Is there anything more fun than being a sports fan? Being a sports fan provides light-heartedness to people who might otherwise take themselves and their lives too seriously. It provides joy and a brief respite from the trials of life. And for some of us, let’s be frank—it’s what we think about when we wake up in the morning. A crisis in the state of your team constitutes a genuine life crisis. Given the profound importance of sports in American culture, isn’t it time we codified some clear rules about being a fan? Who should you root for? How should you express that passion? What are the rules of engagement with other fans? As presidential candidates dodge these vital issues, the Notebook boldly takes them on, with a proposed sports fan platform, heretofore known as the Fan-O-Meter.
The Fan-O-Meter has to start with the basics and that’s how to pick your favorite team(s). It’s not enough to take the simplistic view proferred up by the ESPN Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, who wrote ten years ago that you had to root for the teams in your local area, no questions asked. Simmons, being from Boston, could be accused of having a silver foot in his mouth. Who could not want to root for the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots, even in their down years and even when they’re choking away September leads by eating fried chicken and swilling beer in the clubhouse during games?
Furthermore, Simmons does not take into account the increasingly mobile nature of American society. In the past 13 years I’ve lived in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, to go with having gone to school in Indiana for three years. I’ve got friends who’ve covered similar stretches of territory. People have close attachments to other cities because it’s where their extended families originated, even if a parent moved away. People feel close to where a parent went to school. There’s a number of legitimate attachments the fan can have beyond the strict confines of the area he was born and a true Fan-O-Meter meant to serve the people must factor that in. With all this in mind, let’s offer a broader set of rules for the selection of favorite teams, one that still has clear boundaries, but does not succumb to Simmons-esque rigidity.
*Geographic locale: Hey, I only disagree with making this the exclusive arbiter of American fanhood. It’s still as good a point as any to begin. If you grew up in the local area of a team, they’re eligible to be on your list of favorites.
*Heritage teams: This one covers some broad territory. The most prominent area it pertains to is if your parents root for a team, that can pass down. If your aunts and uncles all live in one area and it was only your mom/dad that moved away, you can be eligible to choose the team of your clan’s roots, even if the respective parent didn’t bring that team with them.
*Playing devil’s advocate: Some people like to be combative, and like to go against the home team in the most aggravating way possible. Recently here in the Baltimore area, I saw a guy walk through a restaurant and saw a guy walk through with a Yankees cap and Steelers jersey. That’s a brave guy and one seeking to qualify under the devil’s advocate theory. Although he’s still not as brave as the driver of a car I once saw in Massachusetts that had one bumper sticker honoring Derek Jeter and another pushing for the re-election of George W. Bush. An important part of this rule is that a fan must be consistent across the board. Rooting for local teams that win, but turning on the ones that lose is absolutely forbidden.
*Favorite city rule: You can adopt a city, but there has to be a reason that transcend sports. This is the rule that I basically made up for myself, but I’d be prepared to argue its rationality in any court of law. I’ve never lived in Boston, the family’s not from there and a heritage appeal on the grounds that my grandmother landed there and worked there for a short while upon her arrival from Ireland is seen by many as lacking strength. But in addition to the paternal grandmother tie, there’s the fact my favorite TV show of all time is Cheers, I love the city’s Irish heritage, my favorite urban politician of all time is Boston’s James Michael Curley and on a related point its political past as home of some of the great Irish-American pols, is a big point of interest. In ways that go well beyond sports, Boston is my favorite town and as such becomes eligible to produce favorite teams.
ELIMINATING THE LOOPHOLES
The above principles produce the pool of teams the fan use to craft his list of favorites, but there are more subjective issues to consider. Examples are thus..
*There should not be inherent contradictions. For example, maybe mom went to Ohio State and dad has relatives up in Michigan. Either is eligible, but they both can’t qualify. No choosing Michigan in football and Ohio State in basketball (or vice-versa). You cannot stand side-by-side with fans in one sport, knowing you want to tear their head off in another. A real-life example of this contradiction would be a person I worked with who was from Connecticut. Its status as a state in New England and a suburb of NYC made both Boston and the Big Apple eligible. But the decision to root for the Yankees and Patriots is an inconsistency that can’t be justified. How do you stand in unison with the Pats fans now, in December 2011, when just three months earlier you were gloating at these same people for the Red Sox collapse? Doesn’t work.
*Cherry-picking of the best teams in all eligible pools is absolutely forbidden. Creating a broader selection of teams that more accurately reflects the life of the fan isn’t meant to be a long-winded pretext for bandwagon-jumping. We don’t expect fans to gravitate to the worst and most uninteresting teams of their life’s journey, but there should be a little suffering mixed in with the celebrations.
In light of these requirements, this leads us to the judicial side of the Fan-O-Meter program. A fan’s card of favorite teams must be approved in its entirety, and not piecemeal. The High Court of the Fan-O-Meter handles final approval, as well as hearing appeals if a person feels they’ve got a legitimate favorite team not covered under the above platform. And to prevent rash decision-making and bandwagon jumping a one-year waiting period is instituted before fandom can take effect. You declare your team, take a year to get acclimated to rooting for them, see if this is what you want to do with your life and after a year, if the feelings are still strong, go ahead and tie the knot.
