In Praise of Professional Athletes With Extremely Nerdy Interests

Whether it's anime or video games, America's most elite athletes are geeking out with wondrous abandon

February 21, 2023 12:08 pm
jamaal williams in front of his beloved anime
Getty/Nic Antaya/SOPA Images/Tim Boyle

Jamaal Williams is perhaps the most important reason the Detroit Lions just had franchise’s best season in recent years. The running back scored a mind-boggling 17 touchdowns throughout the 2022 campaign, which made him an apex performer in fantasy leagues all around the country. (Trust me, as someone who picked him up off the scrap heap before the season, I would know.) So, when reporters caught up with Williams before the team’s Wild Card-implicating showdown against the hated Green Bay Packers looking to mine a few threatening, gladiatorial sound bites, I expected the usual football pablum about the “heart” of “this group” as they “play together” and take it “one game at a time.” Instead, Williams subverted all of those notions and told us the god-honest truth about what he was really focused on outside the lines.

“I just want to play football and go home and play Pokemon,” said Williams, dressed in a puffy windbreaker patched with characters from the long-running anime serial, Naruto. It immediately became the most memorable post-game interview of the season, and it thoroughly perplexed the gaggle of journalists. One of them committed a cardinal dialectical sin as they formulated a follow-up question. They referred to Nintendo’s global, multi-billion dollar media franchise — the single most profitable brand in pop culture — with a classic boomer malapropism: “Poke-Man.” 

Pokeman?” responds Williams, incredulously. “Pokemon. Don’t do that. Don’t disrespect Pokemon like that.”

Williams is really just the tip of the iceberg. Young athletes across the globe are geeking out with wondrous, unfettered abandon. The Legend of Zelda treasure chest chime plays in the Cleveland Cavaliers arena whenever Jarrett Allen, the team’s all-star center, swishes a free throw. (He apparently has a massive Zelda collection back home.) De’Aaron Fox, the emerging point guard for the Sacramento Kings, routinely shows off his Dragon Ball Z-inspired Nikes. They pair nicely with his Twitter banner, which is draped with Super Saiyan fanart. A couple years ago, the Philadelphia Phillies were so addicted to Fortnite that ex-slugger Carlos Santana took it upon himself to smash up a clubhouse TV to refocus the squad on the basepaths. (They finished under .500. It didn’t seem to work.) And let’s not forget Lando Norris, who lives the extremely charmed life of an F1 driver for McLaren, but streams on Twitch all the time. Here he is skulking around the map in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. 

Yes, after decades of terse jock slogans and performative masculinity, the four major American sports are beginning to resemble America itself; staffed by a bunch of dudes who tend to their various nerdy proclivities as soon as they clock out from work. I’ve never felt more connected to them in my life.

I grew up in San Diego and spent most of my high school years tending to my burgeoning, and now professional, obsessions with indie rock, video games and the sort of gonzo, Palahniuk-ish cinema I could find on Limewire. My love affair with the local Padres, and the dearly departed Chargers, was something I practically kept hidden from the rest of my friends. In my corner, the ritual of watching 12 hours of football on Sunday was eminently uncool — so I buried the habit in the same way other kids might stow away a bottle of Tennessee Honey. A lot of this was in my head, of course. There is no one more image-conscious than a 16-year old kid — to the point that they might believe that an afternoon trip to the ballpark might shatter their entirely counterfeit persona. But as I was sketching out the sort of geek-aesthete I wanted to be, I could not also be seen canoodling with the enemy.

And frankly, the sports culture of the late ’90s and early 2000s was wildly different than the version we have today. Our heroes, in that halcyon age, were grim, martial cranks like Kobe Bryant, or film-room creatures like Peyton Manning, or the paranoid maniacs who engineered the home-run boom and subsequent bust. (Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, take your pick.) These men were majestic on the field, sure, but as someone who has owned multiple different Dungeons and Dragons rule systems in my life, I couldn’t exactly relate with them. They were too muscular, too single-minded, too flinty. If these jocks did contain multitudes, then they either did their best to insulate it from the outside world, or any nerdy dalliances were drilled out of them at an early age by sheer force of burpees. (The one exception to this rule is Tim Duncan, one of the 10 best NBA players of all time, and an avowed tabletop RPG lifer.)

But as the generation turned over, and the majority of the rosters in the Big Four are composed of millennials and zoomers, a new perspective has taken hold. Yes, you absolutely can be a gigantic Pokemon fan and rush for a thousand yards in a season. Geek culture, in general, has left its sectarian niche roots in the dust and has bolted onto the mainstream. Free Guy, a Ryan Reynolds movie about an NPC in a Grand Theft Auto facsimile, featured a ton of Twitch-star cameos and made $331 billion at the box office. With that kind of momentum, nobody should be surprised that gamers and athletes are approaching a commercial singularity.

But I also believe, more generally, that young men have seen through the fraudulent self-denial advertised by the glum men who were both our parents and grandparents, and discovered the joy of a life with no parameters or toxic, old-fashioned “guy codes.” Data shows the millennials are the first segment of the population in centuries who don’t seem to be growing more conservative with time, and while the political strata and off-time hobbies aren’t fully entwined, I can say with confidence that emerging out of your youth as proud, grown-up anime fan requires a certain disregard for established male-leaning precepts — especially in a realm as traditionally macho as professional athletics. When Jamaal Williams single-handedly wins your fantasy league, call it the revenge of the nerds.

I can’t wait to raise a kid in the aftermath of this paradigm shift. They’ll be able to find heroes everywhere. Perhaps they will work on their slider in the bullpen while binging all of the Wheel of Time books. We’ll schedule soccer practice around their World of Warcraft raid or Pathfinder campaign. Their peers won’t be laughing at them. Why would they? They’re probably playing too. The world is finally our oyster. So please, for the love of god, never call it “poke-man.”

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