When I was 13 years old, my dad took me to a Lakers game which happened to be against the Miami Heat. Though it wasn’t quite as thrilling of a matchup as it sounds – both teams would get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs that year – it still seemed pretty tense because of who had suited up for each side: Kobe Bryant for Los Angeles and his former teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, for the visitors.
Our tickets were always right on the edge of away-fan territory, and even before the tip-off you could tell that it would be an especially lively place to be this time. Many of the people around us were dressed from head to toe in Heat gear, and that “playoff feel” that the Staples Center was so famous for during those years (sigh) was in full effect as the pregame festivities began to wind down.
It took only until the national anthem for one of the Heat fans sitting next to us to officially earn the label “obnoxious.” As the organ was finishing off the penultimate line of the song, the man in the seat next to me yelled out “Yeah, yeah” in a still-quiet stadium that hadn’t yet begun cheer for “the land of the free.” We eventually learned some complicated justification for this utterance that vaguely explained some tradition that apparently only a few guys and Shaq himself were privy to but, however you dress it up, it was weird.
Still, one line of this guy’s half-apology to us during the first quarter stuck with me much more than anything else about the game that day. In one way it was a quote and in another it was a definition, but mostly it was kind of just some words that sort of seemed make sense: “Sorry about this,” he said, “but after all, fan is short for fanatic.”
I don’t think I’d ever thought about what it meant to be a fan before that point, but something about this random Heat apologist’s phrase stuck. The three or four years that followed were the only ones of my life in which I haven’t loved sports, in part because I think I started to realize just how much fanaticism was involved in blindly supporting a handful of athletes just because they went to my parents’ alma mater or happened to play in the vicinity of my house.
In truth, I didn’t totally become a “fan” again until I went to a college of my own, where I share tons of unique experiences with the players on our teams. Even now, however, my claims to logical support of the Cardinal’s programs seem a bit tenuous. I’ve poured dozens of hours into watching, studying and covering Stanford football, for example, yet I can honestly only say I know a handful of players on the team on anything more than a casual basis.
Considerations like these haven’t ever stopped anyone in history from caring about different athletic events. The Romans didn’t flock to the Colosseum because they had some sort of direct connection with the poor souls clashing beneath them. In a recent article about the politics of Tunisia, George Packer indicated that being a Tunisian soccer fan used to mean subjecting yourself to beatings, insults and all kinds of personal harm for a team that didn’t really even care that you existed. That didn’t stop thousands of people from doing it.
Part of this may have been for the communities that develop around sports, but totally using that as an explanation is really trying to fit a black-and-white solution on an extremely colorful problem. I know plenty of people (myself included) who have gone to various Stanford games when they had no guarantee of companionship in the stands just because they enjoy watching the sport. This explanation also doesn’t really explain some of the nastier aspects of fandom, like why we hate our rivals so much or why we throw around so many insults when game day comes around.
If any part of fandom borders on the fanatical, it’s that last point. I can’t explain why, as a longtime Clippers fan, I hate the Golden State Warriors so much. Everything about the team bugs me, from their stupid on-the-court celebrations to their hard fouling to the intolerable hordes of fair-weather fans that suddenly adore them. Is this just me adopting the personality shared by all Clipper fans? Are we really that invested in seeing our guys avoid failure that everything is distilled to good versus evil? Both explanations sound crazy, but I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
When Stanford reached the Rose Bowl this year, it added yet another twist to my understanding of fandom. Iowa was the alma mater of my dad’s entire side of the family (even I have a one-class transcript from the school), and I’ve watched them play on TV since at least 2002, probably earlier. Of course, I still bled Cardinal, but for once I was cheering for a game in which the enemy was merely defeated and not destroyed. The reactions to the on-the-field massacre, coupled with flak that Stanford media poured on to the state of Iowa for a senate bill that everyone in the world knew was the stupidest attempt to grab votes seen by mankind (aside, maybe, from a post about the same game from one of our alums) made me feel like something in my voting interests was amiss.
I do partially blame the sports media for some of the more extreme cases of ridiculousness. Every saga is written with so much fervor these days that it’s hard for any reader to remain unattached. I realize reporters are largely responding to market trends, but that’s not a justification so much as an unfortunate reality. It’d be great if we didn’t have to write polarizing articles to get page views, but that’s just how the world works.
I’ve tried to be a “better” sports writer since I started to understand these notions, a little less dramatic in victory and a little more reasoned in defeat. I think it’s a balance that comes with time. It crosses my mind that the real objective for anyone at any athletic event I attend is just to have fun, which probably works better if I don’t write a Greek tragedy for every single storyline. By the same token, however, “better fanatic” sounds sort of like an oxymoron, and being one or writing for one sounds a little dull.
For now, my personal sports loyalties remain as strong as ever. I’m not sure I can totally justify why they haven’t changed, but I’ve thought up an explanation that works for me: I buy in because of how much everyone else is invested. There’s something special about being able to feel sympathy for our friends who see their teams fall, or share in the triumphs of those who win.
This system has led me into plenty of weird situations, but I’m not sure it’s more illogical than anything I’ve tried before. I was generally happy when the Thunder beat the Warriors in Game 4 last night, but part of me held back because of the few long-time Warriors fans I know who I genuinely felt for. The biggest realization of my exploration process is that it’s hard to really care about something, even if it’s something silly like a sports team, but people who do deserve our respect. On the flipside, it’s easy to punish someone for getting too invested in something, but at the end of the day, it is what it feels like: a cheap shot.
I think this is something that I – and almost every sports fan, really – could afford to take a little more to heart.
If you’ve read any of Andrew Mather’s stories you might remember how they are often packed with dramatic lines and exaggerated metaphors. If you think Andrew should take some of his own advice, send him an email at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.