka wears a mask with the name George Floyd printed on it before a match at the U.S. Open in September.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Twenty years into rooting for Tiger Woods, he golfs with someone who allegedly/definitely cheats on the course while the Secret Service looks away: Fifteen major titles are enough.

Gregg Popovich calls Tiger’s golf partner a “coward”: Finally, a replacement for the piddling Knicks.

The Bucks boycott an NBA playoff game to protest police brutality: Or I could root for Milwaukee?

In all his brilliance, LeBron James’ game was never aesthetically pleasing: Since his get-out-the-vote efforts, his jumper looks so much more fluid, no?

Doc Rivers can’t quite close a 3-1 playoff lead: So what. He’s too eloquent to fire.

Mikaela Shiffrin’s Twitter followers balk at her calls for social justice and she responds, “Wanna ‘Unfollow?’ I’ll see you to the door.” Love the Super G.

Bubba Wallace spearheads a NASCAR ban on Confederate flags: Well, I’d still rather watch traffic on the San Diego Freeway, but hey, happy motoring.

NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace wears a Black Lives Matter shirt as he prepares for a race in Martinsville, Va.
NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace wears a Black Lives Matter shirt as he prepares for a race in Martinsville, Va., in June.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Roger Goodell chokes out an apology on kneeling during the anthem: Mention Colin Kaepernick and we can talk.

The “Washington Football Team”? Actually, that name is growing on me. But sorry, no new stadium for you, Danny Boy.

How ESPN and other networks have changed their approach to addressing political issues in sports under pressure from athletes.

WNBA team owner/Sen. Kelly Loeffler channels her inner Marge Schott: There’s nothing I hate more than cancel culture; but this one time, cancel away.

Maya Moore: Just give her Sportsperson of the Year. Now.

Finally, the coolest benefit of Scrupulosity Rooting is that it makes me so morally superior I’m freed up to take the occasional 20-second timeout and indulge in mindless fixations like: What are the immigration policies of Clippers Nation? Who do you pay rent to if you live at the free throw line? COVID-19 … didn’t the CDC know Willis Reed’s number was retired? NBA postseasons are always hyped as “Win or go home.” Do basketball players have notably bad home lives?

OK, done. Now I can go back to cheering on Cameron Champ.

See? Scrupulosity Rooting is win-win.

Writer and producer Peter Mehlman.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Oh, wait. I promised to address those who loathe the real world’s incursion into sports. Sadly, our cultural divide seems unbridgeable. But if you can ignore the strife around us and find escape in America’s jock-ocracy safe space, well, lucky you. To mangle the words of Bob Dylan, “The game times they are a-changin’.”

Peter Mehlman, best known as a writer on Seinfeld, recently published his second novel, “#MeAsWell.”

Big-name athletes are more likely to talk politics and social justice in the locker room now than at any other time.