A few weeks ago, I had a deep and enlightening conversation at 3:45am in South Philly over re-runs of “How I Met Your Mother.” I was barely coherent, fighting off the “I’m about to fall asleep, you guys”-type of intoxication that is completely unproductive yet necessary when you sleep as unevenly as I do. The conversation centered around the idea of what a sports fan is, or should be, or could be.
Most sports fans I’ve dealt with fall into 2 categories: knowledgeable/opinionated/loyal/well-informed or drunken/obnoxious/illiterate/supposed experts because they watch Sports Center every day. Living in Philadelphia my entire life, I’ve met an equal amount of both, though all bets are off during Eagles home games.
Sports fans of Philadelphia are not as elitist as New York fans, nor are we as fackin grating as our brothers in New England. We are like the Russian police–stern. Stern, but fair. We demand excellence but applaud failure as long as every ounce of effort is given. We badly want championships but it’s the losing teams we talk about the most (’93 Phillies, ’04 Eagles, ’01 Sixers, Flyers ’87-present). Like most religions, the mentality here is that you are born into this and unless you blindly adhere to the pathos of the governing body of the Sixers/Flyers/Phillies/Eagles, you are not a serious follower. That’s how it is now, that’s how it always be.
Meet Leah. Leah does not care about Philadelphia’s sports rules. She is not from Philadelphia. She lives in Philadelphia. She likes sports just fine. Loves baseball. Roots for the Orioles and the Washington Nationals. She could give a crap less if the Orioles extended their streak of losing seasons to eleven in a row. The Washington Nationals could lose a game to the Washington Generals and she’d be back for Dmitri Young Bobblehead Night. For Leah, sports are not about competition/records/strategy/birthrights. Sports are about going to a game and willing your team to victory.
Men like to argue about everything. We like to measure things logically. We like statistics because they help us evaluate something against something else. Women like relationships. They like feelings. They like Oprah. It was no shock to me to find out Leah does not care about the Baltimore Orioles sheer lack of competitiveness since 1997, how many managers they’ve fired, why Peter Angelos will burn in the Fifth Ring of General Manager Hell one day, or how big of an egofreak Cal Ripken really was. In her eyes, championships aren’t even all that important. It’s about having fun, being outdoors, and watching players develop and mature in front of her eyes. It’s about being down 3 runs in the bottom of the ninth and getting everyone to stand up and clap and cheer and wear their hat inside out because you just KNOW this time your team is going to pull it out. Sadly, this is the kind of fan the owners of the Clippers, Pirates, Arizona Cardinals, and Hartford Whalers dream of. It’s also the kind of fan Disney dreams of.
Last night, I was listening to a podcast interview between ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite writers. Simmons is an unabashed homer for all teams Boston. His book “Now I Can Die in Peace” collects all of his writings about the Red Sox from 1997-2004 from his old webpage all the way through his column on ESPN.com, The Sports Guy. Chuck Klosterman is an existential music writer and pop culture critic who’s written books called “Killing Yourself to Live,” “Fargp Rock City, ” and “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.”
For some odd reason, these 2 guys get along great, mainly due to their love of basketball and writing. But whereas Simmons subscribes to the NY/NE/PHI Ultra Fan idea of lifelong devotion to the hometown team, through sickness and in health, till death do you part, Klosterman does not believe in following ANY team. Klosterman explains that during a given game in any sport, he will pick a team to root for, but his allegiance to that team ends once the game is over. Simmons jokingly calls him a “sports athiest.” Klosterman definitely likes individual players, and he even wrote a great chapter in his book “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” on the Lakers/Celtics rivalry of the 80s and how each time symbolized the generational identities clashing at the time. But you won’t see a LeBron jerseys or Yankees bumper stickers in his collection for any reason.
Klosterman’s rationale for having no affiliation to a team is that the team itself gives you nothing. You give them your time, your money, your energy, your emotion, your loyalty. They give you a bunch of guys in matching shirts. It’s a one-sided relationship, and ultimately you are never fully satisfied. Klosterman doesn’t root for a team based on a defensive mechanism to save him from heartbreak and failure–it’s just simple line of logic. You care more about them than they could ever care about you. It’s like being in love with Jim Morrison.
With that said, Klosterman is a fan of sports. An actual sport couldn’t possibly care about fans–it’s big and varied and run by too many people to worry about the people in Charlotte, NC and their love of ice hockey. His needs are met because at any time he can watch any team and any player at any given time compete in the sport of his interest. I don’t know if any Miami Dolphins fans are crazy about watching the entirety of Lions vs. 49ers at 4pm on Fox in Week 12.
My philosophy on sports fandom falls somewhere in the middle. I like to go to games and cheer. I like to watch highly touted rookies evolved into playmakers or see a 7th round pick come out of nowhere and become sensational. I like watching my hometown team lose to a superior squad while leaving it all on the court. I understand that a singular team could never match the love and passion dished out by its fans, and that most sports franchises are run by lazy millionaires who need a new hobby and can make money simply by putting out a mediocre product in a fairly big market.
Where do you stand on fandom?
Check back next week for the longest blog of my life, On Fandom Part 2, where I discuss my love of the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Dodgers while empty cans of Coors Light are thrown at me down in South Philly.