BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
What does it mean to be a fan ?
Why do we care so much about the exploits of men and women we don’t know as they play games that have no redeeming social value for our amusement ? We invest our own hard earned money in tickets, caps, jerseys and all manner of paraphernalia to show our loyalty and support to our chosen squads. We buy costly television viewing packages to watch our favorite teams. We invest countless hours reading about and listening to news about our heroes in the days between contests on the field.
Most importantly, we exult in rapturous joy when our team is victorious, and feel diminished and depressed following a loss. What is it about sports that leads ordinary people to allow their lives to be so impacted by the outcomes of such mundane pursuits as a ball going through a hoop, or striking a round ball with a round bat ? Why are we so willing to behave in ways that are clearly irrational when our teams are engaged in their competitive conquests ?
And what happens when those teams or the players who work for them do something that makes us feel ashamed to be associated with supporting them ?
The Cleveland Browns played their arch-rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on November 14thin Cleveland. After completely dominating the Steelers, the Browns were 15 seconds away from a hard fought 21-7 victory that would keep their very slim post-season hopes alive. The stadium was raucous, as jubilant Browns fans were vocal in their support of the home-town team, who were going to beat the hated Steelers for just the first time in five years. On the next play, DE Myles Garrett, who was the #1 overall pick of the Browns in 2017 and is arguably their best player, wrapped up Pittsburgh QB Mason Rudolph after a short pass. In the melee that ensued, Garrett would forcibly rip Rudolph’s helmet off, and would then swing that very helmet in a violent arc that impacted Rudolph’s skull.
Both sidelines flooded the field, as players ran to break up the brawl that raged around the fallen body of Garrett, who was kicked and punched by furious Steeler lineman Maurkice Pouncey. In those few seconds of inexcusable and uncontrolled anger, Garrett had recast the victorious evening in a completely different light. Browns fans were left to ponder what those few seconds would come to mean in the hours and days to come, and an ominously somber pall hung over the fans as they exited the stadium into the Cleveland darkness.
In 2017, the Houston Astros won the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers, claiming the first and only championship in the history of the franchise. A brazen rebuilding plan saw the Astros ascend from being the worst team in baseball in the early part of the decade to being the best team in baseball just five years later. Their management team, led by GM Jeff Luhnow, were widely hailed as visionaries, merging analytical data and savvy drafting and trading to build the juggernaut that would win that 2017 title. Their fans were justifiably ecstatic, seeing their favorite team finally dance in a locker room champagne shower following the Game 7 victory, a prelude to the parade that would roll through the streets of downtown Houston in the days that would follow.
What if the Astros won that championship because they were cheating ? Would their fans feel differently about that title ?
A thoroughly sourced article in The Athletic earlier last week described a system whereby the 2017 Astros were relaying information to their hitters about pitch types using electronic video game feeds from a monitor in a tunnel behind their dugout. The center field camera, which focuses on the catcher as he is giving the pitcher the signs for the upcoming pitch, was being broadcast, in real time, on that video monitor behind the Astros home dugout. A player would then loudly bang on a plastic trash-can to signal to the current Astro hitter that an off speed pitch was coming. If no thrumming from the garbage can was heard, the hitter at the plate would know a fastball was on its way.
It is expressly prohibited for teams to use any type of electronic devices to “steal signs”, and it is also a major league rule that all live video feeds from the game are supposed to be on an eight second delay to avoid just this kind of malfeasance. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the A’s in 2019, confirmed that the system was being employed while he pitched for Houston in 2017. Video reviews with audio feeds from the 2017 season clearly indicate the presence of the plastic trash can drumming during Astro plate appearances, accurately forecasting an off speed pitch to come.
