Like all good, sports-loving Americans, I was born and raised a loyal follower of my regional squads: Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls (as Serengeti might say). Having spent my entire life in the greater Chicagoland area, this fandom was a no-brainer, most likely spurred by my father, another born-and-raised Chicago sports lover. And they were good times, mostly – Blackhawks had JR and the Gang, White Sox had one of the best right handed hitters to ever play the game, the Bulls — no shit, and the Bears were, well, Da Bears: a force as close to a unified religion this city has. I loved them, even if it seemed like they didn’t always love me.
But as rebellious youths are wont to do, I got a bit off track, favoring things like punk rock, girls, movies and Icehouse to Chicago’s finest, ultimately giving way to a few early adult years of sports fan ambivalence. But this stage was not long for the world, and I emerged from the rubble a bit wiser, more skeptical, and with more facial hair. It’s no coincidence that the pseudo-death of my own regionally binding fandom would come in 2005, the year that not only the White Sox won the World Series, but also when I started playing fantasy sports. With the Sox, I had finally experienced a championship that truly felt my own — not only due to the many summer nights spent roving the empty upper deck of The Cell, with a concealed flask, yelling at Matt Stairs, but also simply because I was old enough to appreciate, digest, celebrate, and exorcise. With the Big Moment over, it was time to pack up the wagon and ford another river.
In came fantasy baseball, which opened me up to a whole world of individuals and heavier statistics. Then came Moneyball and Bill James and Baseball Prospectus and Hardball Times and The Book and all those other invaluable resources that taught me and everyone else that there was a lot more to sports than gumption and grit, hard hats and lunch pails. MLB Extra Innings came, inevitably, which put an actual face to all those anonymous stat lines and text, followed shortly by Free Darko, NBA League Pass, and well, you get the picture if you know anything about the Malthusian growth model.
It wasn’t a conscious choice, but when casting a wider scope on sports at large, the strong emotional attachment toward my regional teams had faded considerably. I no longer cared whether my team(s) won or lost on a day-to-day basis (wins and losses becoming something of a formality), and found greater joy in big picture narratives, individual expression, aesthetics, and ever-intriguing statistical analysis. I felt liberated, free to roam about any league as I pleased, plundering the deepest and farthest benches of North America for knowledge, following not only unique or exceptional individual players but teams that fit my preferences as well. As has been pointed out too often (and ignored), liberated fandom is not, and has never been, an either/or proposition. It’s about navigation and personal preference, and this is where most people seem to get confused, mostly on hyperbolic pretenses. What I’m saying, is that despite expensive cable sports packages and league-wide interests, I’ve remained dedicated to my region, but I don’t let it rule. And for me, this has been a pretty great place to be…for the most part.
A few weeks ago I went to visit a friend’s brother at a moderately sized public university in Michigan, which, in addition to catching an exciting and violent college hockey game, took in a house party afterwards (I also had my first and only sip of 4Loko that night, but that’s really neither here or there). Point is, our party dialogue was fairly inclusive and heavy on sports, but that didn’t stop random partygoers from weighing in on various sports-related topics, from Aaron Rodgers to Kobe to the Pistons and back again. Despite the bitter cold, we stood our ground on the front porch, engaged in friendly sports discourse, when out of nowhere we were verbally assaulted by a tragically inebriated college student, who in drunken rambling, attempted to throw down the gauntlet on my good friend who was wearing a White Sox hat. This dude was looking for a fight, like many a meathead sports fan is, but we weren’t willing, or even remotely interested in indulging him. “No, it’s cool man,” I tried to explain, “We just like baseball, a lot. Sure, we’re Sox fans, but we don’t mind the Cubs.” Confused by our lack of fire for our home team, our villain quickly gathered himself, thought long and hard, and then said, “You don’t hate the Cubs? Well then you guys are fucking pussies.” Again, we tried to diffuse his misplaced anger, laughing it off, until I took exception to a particularly wrongheaded accusation about baseball knowledge, resulting in the angry drunk guy being refrained by his much larger, White Sox-loving friend, while he tried to call me a name that ended up like “Zacgkh Killafenacgkus.”
All in all it was a mild incident, and even with the drunken guy raging, it was non-threatening, and was mostly hysterical. It was also sad, and unsettling. This type of behavior we’ve been dealing with for years and will continue to do so – not only in sports fandom as violent mob mentality, but the idea that liking more than one team, or players on other teams, or even NOT hating an opposing team, somehow makes you weak, idiotic, or even quite possibly a slang term for a female’s privates. This is the typical, ugly, black and white side of sports fandom, ruled by ignorance and fear and blind loyalty, subscribed to by the masses. This is the type of behavior that made Greek philosophers opponents of democracy, because they knew, like Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident, that mob rule only ends in hangings, not enlightenment.
Unfortunately, rabid and unintelligible fandom won’t be going away anytime soon – especially since all major sports leagues need it to survive financially – but we can, on the ground level, resist these urges to dichotomize into “us” vs. “them” mentalities, and really, try to bring about a new sense of appreciation, love, passion, and community to the ongoing public sports discourse. This doesn’t mean ditching your team, as it is so often misunderstood, but rather a call to open your mind and heart up to the endless enjoyment and possibility outside your zip code. The results may be surprising — and since this is a moral tale, we can look to Eric Rohmer – for instance, in the final installment of his Six Moral Tales, Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), Bernard Verley plays a young successful lawyer who, despite having a beautiful wife and child that he loves very much, uses his deep passion for another woman to ultimately reaffirm the true love he has for his family. In a capsule review for the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr wrote that, “Rohmer argues persuasively for a love illuminated by reason, a sexuality enhanced by self-awareness.” And so you should too, dear reader: go forth, live a life of sports fandom illuminated by reason, enhanced by self-awareness, and at the very least don’t let anyone call you a pussy for seeing the forest for the trees.