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The Circle of Sports Life, Detroit Lions Edition

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Yesterday the Detroit Lions — certainly a leading candidate for the most hapless franchise in all of major North American professional sports — lost a football game in truly classic Lions fashion, when Justin Tucker kicked a record-breaking 66-yard field goal on the last play of the game, to hand Detroit a 19-17 loss.

I have a 16-year-old nephew who has been a fanatic devotee of the team for pretty much exactly half of his life, and I can only imagine how he felt. Actually I don’t have to imagine, because the very first Lions game that I ever saw on TV, in the fall of 1970, ended in quite literally exactly the same way — with the Lions losing 19-17, when the opposing kicker broke the record for the longest field goal ever on the last play of the game (Tom Dempsey’s record would stand for more than 40 years).

This was my personal introduction to many decades of futile devotion. (I have to confess that a franchise that is possibly the world’s best argument for a 100% inheritance tax — it was handed to Henry Ford’s youngest grandson in 1963 to keep him out of the bars — has by this point pretty much beaten me down to something close to indifference). So the pain I felt yesterday was almost purely vicarious, for my nephew, and everybody else similarly situated.

I’ve written a book, slated to by published next fall, about the intersection between an almost fanatical devotion to a sports team, and other sorts of fanaticism, especially in the age of the Internet. Here are a couple of passages from it:

  PREFACE:  THEY DIDN’T LISTEN TO JESUS EITHER

The first faint shiver of what one day would become this book came to me on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, 1997.  I was surfing the Internet, with the vague idea of finding someone to talk to about the University of Michigan’s football team, which had just lost its bowl game to Alabama in a particularly absurd and excruciating manner. (The Wolverines were driving deep in Alabama territory in the fourth quarter. They – we — had the lead, and were on the verge of scoring an apparent game-clinching touchdown, when quarterback Brian Griese tried to get rid of the ball as he was being hit by a blitzing defensive back.  The resulting pass looked like something a small child would throw in a backyard game of catch; the ball fluttered forward for about five yards before landing in the arms of an Alabama linebacker, who immediately raced 88 yards downfield for the game-winning score).

I had just discovered the cyberworld, and I didn’t really know where to look.  I don’t recall what search engine I used in that faraway time – Google didn’t even exist yet – but somehow or the other I stumbled onto a message board dedicated to discussing University of Michigan sports, meaning, of course, mainly football. 

The very first post I remember reading on the board was an agonized jeremiad from “Brent,” that went into great detail about why this game illustrated exactly why, as he had been pointing out at length for two seasons now, the hiring of Lloyd Carr as Michigan’s head coach had been an unmitigated disaster.  Indeed, only the most self-deluded of the Board’s optimists could still possibly believe that things could get appreciably better as long as Carr remained in that position.  (It would be uncharitable to point out that one year later to the day Michigan would win college football’s national championship).

On the other hand, Brent noted, the rejection by what he called the board’s “sunshine blowers” of his prophetic insights on this subject was only to be expected. (I would discover that “sunshine blowers” and “excellence demanders” were technical board terms, used to insult posters considered either unduly optimistic or too pessimistic).   After all, the Gospels recorded how, in Biblical times, “they didn’t listen to Jesus either,” he reminded them — or rather, us, as I read on in rapt fascination.  

“Now in no way am I comparing myself to Jesus Christ,” Brent hastened to add.  Somehow this nuanced caveat was lost on the rest of the Board, which, already roiled in the kind of bitter arguments and recriminations that I soon learned were the inevitable products of any Michigan loss, unleashed a furious barrage of scorn and sarcasm against the self-styled prophet in our midst.

Here, I realized at that moment, are my people.  And, nearly a quarter of a century later, I’m still there.

This book is, among other things, a memoir of being a deeply engaged sports fan in the age of the Internet.  I have been a sports fan for almost exactly 50 years – I discovered team sports at the age of ten, after being almost completely oblivious about the existence of this world up until that point – and I have now spent almost exactly half of that time following sports on the Internet.  For fandom is ultimately about one’s memories of being a fan, which is to say that nostalgia is its basic fuel. 

Yet at this particular moment in American life, indulging in nostalgia has become fraught in all sorts of ways. This book explores how the psychological experience of fandom is related to the longing for an idealized past fueling the wave of political reaction that has swept over the country in recent years.

The Internet has changed life in countless ways, but one especially striking aspect of this medium that increasingly dominates our lives is how it has created a complex world of alternative cyber-communities: in particular communities that allow people with an especially passionate interest in a subject to find each other, to share and often intensify that passion to an obsessive and fanatical – this is the root word for “fan” – extent.

