I'd like to aquire a working knowledge of sports teams/sports players, but I don't know where to start.
February 8, 2012 2:11 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to acquire a working knowledge of sports teams/sports players, but I don't know where to start.

I know basically nothing about the major American football/baseball/basketball teams or their respective players. I've got the names of a few teams in the NFL

(Redskins, Cowboys, Ravens, 49ers ... that's about it) and even fewer teams in the NBA and MLB. And wasn't the Super Bowl on Sunday? No idea who played in that.

To be honest, I don't really care about major sports teams or their players. I'd much rather be athletic than watch other people be athletic, but this stuff comes up enough in common conversation that I feel like a basic knowledge of the teams and major players would be beneficial.

Example: I'm a med student, and was scrubbed in on an orthopedic surgery case. The attending surgeon starts making small talk with me, and asks me about any sports teams that I follow. I had to tell him that I didn't really follow any sports teams, which was unfortunate because it would have given me a chance to make a good impression and I lost that chance. (Not to mention that immediately afterwards, he asked me, "Well are you a team player?", which really says more about him than it does about me, but it still didn't feel great being questioned on that.)

But I don't know where to start. The discussions on ESPN seem to be at a higher level than I understand - for example, the commentators assume that their audience has certain basic understandings of sports concepts that I don't know (i.e., what the hell is an RBI), and a certain familiarity with certain teams and players that I don't have. I feel like I'm looking at jibberish. I feel like I need an "NFL for Dummies" book.

So Hivemind, if you were me, where would you start?
posted by Ephilation to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The standard answer here is to start reading the sports pages in the newspaper, or their online equivalent. That's enough.
posted by jayder at 3:50 AM on February 8, 2012

You are correct that the Superbowl was on Sunday, and it is the final game of football season, so you'll be better off trying to get a grip on basketball (playing now), baseball (starting fairly soon) or possibly hockey (marginal some places, very important other places. Playing now).

The sports page of your local paper is a good place to look. It'll talk about the local teams, and the local teams are usually the ones local people will try small-talking about. It'll also touch on the biggest national sports stories. It will be much easier to digest in the actual physical paper, I think. Less open ended.

As for the basics of any given sport, maybe wikipedia? The basic "baseball" article surely has everything you'll need, but it will be a lot to digest at once. BUT, I am sure that the article for any given sports term will tell you what you need.

I think your plan is a reasonable one. Sports are an evolving narrative, fairly emotionally neutral, that people use as a carrier wave to get to know each other. Drunks in bars can understand them, med students can too.

RBI stands for Runs Batted In, and counts the number of runs scored when a given player was at bat. If there is a runner at each base and the batter hits a home run that counts as 4 RBI, because the three players on base, and the batter himself, score. It's an illuminating stat insomuch as bigger number = better, but it is also of questionable value, as it depends so much on the game situation - RBI opportunities will vary greatly. A player with good people playing in front of him will get lots of RBI opportunities, the same player with lousy players around him will not.

RBI is plural.
posted by dirtdirt at 3:51 AM on February 8, 2012

I would suggest starting with one sport and trying to grasp as much of its narrative as you can stomach, rather than trying to spread yourself thin over multiple sports. Unfortunately, the best American sport for this is the NFL, which is now over until preseason begins in August.

You're a med student, so I'm assuming that you're fairly decent at memorization and systems. Baseball and its preoccupation with stats feeds into these, so you may find elegance in a boxscore (a summary of everything that occurred in a baseball game).

