I held my father’s hand as we walked into the stadium. I wore a cap. I carried a glove. I ate a hot dog. I clapped constantly. When one of our players struck out, I said, “That’s OK,” mimicking my father, who added, “We’ll get ’em next time.”
I remember every vivid detail of my first sporting event, from the seat colors to the greasy food. What I don’t remember is if our team won.
I guess it didn’t matter.
I was a fan back then. I am not one anymore. I surrendered that option when I took this job. A fan, as defined by the dictionary, is “an ardent admirer.” To be honest, under that definition, I’m not sure how many fans are left in this country.
Sure, people call themselves “fans.” And today, many of them are expected to brave the winter weather for the Lions-Bengals game at Ford Field. But they are not coming to cheer the home team. They are coming to boo it, to march around the stadium in protest, to howl endlessly for the firing of the team’s president.
I’m not sure what I call that.
It doesn’t sound like fandom.
Preening for attention
It’s hard to imagine a “fan” of a movie star such as Julia Roberts screaming at her because she took a bad part, or a “fan” of writer Stephen King calling a radio show demanding his publisher fire him. If you don’t care for their work anymore, you move on.
But in sports, somehow, we don’t move on, we move in. We throw things on the court. We unfurl nasty banners. We scream threats and curses.
We start obscene chants. We sing a player’s name and add the word “sucks!” We throw beverages at preening athletes (Pistons-Pacers last year). We throw beer bottles at the visiting team’s buses (the LSU-Tennessee football game this fall). We jeer draft picks. We scream for trades.
Decades ago, if our team lost, we might commiserate at the coffee shop. Today, we spew venom across the Internet, we speed dial a sports talk radio station, we scream into a TV camera. We give ourselves names (“SuperFanFreak”). We get famous for selling our loyalty on eBay. We imagine ourselves as equals. Every fan a coach. Every fan a general manger.
We demand our “rights.” We say we are “sick” of losing. The whole relationship is like a tired husband and his tired wife, quick to anger, quick to battle, quick to see love turned to resentment. I don’t know what you call that.
It doesn’t sound like fandom.
It’s so easy to criticize
Of course, the teams themselves are hardly blameless. Coaches and general managers take the money and run. High-priced players refuse to sign autographs or demand to be traded. Owners raise ticket prices so high a fan feels entitled to excellence – or else.
Meanwhile, in the media, it is in vogue to be cynical and acid-tongued. I’ve done it myself. You show too much “admiration” (see the definition of fan), they call you a “homer.”
So today, in Detroit, “fans” will gather en masse to express not support, but anger. And they will protest a team making money from failure while buying angry T-shirts and boosting ratings of entities making money from, well, failure. And the very media that often have egged them on – including this newspaper – will race down and cover them.
And perhaps this grants them their truest wish: to be watched and written about on Sunday afternoon, instead of the players.
The whole thing has gotten so loud, so profane and so drunken, I’m not sure what it is anymore. But I know what it isn’t.
It isn’t a little boy and his father, holding hands and watching sports heroes. They called that fandom. But those days are gone.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.