This book is also about how being a fan of anything or anyone, especially in the context of the kind of fandom exacerbated by the cyber-world, tends to make us deeply unhappy, in a manner that doesn’t fit into the sort of economic models of consumers rationally maximizing their utility employed by those who see such fandom as just another way of consuming leisure or entertainment.  Fandom, fundamentally, isn’t about happiness; indeed it would be more accurate to say it is about unhappiness – specifically, the kind of communal unhappiness of people who choose to be unhappy together, rather than to suffer alone.

On the Internet, people who hate sports in general and sports fandom in particular like to mock such passions with the word “sportsball,” which is meant to signal disdain for what to them is an undifferentiated mass of pointless and irrational allegiances to the teams that sports fans arbitrarily choose to support.  (Note there’s an approximately 83% chance that anyone who uses the word sportsball has gotten into furious arguments about whether Han Solo shot first in the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie, and/or has actually written fan fiction of some kind.)   Yet fandom is ultimately egalitarian:  for instance, people who read Foucault and people who pay $9.99 a month for access to the World Wrestling Entertainment Network can both be fanatically devoted to worshipping or despising the Dallas Cowboys (In this postmodern world of ours, they can sometimes even be the same people).

The Internet, of course, fuels obsession. Another theme of this book is how cyberspace encourages the mental world of the deeply engaged sports fan (captured concisely by novelist and fanatical Arsenal football club supporter Nick Hornby in this sentence: “For alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron”) to migrate into many other realms, especially politics. Tribalism and schadenfreude are the characteristic mental states of our time; both these things make otherwise intelligent people stupid, and stupid people even stupider.  They are also the characteristic mental states that make up the kind of partisanship that is the essence of fandom. 

For a football team to elicit such fandom is usually fairly benign; for a political movement or leader to do so is definitely not.  Yet in American culture at this moment, the distinction between sports and politics is being blurred increasingly, by people seeking to profit from this kind of blurring.  This blurring has a pronounced ideological tilt – and that tilt itself is not arbitrary.  Being drunk on ethno-nationalism, it turns out, is very similar to being drunk on rooting for your favorite team, or being drunk, period. For example, the authors of 2012 academic study went into a bar and asked 85 drinkers a bunch of questions as they (the drinkers) got progressively more intoxicated.  As people got drunker, their answers became more politically conservative.  The authors’ conclusion?  “Because alcohol limits cognitive capacity and leaves automatic thinking largely intact, these data are consistent with our claim that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism.”

Ethno-nationalism, in particular, reduces what social scientists refer to as “cognitive load,” by transferring the crude psychological allegiances sports fans have for their teams to a racialized vision of the nation state.  Deeply engaged fandom by its nature also limits cognitive capacity and leaves automatic thinking largely intact, which is why demagogues do everything possible to make their political rallies indistinguishable from a pep rally before the Big Game.  (Flaubert: “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”)

Of course deeply engaged fandom can be a good thing, too. When it stays in its traditional place in the world of sports, the kind of community it promotes can serve as a kind of genuine substitute for the loss of other kinds of community in our increasingly atomized society.  More than twenty years ago, in his book Bowling Alone, the sociologist Robert Putnam used the decline of bowling leagues as both an example of and a metaphor for the decline of traditional social networks.  The world of sports message boards is, if nothing else, a kind of antidote to surfing the Internet alone. The friendships people develop in this context are very real – especially, perhaps, for middle-aged and older men, who often find themselves isolated in a society in which so many institutions that once created communities and held them together have deteriorated or disappeared.

In the end this book is about how sports in general, and fandom in particular, can serve as windows not only into the micro-societies they generate, but into contemporary society as a whole — into the broader worlds of politics, economics, and culture.

Another moment that gave birth to this text took place a few years before that 1997 Michigan-Alabama game, when I saw the Italian film Bread and Chocolate.  The hero, a southern Italian, has emigrated to Switzerland as a lowly “guest worker,” and, surrounded by idyllic landscapes and obnoxiously beautiful people, he becomes disgusted with the dirt and chaos and poverty of his homeland.  He decides to pass as Swiss, dyes his hair blond, adopts the local language and customs, and generally does everything he can to blend in.

The film’s climatic scene takes place in a bar, where he is watching the Italian national soccer team play Switzerland.  He is of course surrounded by Swiss fans, who are raucously supporting their team, while mocking and denigrating the Italian side.  For several minutes he becomes increasingly agitated, until suddenly Italy scores.  The bar falls dead silent.  He looks around at his compatriots, and, after a moment, leaps to his feet and screams, his voice almost strangled with passion: “Goal! Gooaal!  Gooooaaal!”