For other sports, I would suggest just trying to get a grasp of the basic rules (wikipedia as suggested by dirtdirt above), and try to watch some games when you can. But stick with one or two major sports to gain an understanding that will let you converse with ease.
posted by kuanes at 4:26 AM on February 8, 2012

Dummies.com has cheat sheets for the basics. Once you have a basic working knowledge of the mechanics of the games, just read the sports pages and watch Sportscentre. And of course, try watching some actual games as well.
posted by fso at 4:59 AM on February 8, 2012

If you focus on baseball and football you'll have something to talk about 50 weeks out of the year.
posted by COD at 5:11 AM on February 8, 2012

You do not list your location which is a critical variable. Interest is highly localized so if you want to talk to co-workers you should spend all of your times following the local teams. For the sake of this answer I am going to assume you live in New York City. You need to read my answer substituting the proper variable names where appropriate.

The sports you need to know are in order of popularity: NFL football, Major League baseball, and NBA basketball. All others are an order of magnitude less important so forget them for now. In order of ease of information acquisition you probably should re-order this list to NBA basketball, NFL football, and Major League baseball. Baseball is more difficult and many novices never get the hang of it as the nuances are subtle which can make it almost impossible to follow for people who don't realize all that is going on and think that nothing is happening. It is now basketball season so you should begin there with the New York Knicks. There is another local team but one is enough, the Knicks are the most popular, so you want to start with the Knicks.

Following five Knicks at once is a little much so I would start with following the two big stars: Carmelo Anthony and Amourie Stoudemire. I am not a Knicks fan so that second name may not be spelled right. Anthony is a ball hog and the Knicks offense goes through him on around half of their possessions so this makes for an easy task for you (and an insurmountable obstacle for the poor Knicks trying to beat any team that can do a decent job playing defense against Anthony). You the novice basketball fan will have a hard time knowing what the Knicks do tonight or tomorrow (not sure when their next game is) but it should be a trivial matter for you to know how Anthony does.

This strategy can also be applied to the Giants (football) or the Yankees (baseball). For the Giants you concentrate on just the quarterback, the offense's most productive receiver and runner, and the defense's two biggest mean nasty bruiser guys. That's Manning and Cruz and Bradshaw and I don't know the bruisers' names but get a list of the salaries and they are the two guys on defense with the biggest contracts most likely. For the Yankees you concentrate on the #3 and #4 hitters, the rotation stopper and the bullpen closer. That's Rodriguez and Texiara and Sabathia and Rivera. All the action in the game is way too much to follow but if you know what these guys are doing in the game you will always know something significant about the game when it is over with. If you miss the game read the news account and these guys names will pop out at you more than any other, and the box score will summarize numerically exactly what they did. In fact the box score may be easier for you to factor in new data than any other format.

If you find the guys on ESPN incomprehensible do not worry about it. The majority of that conversation is prattle. Eight days out of ten the only one important fact about the New York Knicks is: did Carmelo have a good night?
posted by bukvich at 5:43 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't really care about major sports teams or their players.

This is going to be a problem then. If you don't care about the subject, why do you think anything you learn will stick? Watch a few games in any sport that pops up, read about anyone who gets mentioned a lot, see if you find something interesting in it. If sports simply aren't for you, I don't think faking it would be as good an idea as just being a genuine person with other interests.
posted by yerfatma at 6:16 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

A good "NFL for dummies" is the Wikipedia article on American football.

The articles for other sports are probably as good. Wikipedia is good at assuming you don't know much.

Really following sports is a lot of work, though, if you are totally uninterested. I watch sports here and there because I think the athleticism is amazing, at least in some sports (baseball bores me.) I get vague familiarity with big controversies in sports or the business of sports (strikes, Joe Paterno, Tim Tebow, whether college athletes should be paid.) I actually follow road running just a little bit because I am a road runner myself, so I catch big events on TV like the Boston Marathon.

All this makes me vaguely familiar with some sports and at least interested enough to carry on a basic conversation--through asking questions of others and listening to their opinions, not by offering my own opinions. But doing even that is really hard if you are totally uninterested.
posted by massysett at 6:50 AM on February 8, 2012

If you are in a big city, read the tabloid daily. (NY Post/NYDN, Boston Herald, etc.) They will unfailingly provide the basic narrative of what's important in local sports, as well as what the average "man on the street" reaction to them will be (with a bias toward a more blue collar perspective so perhaps take it with a grain of salt if you mainly talk to doctors.) It's fairly unusual for people to follow all sports equally (I plead ignorance in all but the most cursory discussions of NBA or NCAA basketball, for example), so don't worry about being a renaissance man about it.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:10 AM on February 8, 2012

In the U.S. Only 2 sports matter most: Football and Baseball.