Our society is becoming increasingly anti-social. As technology becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, our day-to-day routines have become focused upon ever shrinking screens. Just 30 years ago, laptop computers allowed us to be mobile in our homes with plugged in access to the internet and exciting new websites that put information at our fingertips at the click of a button. Soon after, the advent of mobile phone technology made staying in contact with friends and loved ones via text or messaging possible, and face-to-face interactions became less frequent. Now, social media platforms give us the freedom to keep up with our friends, hobbies and interests from the four-by-six inch screens in our hands, without ever leaving our couches/beds/desks/cubicles.
Amidst all these technological wonders, we find ourselves isolated by the very methodology that helps us communicate in real time with people all over the world via our cell phones. Into this void, filling the loneliness endemic to our last two generations, steps the sports experience. These are events held in huge gathering spaces, where we stand shoulder to shoulder with masses of disparate people joined by our shared mania for the team performing before our very eyes.
We may high five strangers after positive outcomes on the field. We have been known to wrap fellow partisans in warm embraces as the game proceeds, grateful for our camaraderie. We sing familiar songs, unique to our side, at ear splitting volumes without regard for shame or self-awareness. We chant, we scream, we whistle, we goad and we fervently invoke whatever deity we believe in to intervene on behalf of our cause. Sports allows us to put aside differences in race, age, creed, socioeconomic status, political leanings and heritage in the collaborative support of a group of people competing in admittedly pointless contests. And we love it.
Professional sports is a multi-billion dollar industry in the North America, and most major metropolitan areas feature at least one, and sometimes five or six venues that are specifically purposed to house these teams as they renew their yearly quest for championship glory. According to a Sports Illustrated article published this month, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the revenue generated by sports teams in North America amounted to $71.1 billion in 2018, and is expected to rise to $83.1 billion by 2023. Sports fans in this country care deeply about their teams and the games they play, and media rights fueled by their interest undergirds the mountain of revenue raked in by franchise owners. The sheer volume of money generated by sports is but one measure of our unbridled avarice for these contests. But dollar bills don’t imbue these battles with meaning, relevance and social significance. We do. The fans. With our passion.
It has been said that investing our emotional and physical capital in the interest of a sporting team or player allows us to feel as if we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Alone, we couldn’t possibly rally the collective hopes and dreams of a community, a city, a state or a nation, but in the name of a team playing a game, we join our voices with those of others who are similarly aligned, and feel the intoxicating power of our individual mania multiplied exponentially.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a comparable outlet for our emotional expression that is scalable in quite the same way that sports fandom seems to be. Perhaps belief in a higher power, joined in worship in temples or cathedrals, raising our voices in unison as we invoke prayers of supplication with our fellow parishioners. This may well approximate the experience of the modern sports devotee. It is not at all hyperbole to draw parallels to those seemingly dissimilar investments of our mortal energies.
Studies have shown that being an avid sports fan can lead to a healthier lifestyle. Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University, wrote a book called Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. According to Wann’s research, being an avid fan of a sports team leads to elevated levels of well being and general social happiness, with less of an inclination towards loneliness, depression or alienation. A 2013 study in Psychological Science linked eating habits to winning or losing football teams. The study found that people in the cities where the football team won the day before choose to eat more healthy foods (in terms of consumption of saturated fats compared to their normal diets), while residents in cities where that team lost the day before ate more saturated fats than normal. Our reactionary behaviors are impacted in very tangible ways based on outcomes we have no control over.
When our teams win, we feel a sense of accomplishment though we had nothing to do with the result. We might have a little more energy on the way to work or at the gym following a hard fought victory for our side. Our mood is brightened, and we may even act more charitably and kindly towards our friends and families in the wake of good news from our teams. On the flip side, reckless driving, heart attacks and domestic violence can be influenced by the results of sporting contests according to a 2014 Seattle Times article by Larry Stone. In many ways, we are living vicariously through the exploits of our chosen heroes on the field. A study by Paul Bernhardt at Georgia State University in 1998 found that male spectators experience testosterone spikes congruent with the players themselves, estimating that a 20% increase happens in fans of winning teams, with a proportional decrease among male fans on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
The success of the team becomes our individual triumph, and in an era where clear victories in our daily lives can be difficult to come by, there is value in that association. We can be energized by the efforts of our chosen team, who may perform remarkable acts of physical prowess in the face of daunting odds and foes arrayed against them, and take that inspiration with us into our next personal struggle. The identity and personality of a sports franchise we care about becomes a part of us, and that fervent loyalty can be passed along family lines through multiple generations like a chromosomal trait. There are countless stories (none of them apocryphal) of family will readings in Wisconsin where the last assets bequeathed are Green Bay Packer season tickets and stock certificates. Those are the most cherished family heirlooms transferred in such processes, and their disposition is not an affair taken lightly.