At the age of three, my son became intensely interested in garbage trucks.  When I was a child, a similar obsession would have been limited to running out to the curb to shake the Waste Management truck driver’s hand, and perhaps taking an occasional trip to the local dump. 

But because we live in the age of the Internet, we were together able to pursue his passion in a much more comprehensive way.   For instance, the two of us discovered that there is a whole rich subculture of people – usually middle-aged men – who dedicate themselves to filming garbage trucks in action, and then uploading their work to YouTube.

The number of such videos is in the thousands.  A single auteur – the cinematic visionary behind Thrash & Trash productions – has produced dozens, including a single compilation that by itself features 135 different types of garbage trucks in action.  (This work could perhaps be considered the Citizen Kane of the genre.) Because of such efforts, both my son and me can now readily distinguish a Curotto Screaming Eagle from a Peterbilt 320 Heil DuraPack, and a Mack MRU 450X from a Volvo WX64.

The British slang term “anorak” was invented to describe this general phenomenon. In the 1980s, the term was first used to describe trainspotters – the bizarre (to outsiders) group made up of people who would stand for hours on station platforms and along railroad tracks, to record in the most obsessive detail every feature of passing trains.  (An anorak is a kind of parka, often worn by trainspotters when they pursue their craft in frigid conditions).

From there, anorak came to mean anyone who engaged in the obsessive pursuit of any marginal niche interest:  analogous terms in other cultures include the Spanish friki and the Japanese otaku.  (The American slang terms “geek” and “nerd” have broader, less precise connotations, although anoraks could be thought of a subset of both groups).

It has been speculated that anoraks display a type of high-functioning autism, manifested as an obsessive focus on their particular interest, with this focus often impeding the sort of social responses and interactions considered normal or appropriate by neurologically typical people.

For obvious reasons, the Internet has made it much easier for anoraks to pursue their passions.  And it has also has made it much easier for otherwise neurologically typical people to become anoraks, at least for short periods of time.

In any event, during Michigan football games, many otherwise normal Board denizens become autistic conspiracy theorists.  (I know, because I’m one of them).  It generally takes just a few minutes – often only a play or two – for a group of highly educated, ordinarily reasonable, and otherwise unexceptionable message board posters to decompensate into a bunch of raving lunatics. Shared suffering quickly morphs into collective madness, as we – usually unintentionally – egg each other on toward ever-more elaborate manifestations of conspiratorial thinking, histrionic complaining, and other florid displays of our communal masochism.

If the game is close – and “close” means any situation where victory isn’t already almost assured – or, God forbid, Michigan is actually losing, then the Board will become a veritable bedlam of agonized cries about terrible coaching decisions, poor officiating, inept play, and the existence of a universal conspiracy to ensure that Michigan will ultimately lose. This conspiracy will include, at various points in the game, the crooked or blind refs, the league office, which mysteriously enough wants one of the league’s best-known and profitable programs to fail, and the egregiously dirty players on the other team, who are obviously a bunch of thugs who would never be recruited by our coaches.  Our coaches, by the way, totally suck, because they never ever learn from their mistakes, despite the fact that we point those mistakes out to them constantly.  They are almost as bad as the network television commentators, who everybody knows have always hated us, as well as the opposing fans, who are classless idiots who couldn’t get into Michigan – not that our own students are any better, given that they can’t be bothered to show up on time, or create any home field advantage by actually making noise.  Ultimately the entire Board turns on itself, with accusations flying back and forth between, depending on the particular poster’s perspective, ridiculously optimistic sunshine blowers, who fail to expect anything from Our Team, or absurdly pessimistic excellence demanders, who apply stratospheric standards to the team that they themselves could never meet in the context of real life, so-called.

For as long as this mental state lasts – i.e., until Michigan has an unquestionably safe lead — we hate everything and everybody, especially ourselves, as we wallow in the realization that, once again, we are choosing to waste our lives in this pathetic way.

I’m in the middle of editing the manuscript, and I’d be interested in any thoughts commenters have on the general subject. I’m particularly interested in the gender angle on this: For example, the Michigan board is, at least in terms of people who actually post on it, 100% men (of course the composition of the lurking population is unknown). Obviously some women are fanatic devotees of sports teams, and even more so of other sources of fanatical devotion, but I’m struck by how, at least in the North American context of team sports fanaticism, the phenomenon seems to be so heavily slanted toward men. But I’d like to hear whatever thoughts all this might pique in our faithful if not fanatical commentariat.

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