If you familiarize yourself with both of these, you will not only be able to make "small talk," but understand many things about life and society at-large - lots of parallels and wisdom.

Recommendation: pick up 1 book about a famous historical moment or personality in football, and a similar book on baseball. The stories will endear you to the sport from a "human" angle. It will make sports pages, espn, etc. much easier to follow.

Enjoy the new world.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:14 AM on February 8, 2012

While I agree that much of what on ESPN isn't worth your time, if you are truly interested, you can just watch it for a while (along with whatever else ) and increase your knowledge quite a bit (if you just watch the SportsCenter headlines) even if you don't get it at all at first. Think about it like learning a language by immersing yourself in the country that speaks it.

But I think location is key as well. If you live in a market with a major team, just watching the local news broadcast's sports at the end of the nightly news will probably give you the most immediate bang for your buck timewise. (My partner knows and cares little about sports except how it affects me and/or traffic, but he can always, at least, follow Chicago sports conversations in a 'knows the major players for the five big pro teams here' way.

The other thing that is key is to find things you like. I can't stand most sports talk culture (almost all radio and most TV and a lot of the local newspapers) but I'm still aware what's happening in the leagues beyond teams I care about -- and even some because I listen to Slate's Hang Up and Listen podcast or watch Pardon the Interruption (which has some of the same talk radio blowhard-ness that turns me off elsewhere but I like the personalities involved); even if Sundays during the football season are my only regular sports watching time, I still am aware of what's going on because I've found the things that I enjoy.

If you don't find that you enjoy any of these things, you can still keep up with conversations just by paying the tiny bit of attention like my partner does. From the outside it may seem like an odd, overwhelming worlds, but unlike a lot of pursuits, a lot of people call themselves sports fans but don't really know a ton about the subject. You can probably become one of these people pretty easily.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:27 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where in the US are you located?
posted by dgeiser13 at 9:57 AM on February 8, 2012

I think football is the sport for you to follow. Each team plays only sixteen regular season games, one per week, so there's not as much information to keep up with. As a med student, the inevitable injuries and their consequences should also be interesting to you.

The season just ended, but that'll give you time to get up to speed. The Dummies Cheat Sheet is a pretty good overview. This site gives some more detail. There's also an old, slightly cheezy, video introduction staring Burt Reynolds called Football Basics. Part one is here.

In addition to the main article massyset linked to, there are Wikipedia articles on the individual teams, such as the current champions the New York Giants, which will give you some of the history behind whatever team you decide to follow, who their traditional rivals are, etc.

As the season starts up (it begins in August, but doesn't start in earnest until about the beginning of September) follow your local media for team coverage. As MoonOrb pointed out there's usually a beat writer whom you can follow. I think in your case Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback columns might be a good addition. He can be a little cutesy, especially with his nicknames for teams, but he covers the whole league and he picks up on interesting things that would make good talking points (e.g., for the first time both of the top seeded teams in the playoffs were ranked at the bottom of the league in defense.)

And as MCMikeNamara points out, most people are casual sports fans. You don't really need to know much more than who the local stars are and how well they're doing.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:00 AM on February 8, 2012

Seconding, "where are you located?" There's a huge east vs. West and north vs. South going on.