It has been postulated in these paragraphs that our sporting allegiances are a significant part of our lives, directly impacting our self-esteem, sense of belonging, health and mood. Fandom allows us to vicariously experience the thrills of competition from the safety of our living rooms, and provides us with opportunities to revel in the shared communal experience of supporting a team with people who may be very different from us in terms of race, religious and political orientation, heritage and financial status. We willfully merge our individual sense of ourselves with the mass identity of the community of rooters in support of the team we rally behind. We are joyous together in victory, and we console each other, and mourn as a group, when the team falls in defeat.
With so much of our souls embedded with our chosen teams, how do we handle the disappointment that accompanies news reports such as those of the past few weeks ?
It seems impossible to dissociate the actions of one player (like Garrett) from the performance of the team as a whole. How do Browns fans come to parse what happened in their home stadium in the dying seconds of a crucial victory ? Do they feel remorse ? Are they ashamed ? Do they internalize the scorn heaped upon one of their best players, and suffer the crushing weight of polarized media opinions characterizing the franchise in a (deservedly) unflattering light ? Would they still wear their Browns caps and jerseys with the same sense of pride and perseverance that embodies their long-suffering allegiance to that team ?
What will it feel like to anticipate the epilogue to every broadcast commentator’s description of the next great play by Myles Garrett in his simple, orange, logo-less helmet ? “Myles Garrett made another incredible play there, Troy, and his menacing presence alone probably shifted the momentum of the game in the Browns favor. He’s undoubtedly among the best defensive players in the NFL, without question. If only the stigma of that terrible play back in 2019 against Pittsburgh could be forgotten, he’d rank among the most valuable young stars in the game.” Nothing can forestall the wincing and grimacing that will follow among Cleveland faithful.
How much of themselves have they invested in their mania, and at what price to their psyche in the wake of these kinds of actions by the very players to whom they pledge their unwavering fealty ?
I posit these questions not because I know the answers. There are no rules that govern or guide the behavior of sports fans. But I can say with confidence that these issues careen through the minds and hearts of fans that are melded in spirit with their teams making unpleasant headlines for inglorious reasons.
Casual fans and bandwagon jumpers can transform into rabid, lifelong acolytes in the course of a single successful playoff run to a championship. It is during these gripping, high stakes contests that hometown heroes are born and elevated to demigod status forever, lodged firmly in the hearts and throats of the dazzled observers who thrill to their accomplishments. Never again will those so identified as “clutch under pressure” be required to purchase a meal or an adult beverage at any establishment in their city, where local tavern patrons (and owners) are all too willing to pick up the check for their evening fare.
Sons and daughters sit on the edges of their couches with mothers and fathers, entire families knit together in the shared experience of witnessing playoff success, where memories that will strengthen their relationships are forged and burnished to be relived and retold for decades (and generations) to come. Truly, some of the most cherished remembrances of childhood and of parental relationships are those built around significant sporting achievements witnessed together. Those memories become part of the fabric of families, neighborhoods, schools, towns and cities, where championship banners represent an association with greatness forever. For that one season, their team was the greatest in the world, and nothing can take away those accomplishments or the pride it engenders among the partisans who enjoyed it.
But what if news comes out well after the fact that calls into question the integrity of the team who emerged with that banner, and the manner in which they competed for the right to be crowned champions ? What if they were found to have cheated ?
