I joked with Schalter, asking how that worked. Jocks and nerds notoriously don’t mix, especially during adolescence. Did Schalter stuff himself in lockers?
“I’ve always had a foot in both worlds. I’ve obsessively watched and played sports my entire life,” he told me. “But I was also a short, scrawny, smart-mouthed bookworm who thought he was better than the kids who beat him up.”
Schalter found himself straddling the line between both sports and geekdom as a youth, but felt left out or judged whenever he tried to mix the two interests.
“In junior high and high school, I hung out with the goth/gamer/anime crowd, and they looked at me like I had two heads if I even mentioned football,” he admitted. “Yet I signed up to go out for freshman football, and chickened out the instant I saw… wait for it… all the kids who beat me up in elementary school there. I eventually became a professional sportswriter, which has allowed me to keep a foot in both worlds.”
The infamous divide between science fiction and fantasy geeks and sports geeks is disappearing, Schalter told me. We all thought they were oil and water, but it turns out the two cultures are more alike than anyone—themselves included—give them credit for.
“Fandom is fandom!” Schalter said.
“I know it’s hard to believe. Growing up, ‘jocks vs. nerds’ was a cultural norm reinforced by literally every TV show and movie. And sure enough, the meatheads I saw in the bleachers didn’t seem to have anything in common with snarkier-than-thou comic-shop denizens.
"But I also couldn’t help but notice: Arguments about the best quarterback of all time were indistinguishable from those about the best Star Trek captain.”
Tribalism is a well known quantity among sports fans—those who live and die by their favourite teams—but it’s also increasingly visible in the SFF fan community. There’s always been Star Trek vs. Star Wars-style feuds, and dedicated fan bases, but lately it feels like fandoms are becoming increasingly isolated and hostile toward outsiders. It’s very similar to sports fans cheering for their favourite team, and holding very real hatred for their heated rivals.
“Sadly, a lot of the toxicity crosses over, too,” Schalter said. “The sexism, the ageism, the gatekeeping about Real Fans, that’s all the same. Tweeting that the wrong science-fiction movie Is Bad can get just as scary as walking into a Philadelphia bar with a Cowboys jersey on.
"But that tribalism has a beautiful upside: Seeing hundreds, thousands of people who you know just by looking love the same thing you love is a wonderful feeling.”
Schalter likened “uniform culture,” which started to appear among sports fans in the late 90s (I’ll never forget my Ricky Watters Seahawks jersey, friends) to cosplay. He also compared arriving at a convention to find thousands of other fans dressed up in costume to arriving at a tailgate party outside a major league stadium.
“Getting really into a niche sport like soccer, cricket, or quidditch (yes, really
) not only intensifies the geek-culture feels, but increases your chances of finding people who own both
a wizard robe and
one of those football helmets with the beer-can holders and the built-in straws. You know, like me.”
And this trend extends beyond fans. More and more professional athletes are taking the leap into the SFF and gaming fandoms. Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe is a lapsed World of Warcraft
fanatic, and released his first science fiction novel last year. (And he wrote a really wonderful piece for Uncanny
covering similar ground to my conversation here with Schalter.) Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Cassius Marsh regularly appears on Game Knights
—a Magic: The Gathering YouTube show—and recently opened his own card game
shop called Cash Cards Unlimited.