General rule (that I don't abide by): if there are two teams in the same sport in the same city you hate one and love the other.
posted by just sayin at 11:31 AM on February 8, 2012

Sports are great to watch while studying. Turn the game on and ignore it until the crowd/announcers go nuts. By the time you look up, the replay will be on and you can see who did what to who. Good scrub-in small talk there i.e. "did you Pujols home run? Musta went 450 feet!"
posted by just sayin at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2012

Oh also, try some websites. Grantland (can be very wonky and detailed but can also be great for some depth into particulars of the culture around certain sports, like this article from today) and Deadspin (is owned by Gawker, can be very Gawker-y/gossipy) are the two necessary entry-level reads in my personal sports milieu.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 12:19 PM on February 8, 2012

To be honest, I don't really care about major sports teams or their players. I'd much rather be athletic than watch other people be athletic, but this stuff comes up enough in common conversation that I feel like a basic knowledge of the teams and major players would be beneficial...I had to tell him that I didn't really follow any sports teams, which was unfortunate because it would have given me a chance to make a good impression and I lost that chance.

So, I started following sports as an adult, and came at it from a near-complete "Is the quarterback the one who scores the runs?" perspective and gradually progressed to the point where I am fairly knowledgeable about certain sports and teams, conversant about others, and generally fluent in American sportese and in fact work in sports.

Let me be straight with you: that progression took four years. A lot of the answers here are really well-intentioned and might eventually be helpful to you, but one of the many things I've learned in the past four years is that people who grew up with an osmosis sort of knowledge of sports have no goddamn idea how difficult it is to come in cold as a grown-ass adult. ESPN is in fact really difficult to follow if there's, say, a section on the market for big men, and you don't know that "big man" is a synonym for post which is a synonym for center which has significant overlap with a power forward and also that these are basketball players we're talking about.

This is how I got into sports and stayed in: I had a best friend who followed sports. She nattered to me about sports and told me about super-specific story lines and players that she knew, because she knew me, would interest me. I watched games and looked up every word I didn't know. When I couldn't find an explanation, which was often, because I didn't know the right terms or context, I asked my friend. So if you have any friends who are into sports, avail yourself of them. It took me about three months to get into reading blogs and books, because that was how long it took to understand stuff, and I still reread stuff that I read that first year and think, "Haha, wow, this went so completely over my head, this is amazing." I just watched and watched and watched, basically, and after about a year I read and read and read. When I started working in sports, I tried to get over every bit of self-consciousness I had and asked people EXTREMELY basic questions about the sports I was weakest in, including really awkward questions like, "What does motion mean?" and, yes, "What's a center?"

But the thing is...I did this stuff because I LIKE sports. I LOVE them, actually, I am OBSESSED with them, and even now, four years in, I just get more and more aware of how little I know. I literally cannot imagine what a damn slog it would be to learn this stuff if I DIDN'T CARE. So I think, basically, this is an XY Problem and if you don't care, you don't care. I mean, you are a damn MEDICAL STUDENT. Don't you guys pretty much sleep and study and occasionally eat standing up off a tongue depressor instead of a fork? Why do this to yourself instead of spending your precious little free time on a hobby you have a natural affinity for?

If what you want is a way to grease the wheels professionally, that's fine, but you don't need to learn sports to do it. When the ortho asked you what teams you follow, a perfectly acceptable answer, socially, would have been, "I don't follow pro sports much, I mostly play a lot of Ultimate/really like bowling/am into distance running." If you weren't athletic, the standard answer is, "I don't follow pro sports much, are you a big sports fan?" Then you ask what sport they like, then what team, then you say, "Did they have a good year?" Then you listen politely while they rant and or rave, while nodding and smiling. That one's probably better because most people like to talk about their own crap.

If you want to stay in ortho, your professional interest in sports is in stuff like the Tommy John and the increase in ACL tears in young particularly female athletes and in amateur "weekend warrior" syndromes generally, because the bread and butter of a sports medicine practice is amateur athletes or ex-athletes with overuse injuries. I know a few sports medicine people and some of them are sports fans, but their professional knowledge of sports is in treating the injuries, which they...learned in med school and in practice.

