Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for June 23rd, 2007

Team ethics

Posted by digglahhh on 23 June 2007

Self-proclaimed sports fan “purists” have a code of ethics.

1. Thou shalt honor thy father

Familial tradition is for many people the determinant of team allegiance; if your father (and let’s face it, it’s almost always one’s father) was a White Sox fan, you can be a White Sox fan even if he moved 1,000 miles away a decade before you were born.

2. Thou shalt support (or oppose) teams near you geographically

Teams are named for cities and regions, and those facts still dominate our allegiances. If one roots for Chicago even though one lives in New York, it’s despite the fact that one lives in New York.

3. Thou shalt be faithful.

Sticking with a team through thick and thin is the cardinal rule—no band-wagoneering or fair-weather-fandom allowed.

4. Thou shall not mix the apparel of the clean with the unclean.

Those who root for a team shall not wear apparel of their team’s rival—or for the strict fundamentalists, any other team at all.

These are just a few examples of the complex, but unwritten, codes governing the following of team sports.

There are, needless to say, problems with these rules of rabid fandom. For one thing, many are, or are at least becoming, antiquated. Others are myopic.

The primary problem is the lifetime commitment made in the embryonic phase of one’s appreciation for the game.

The choice of what team to root for was a very simple process for most of us. Who does daddy root for, which team is on TV?… The fact is that many of us made our choices about who to root for at a time in our lives when we weren’t trusted to make decisions for ourselves. Yet so-called “purists” say we have to stick with those decisions to the grave. Could you imagine if you had to pick your favorite meal at the age of six? We’d have a generation of (supposed) felons on death row requesting chicken nuggets in the shapes of dinosaurs and washing them down with glasses of Kool-Aid through Bendi-straws…

The most common way we are introduced to sports fandom is through our family. It is the same way we are introduced to politics and religion. In those spheres it is supposed (or, at least, hoped) that an individual makes a choice on what perspectives to adopt at a later point in life, presumably after some research, experience, and heavy thought. Rooting for the Steelers because your dad did isn’t much of a “choice” at all.

Geographical proximity to a team is another popular motivation for choosing a team, and it is linked to the family influence motivator in the sense that they both center on the idea of exposure. Often, a child who develops an interest in sports will gravitate toward a local team because it is the most visible; at least it worked that way through my generation’s childhood years. The internet and cable television have changed that. I have no problem following what goes on in any game, real-time. For the ultra-obsessed, and those who derive a second income off of fantasy sports, like me, we can fork over about $150 (per sport) and have television access to almost every game. It is no longer an obstacle to root for a team outside your geographical region. Exciting teams and athletes can draw young fans from all over.

I’m as big of a sports fan as you will find, but I don’t adopt all of the “purists’” rules. Many of them prioritize team allegiance over appreciation of sports history. Somehow, if the Mets are being no-hit going into the ninth and losing by 5 runs, it makes me less of a fan to root for the no-hitter. Sorry buddy, “baseball” is the genus, “Mets” is the species; I root first and foremost for the game. And, yes, that essentially would make me the “purest” of all fans, though I couldn’t care less about some contrived and arbitrary measurement of “purity.”

Changing allegiances is a complex issue. Certainly, polygamy is not lauded, but the counter-argument is that it is also its own punishment. The joy that lifelong New York Rangers fans experienced in 1994 or Boston Red Sox fans felt in 2004 is something an 80’s Los Angeles Lakers backer turned 90’s Chicago Bulls fan could never imagine.

But, even those who are very tolerant of fan behavior that contradicts the “purist” code still find themselves judging allegiance-shifting by some standard. Though I’ve never “disowned” one of my teams, I have been in a bit of a battle recently. I don’t consider a team’s futility to be a legitimate reason to abandon a team, but an overall, front office to on-field, apathy about success reframes the question. The Knicks have me very close to jumping ship, not as a result of their poor performance, but because of their apparent institutional committal to and contentment with failure. The temptation is even stronger because I adopted the Dallas Mavericks, after their 11 win season in 1992 as my empathetic charity case (which was quickly strengthened upon their drafting of Jason Kidd two seasons later, who was one of my favorite collegiate players ever). Now, my relationship with the Mavs is like the one kid who was always nice to the ugly duckling turned prom queen, but who also happens to be an abusive relationship and paralyzed by a sense of (unreciprocated) loyalty. Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Frederic Weis, and Mark Cuban, the anti-Dolan. Still I cling to a fading, yet also hardening, image of Charles Oakley.

Why should I feel guilty if I were to decide to make Dallas my primary team, and the Knocks my secondary rooting interest? I shouldn’t; but I would!

Team sports fandom is a complicated psychological and intellectual exercise. It poses more problems then fans of individual sports have.

In a team sport, you are expected to continue to root for your team as those who you originally fell in love with retire, or are traded to another team. If you were an Andre Agassi fan, there is no pre-determined direction your support is compelled to take upon his retirement, though you may be drawn to players whose games remind you of Agassi, or to the young Turk who decisively took him out in a U.S. Open final.

Free agency has created a problem for the new generation of fans of sports teams, as it creates a tension between tennis-like support for the individual and the team-sport code of ethics. It has become all too easy to root for a player as opposed to a team, and the player can move on before you ever fall in love with the periphery. Cleveland Cavs fans root for Lebron James because he is the best thing to ever happen to their team. (Apologies to my eighth grade English teacher who will go to his grave claiming Mark Price was better than John Stockton, and a shout-out to Larry Nance who I still think, in his day, could throw it down better than Bron-Bron.) Lebron James fans root for Cleveland because that’s the team he plays for. Are all the Lebron James fans who will jump ship if he puts on a new jersey “real fans? It depends on how you define “true fan.”

Team sports fans are not only are expected to never change allegiances, there is a hierarchy of allegiance dictating who we are supposed to support once our team is ousted from contention. A team in our league, but not a direct rival, root for former members of your team, but only those who left on certain terms…

This is where I face another conflict, and where the code of ethics obscures the appreciation of the game. I’m a retro-jersey and hat junkie (and was one before commercial rap made it a fad). The powder blue, 1976 Mike Schmidt jersey with the Liberty Bell patch is a thing of beauty, and Schmidt is the greatest third-sacker in the history of the game. If I could afford it, I’d sport that jersey with pride, along with the matching burgundy fitted that registers on my five favorite hats of all time list. Yeah, I’m a die-hard Mets fan. So the fuck what! Personally, I see those who are fans of teams only, the way team-only fans see player-only fans.

A hyper-capitalist, arch-competitive society conditions citizens to think in terms of absolutes and dichotomies. In the process of picking our dog in the race, rooting for, and supporting it, we lose a sense of the race itself and fail to appreciate the history and nuanced terrain of the track. The same process exalts the individual and creates an entry into the world of team sports fandom through the individual player level.

The so-called “purists” are often anything but. Technology opens new doors and the vanguards reject nomenclature. Judging who is and isn’t a “true fan” reflects your individual preferences more than an objective reality.

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture, sports | 4 Comments »