Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Absurdity of the Sports Fan

Those who would feel idiotic standing cheering outside a new Walmart or Home Depot aren't just happy but indeed eager to pay through the nose to be allowed inside a stadium or sports arena named for a corporate sponsor to cheer for a business whose sole reason for being is to enrich its investors. Getting the populace to invest emotionally in professional sports teams is one of the great con job success stories, right behind patriotism.

Sports might be the closest thing to a meritocracy in our culture. If you can consistently hit a 95-mph fastball, or drain a jump shot from beyond the three-point arc, everything else about you becomes immaterial. There’s something pure about that. Moreover, there’s the not knowing for sure what might happen, and the near certainty of witnessing remarkable spontaneous feats of courage and athleticism. So I do watch sports, but not in the way that most middleaged (to put it mildly) American men do. I don’t think of myself and the team for which I have chosen to root (for reasons we'll see in a moment as completely arbitrary) as “we.” When young black athletes a third my age, from neighborhoods I wouldn’t dare drive through, do something heroic, I think of the glory as theirs alone.

A very small percentage of players of professional team sports play in the neck of the woods in which they were raised. A San Francisco Giants fan who revels in the World Series brilliance of Madison Bumgarner is identifying with a kid from rural North Carolina who almost certainly finds the city whose name he wears on his chest confusing and alien, and, given his avowed admiration for The Lord Thy God, probably a little distasteful. It would make more sense for the fan to be rooting for the general manager who signed the player, rather than the player himself.

Once I was a very different sort of fan. When I prepared to enter my teens, I actually thought that my listening to their game improved the Los Angeles Dodgers’ chances of winning. My attentiveness felt like a moral imperative. As others wouldn’t have dreamed of missing church, I wouldn’t have dreamed of not sneaking my little red transistor radio into bed with me so I could make sure the Dodgers (or, slightly later, Lakers!) had prevailed before I allowed myself the luxury of sleep.

Nowadays I watch sports in much the same way I vote in presidential elections. Confident that both teams will be composed mostly of rapaciously entitled young dimwits — many of them Republicans and born-agains — of the sort who lorded it so boorishly over the less athletically gifted in childhood and adolescence, I root for the team I dislike more to lose, rather than for their opponents to win, a very recent exception being the Oregon/Ohio State national collegiate championship game, because my understanding was that the Oregon quarterback is an altogether terrific guy — kind, humble, even altruistic. Only 24 hours before, I had delighted in the Indianapolis Colts’ victory over the Denver Broncos because the Broncos quarterback is an eager lapdog of the war criminal George W. Bush. Truth be told, I rooted in last year’s Super Bowl for him to suffer a career-ending injury.

Free agency — whereby a player is free to switch teams after fulfilling a contract — really ruined things for me, though I don’t for a moment dispute the unfairness of the previous system, in which a team could effectively tie up an athlete for his or her whole career. How is one supposed to develop an abiding emotional attachment to a team when its personnel changes drastically from one season to the next? How can a fan in Boston clasp new Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval to his breast in view of Sandoval’s having just ditched the Giants, with whom he’d only weeks before won the World Series, and whose fans in the Bay Area openly adored him. It wasn't as though the Giants’ offer was hugely less generous than Boston’s.

A cleverer person than I observed that in today’s world, in which one has little idea from one season to the next who’s going to be wearing it, one roots for a uniform. About that, there’s something a little bit heartbreaking.


  1. Yersh. Sport is dumb, though it can be fun. Today, exploited, as the shelves, at the supermarket. Here, of course, it is different - with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea the discourse; as the big bucks tumble. Oh, how we bumble.

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