There are still a number of issues left unsettled in this. One is how to deal with fans who come from backgrounds where there’s no real professional sports option. For example, I have a friend who comes from Oregon and has somehow managed to reconcile his noble decision to serve his country in the U.S. Army with another decision to be a Yankees fan (an inconsistency if there ever was one!). All Yankee-bashing jokes aside though, this does represent a challenge for the Fan-O-Meter code. On the one hand, it’s pretty clearly out of bounds based on standard selection criteria. On the other hand, who is he supposed to root for? Those of us not from the Pacific Northwest, instinctively say the Mariners, Seahawks and before they moved, the NBA Sonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder). But what about the rule of inherent contradiction? I’m going to guess if I ever spent real time in Oregon, I might find that people there might get fired up over border war rivalries in the Pac-12. I know that my Milwaukee roots get riled up at the notion that hockey fans in my old hometown should just root for Chicago. How do you pull for the Blackhawks, while carrying on heated rivalries with the Bears and Cubs? There’s more to the geographic locale requirement than blithely defaulting to nearest team. These are issues Fan-O-Meter judges are still working out as cases come forward in areas like the Pacific Northwest and other areas in the Deep South. There’s a desire to cut these fans some slack—they already suffer from not having pro games in reasonable driving distance, but at the same time it’s not a reason to go to Birmingham and see a guy decked out in a Packers hat, Yankees jersey and Miami Heat knapsack. Or to take the path of the young LeBron James, who as a kid growing up in Cleveland in the 1990s rooted for the Bulls, Cowboys and Yankees–a combined thirteen championships from 1991-2000.
Ultimately the issue the Court wants to see is balance. Let different areas of your life be represented and have a good mix of teams who are striving for the top, and others whom you’d dance naked through the neighborhood to see win a single game. With that delightful image in mind, let’s move on to other topics about how we best express our fandom.
THE DRESS CODE
The dress reflects the values of the person and that’s certainly true when it comes to our sports teams. Shirts and jackets should not be casually put on, as they are mere outerwear. You should only pro-actively purchase garb of your favorite teams. I’ll admit to violating this on a recent trip to Arizona when I bought a couple Arizona State T-shirts when I was at a baseball game in Tempe. I make sure to keep those shirts hidden when the Fan-O-Meter police cruise the neighborhood.
As with your favorite teams there are exceptions to the clothing rule and those surround family members. Fans are permitted to wear “peace in the family” attire, particularly when it comes to holding up a spouse’s favorite team or if one is given something as a gift—though this exemption does not apply to situations where there’s a direct rivalry involved.
The dress code exemption invites a broader question—can one root for the teams of a spouse or family member or friend? The answer is simple—sure, why not? The Fan-O-Meter rules outlined above apply to your favorite teams. The ones you’ll call “we” and talk about as though they’re a beloved friend themselves. We also know there’s plenty of games you’ll watch and plenty of room for rooting interests beyond your favorites. Maybe your team is a bottom-feeder and you want somebody to pull for in the playoffs. Maybe you want to see a friend or family member experience the joy of seeing their own team win a championship. The basic instinct of a fan when watching a game is to root for someone, and there’s only three ways to do it. One is to be a degenerate gambler and have a bet on all the games you watch. The second is to a moderate, reasonable bettor, who is just in pools for pocket money and you pick each game. The other is to support other people—friends, family or in some cases coaches or players you might like. The key is to make sure you don’t piggy-back on them to the extent of calling them “we” or trying to claim you’re a bigger fan of them than you really are. Remember, in these cases, it’s not about you, it’s about somebody else.
INTO THE REAL WORLD
You’ve got your favorite teams lined up and your attire appropriately put together. Now it’s time to step out into the world of rooting and setting the rules here is where things really get interesting. When is trash talk appropriate? What even constitutes trash talk? How far do we go in carving out time to watch and attend games? Our areas above are governed by clear principles that can hold fast in any circumstance. If this were politics, conservative judges would be in order to enforce them—the doctrine is clear, the standards for exemptions are pretty clear and there is no need for an evolving Constitution. But just as being a sports fan is a great bipartisan endeavor, so too can its legal interpretations. When it comes to a concrete clash in the real world, determining what’s right and what’s over the line can best be determined by going case-by-case and allowing a body of law to develop, in accord with the liberal judicial philosophy of a living, breathing Constitution. So let’s consider the following real-life examples…
*A colleague I once worked with here in Baltimore was a diehard Steelers fan. He was also was moderately supportive of the hometown Ravens. Right now alarm bells have to be ringing, given the ferocious rivalry that exists between the two, but investigation did give a reasonable answer. He’d been a Colts fan when they were in Baltimore and after the 1984 under-the-cover-of-darkness relocation to Indianapolis, had gravitated to the Steelers. My wife, Baltimore born-and-bred, confirmed that the Steelers, Eagles and Redskins were the most common landing places for displaced fans. I don’t claim to be the infallible interpreter of the law here, the Fan-O-Meter pope if you will, but I think most reasonable Fan-O-Meter people would recognize the poor guy’s predicament. He always wanted Baltimore to get a team back and to root for them, and it was a poor stroke of fate that he got caught in the middle of what is, in 2011, the hottest rivalry in sports. So he can be cut a little slack for having some positive thoughts for the Ravens and he’s never wavered in drawing the line that he’s a Steelers fan at the end of the day.