What becomes of the fond memories of that ride to glory ? Does such a revelation change the inherent nature of the friendships that may have started during that time ? Are the bonds that were built within families around the events lessened in some way ? Do the flags, t-shirts, caps and commemorative mugs get utilized less often ?
These questions strike at the heart of what it means to feel connected by sports, to be inspired by the efforts of men and women toiling collectively towards a common goal, and to willingly commit vital parts of our identities to such teams. The cohesiveness that results can allow us to experience levels of joy and achievement that we probably couldn’t have found on our own. It is part of the bargain that in the transmutation of self into the idea, values and performance of a group, that we expose ourselves to the hollow realities of grief, loss and pain when those fallible human organizations fail us in some way.
The history of sports is littered with stories of greed, corruption, point shaving, match fixing, and the destructive influences of gambling and drugs. Athletes who are held to a standard of fair play and performance within an agreed upon system of rules and regulations routinely find ways to subvert those checks and balances to gain a competitive edge. In short, they cheat, doing so to excel, to improve, and to be better able to defeat their opponents, all in the name of winning and the spoils of victory that inevitably follow. Driven by money, fame and glory, some of our greatest heroes have succumbed to the crushing drive to win at all costs, and both player and fan suffer collectively when the truth of their indiscretions inevitably becomes public.
Lance Armstrong. Alex Rodriguez. Marion Jones. Ben Johnson. Their glorious feats were all cheapened by the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs, and their reputations have been permanently besmirched.
The 1919 Chicago White Sox. Pete Rose. The 1950-51 CCNY basketball team. All were convicted of gambling related malfeasance.
Skater Tonya Harding was alleged to have had her rival Nancy Kerrigan assaulted so she could make the US Olympic Figure Skating Team. Rosie Ruiz skipped having to run part of the Boston Marathon in order to win that race in 1980. Their names are now synonymous with disgrace and dishonesty during competition.
The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The phrase was first proposed by Pierre de Coubertin upon the formation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894, who said “these three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.” We look to sports to see the possibility of greatness and inspiration, and we believe that the opportunity to witness the limits of human performance is more than worth our time and adoration.
The 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the USSR. The 2004 Boston Red Sox. The perfect season of the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Michael Phelps eight gold medals in 2008. Roger Bannister’s sub four-minute mile in 1954. Secretariat winning the 1973 Triple Crown. Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962. Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. David Tyree’s “helmet catch” in the 2008 Super Bowl for the New York Giants. Willie Mays catch in the 1954 World Series. Kevin Durant in the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
Wayne Gretzky. Michael Jordan. Joe Montana. Lionel Messi.
Gordie Howe. Bill Russell. Jim Brown. Pele.
Mike Eruzione. Kerri Strug. Muhammad Ali.
As you’ve read the last few sentences and names, your mind has been flooded with imagery, the cognitive highlight reel within you unspooling behind your eyes. It is not unlikely that your pulse quickened a bit with one of those mentions that were particularly resonant for you. You can remember where you were when you watched that game, and who was with you. You are temporarily lost in a reverie built around these reminiscences, and you may be smiling and/or shaking your head as you recall these heroic feats and transcendent players. It is a wonderful place within you, sacred and vivid, built upon hours and hours of devotion, and there is always room for more.
We are fans because we want to believe in the greatness that human beings are capable of, individually or collectively. There will always be pain, disappointment and even heartbreak associated with our relationship with sports. It is up to each of us to decide what aspects of sports we choose to infuse the neurons and synapses with that form our memories, and how those associations trigger emotions that are unique to our experience of those events.
We want to believe in the best attributes of competition, and in the beauty that is possible within the confines of those games. In the final reckoning, it is the acknowledgement that the potential for cheating, immorality and dishonesty exists in the very flawed human beings that play the games we watch that makes it all the more thrilling when they are victorious without indulging those baser parts of themselves or the industries that drive their sport. We are lifted by the strength of their wills, and for the time we spend with them, we are shown that greatness is possible. For them and us.