Really, I think this issue is a non-starter for you. Don't torment yourself if you don't want to.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:14 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

NFL Films' Anatomy of a Play is a great breakdown of the subleties of the game. For example, this analysis of a key catch in the Super Bowl.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:22 PM on February 8, 2012

So I thought about this for a while (and watched a basketball game) and decided I revoke my previous answer. If all you want is to know, like, what teams play what sports and who is good at them and have a little skin in the game, that is doable in, like, an hour.

Here is a map of the current NFL franchises. If you hover over the team names, a box shows up to tell you the full name with the location, so "Cowboys" becomes "Dallas Cowboys." Same thing with this map of the NHL and this map of MLB franchises. On this map of the NBA you have to click on the pin to see the names, but it's fine.

1. Pick one or two teams. I suggest they be basketball and baseball, since basketball is happening now and will continue for a few months and baseball will start in a couple weeks and then run until the fall. Criteria for the teams: they are closest to you (good if you live in a major metro area), they are closest to where you grew up, or they are close to the place you did your undergrad. If you are from outside the US, just pick the teams nearest you, no big deal.

2. Congrats, you are now a fan of those teams. Go to their official site, which in every case is in the format of "DallasCowboys.com." Replace with your team's name, ob.

3. Most sites have a carousel with highlight videos from the most recent game. Watch the highlight videos, they are usually under a minute. Do that throughout the season. Basketball and hockey are easiest for this, because they only play a few times a week. Baseball might get to be info overload because they play everyday. Pay attention to the videos, and if you are feeling really ambitious google the people that show up the most.

Et voila. This will give you a working knowledge of an entire league, since some of the highlights will involve the opponents. I wouldn't devote more than 15 minutes a couple times a week to this project, honestly. If you find yourself more interested, start following the links above and reading stuff and getting into it. You don't have to be an expert right away, and there's no shame in telling anyone who asks, "I'm a Cowboys fan, but I just started following them and I'm still learning." (Actually, um, unless you're in Dallas or somewhere else in Texas, don't be a Cowboys fan. They're annoying.)
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:59 PM on February 8, 2012

Start with baseball. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in a couple of weeks, so if you start reading the sports pages now, you'll start getting familiar enough with the names by opening day in April. This is what I did to learn about baseball a couple of years ago.

Pick one team to follow. If they're all the same to you, choose the St. Louis Cardinals and my husband and I would be happy to guide you.

We have the MLB package that lets us watch all of our team's games, no matter where they are. Following the team this way has taught me a lot about both the team and about the other teams, because the sportscasters talk about them a lot. Sometimes they ramble, but you actually can pick up a lot if you listen long enough. Don't worry if you don't understand all the terms at first. Just look them up. Their random chitchat is also every informative--if we are watching St. Louis Cardinals games, I can still infer from the announcer chitchat around those games that the Houston Astros are having a dismal season (a safe bet in any event), that so-and-so is injured, etc.

If you're really gung-ho, pick two teams: one in the National League, one in the American League (these two leagues ultimately meet in the World Series but otherwise almost never play each other except for random for-fun interleague games). That way you'll get a sense of teh whole field. Your team will be in a division within the league, so there will be about six other teams that you know a lot about, and a bunch the same league that you know less about. Don't stress about that.

Another fun way to engage in a game is to score it with a well-informed fan by your side. It teaches you how to identify plays, pitches, home runs, strikeouts, stolen bases, etc. so you develop a better eye for it.

Watch a lot of games. The more you watch, the more you learn. There are 160+ games in a regular season, so there are tons of opportunities to see your team play.
posted by elizeh at 8:15 PM on February 8, 2012

I agree with Snarl, the best way to learn is to watch games with someone who is a fan and is willing to explain what's going on and answer your questions. I had no interest in sports before I met my husband, but his enthusiasm and willingness to teach me was contagious and now I'm often more into watching the games than he is!
posted by platinum at 12:38 AM on February 9, 2012

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