But now we come to a separate issue and that’s handling oneself after the game. This same fan, after a big Pittsburgh win in 2008, laid a Steelers jersey across the chair of a Ravens-loving colleague. Yet when the same trash talk comes back after a Baltimore win, the response is along the lines of—“I was rooting for the Steelers, but have no problem with seeing the Ravens do well.” This dual approach brings about the law of relative passion. It’s fine if, for some reason, you don’t get worked up about a certain rival the way other fans of the same teams do. But you can’t play the victorious fan in triumph and the reasonable moderate in defeat. Play it the same both ways.
*How should fans handle themselves as visitors in someone else’s park? This is an especially pertinent issue in my current hometown of Baltimore, where Yankees and Red Sox fans fill Camden Yards a combined 18 teams a year, and in my old hometown of Milwaukee, where those dastardly Cub fans make their way north to fill up Miller Park. What’s reasonable behavior as a guest in someone’s house?
I suspect most fans would not be comfortable with either extreme position. One would say that as guests, one should be mostly silent, sit still and with some moderate applause at most. The other would say that if you paid for your ticket, you might as well conduct yourself as though it were your home park. Neither one is really good for the game. The view that fans shouldn’t cheer for their own is essentially telling fans not to be fans. At the same time, while a strict economic view can grant the visiting customer the legal right to be as in-your-face as he wants, some basic decency should override that and acknowledge that a sports stadium holds considerable more sentiment for people than a concert venue, and that some respect for the home park is appropriate. Since I call out Yankee fans quite a bit on the subject of obnoxiousness, I’ll pick an example where Red Sox fans were less than charitable in Camden Yards. After a Nick Markakis home run in a 2007 game, hit into an area of Sox fans, a kid caught the ball and was encourage by others around him to throw it back on the field. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and he didn’t, but it’s tacky and classless to show up a player in his home park. By all means do it in Fenway, but not on the road. On a related point of respecting the game, the habit Yankee and Red Sox fans have developed of calling Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium/Fenway Park South should be banished. To cheapen a beautiful park, whose cutting-edge traditionalist architecture revolutionized the game in 1992 and saved us from cookie-cutter stadiums, is to betray one’s ignorance. Knock it off.
The summation of this case can be described generally as cheer, cheer for your own team, but when you’re on the road, keep denigration of the opposition under your hat.
*Prior to the Thanksgiving Day NFL games of 2011, with Green Bay-Detroit, Miami-Dallas and Baltimore-San Francisco, all crucial games, Simmons posed the question on his podcast—“How many divorces will happen because of these games? Which one do you skip?” It was said in jest, but it underlined a serious question and that’s how much is too much. Answering this question is beyond the pay grade of the Fan-O-Meter since it steps into stickier areas. I’ll just offer two thoughts.
On the one hand, the Thanksgiving dinner I went to that day didn’t have football on TV. We had movies on or just hung out. That was fine with me. Would I have enjoyed watching the games? Of course. But was it necessary to make everyone else’s life revolve around some Week 12 games in the NFL? No. Look, if it was the Super Bowl I’d feel differently, but as a general rule, most of us are sports fans, not sports degenerates. We’re capable of functioning in civil society and if you’re not, get some help.
On the other hand…if you’re a sports fan have you noticed the tendency that our passion seems to be almost monitored in a way others aren’t? If a person watches political talk shows and reads political books, they’re an informed citizen, regardless if they’re in the habit of starting needless arguments. If a person likes movies, they’re a movie buff and we seek out their opinion on different shows. But if a person’s a sports fan, it’s almost as though there’s an implied quota of games one is allowed to watch. Look, for me, sports is my background music. I can type an article like this while I’m watching a game and not have it affect my concentration. I couldn’t type an article while I was watching an episode of NCIS or watching a movie I was seeing for the first time. Another difference between sports fans and non-sports fans is that we see a difference between watching a baseball, football or basketball game. Or watching a live event and a talk show. To non-fans, it’s all lumped together in “they’re watching sports.” My response to those people is this—get a life. If we’re going to work, and doing the things we need to do, why exactly do you care what we do for entertainment? I certainly don’t care what you do.
Being a sports fan is great fun and as the issues raised in this article show, it can provide more than enough grist for conversation that’s simultaneously light-hearted, yet still taking you into areas that involve your personal heritage itself. The Fan-O-Meter platform is the Notebook’s contribution to that discussion and as new questions and circumstances arise, the Notebook will be ready to address them as they come.