Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Self, The Other, The Home Team

When I was in high school, I was ecstatic to purchase the fourth album by Weezer on release day. I think I speak for every skinny nerd with glasses when I say Pinkerton and the Blue Album were my life. And I even thought the Green Album was pretty nifty. So, with a new album coming out, I was of course excited. I was a fan.

I was also an idiot. History, taste, record sales, cursory and in-depth listens, and common sense bear me out when I say that the record is awful. I’m writing this on the road, where I don’t have access to it, which is not an oversight: I haven’t intentionally listened to the album, in whole or in part, for at least three years. Their first albums were brilliant, but just because I loved what they did doesn’t mean I would love what they would do. After that experience, while I will always love Rivers and will always love that band, I will not blindly follow where they lead. I’m wearing an Against Me! sweatshirt but I’m not an apologist for “White People for Peace” or half of their last album.

In Oxford, there’s a bookshop called Blackwells. It’s described in the sort of grandiose superlatives that comes with college towns in general, and prestigious ones in particular. I’ve been traveling with only Ellis’s “Founding Brothers,” which while by no means serious history, still encouraged me to pick up a counterweight. This led me to pick up the only purchase that I’ve been even slightly embarrassed to hand to a cute, hipster book clerk - Simon Barnes’ “The Meaning of Sport.” In a cascading series of anecdotes that reads somewhere between a neonhustle post and a piece of longform journalism, he touches on all manner of topics related to sport (interesting), the process of writing about it (more interesting), and his hobbies of bird-watching and equestrianism (not interesting in the least).

Perhaps one of his more interesting digressions, though perhaps only because I was predisposed to the topic, is on the matter of fandom, or fanship as he calls it. Why is it that people tie themselves and their emotions to the successes and failures of athletes and clubs. As the match drew to a close and United could only strike once, Rohan said in passing, “I’m going to have to put three of my housemates on suicide watch.”

A psychotherapist friend of the author explains fanship as “‘A bearable way of facing the fact that God doesn’t love me.’ You desire a certain result, but inevitably, there are times when you are thwarted. The act of fanship, then is a way of seeking out and finding disappointment.” While Barnes is right to later point out that all human relationships are rooted in the prospect of such loss, we seek out both them and fanship anyway. The reward of each of these, however, is contingent on the risk that we be devastatingly disappointed when they go badly. Perhaps the friend is right to say that the choice to live and die by the standings is a way of buffering us from living and dying by our bank balances, our romances, our lives, but these don’t disappear when we constantly track the ticker to see who won or lost in the division. If we then choose to stake our mental state on the fixtures, which fixtures do we choose?

Chuck Klosterman points to the return of the Browns, and the moment when the identity of the team was so indeterminate that their fans were effectively supporting ‘(a) an incorporated municipality with a shared tax base, and (b) a color best-described as "burnt orange."’ He casts aside the former question of identity, and instead says a true fan places the sport above the team itself. Set in starker relief by international competition, where the allegiances fall within borders and allegiances that we’ve already decided “matter,” loyalty to sports clubs may be no different. Perhaps not in America, where we seem painfully frightened of recognizing any divisions in our society beyond the boroughs that divide Yankees and Mets fans and the peculiar psychological drive to support the Clippers, football teams often fall in the same city and punting says everything. Everton or Liverpool? Man City or United? Celtic or Rangers? Geography, class, religion.

Barnes answers the question of fanship differently than his friend: “Football, then, must be seen as an aspect of love.” That pledging loyalty to a club is part of an innate human drive to love, and perhaps then it matters less who we love than that we love. Then, the choice becomes more a question of with whom you love, than who it is you love. Your side may win or lose, but your father, your neighbor, your factory, your church will always be by your side through it all.

Fanship is an irrational decision. There are plenty of great reasons to follow sport: to appreciate the physical greatness, to respect its global impact, anything. But to believe with zealous fervor in the superiority and righteousness of your side? To support, as some people have said, “the court and the jerseys.” But even those change. The players, the managers, the owners, the stadiums, the kit. In America, even the cities and the names. In the most crass but realistic terms, you’re supporting a transferrable corporate entity. Any Sonics fan reading this knows what I’m talking about.

When I was a student, I hated college football. The American kind, to clarify. Not only did loath the culture that surrounded it - misogyny, binge drinking, pink polo shirts - but it inculcated a mindset that seemed closer to a right wing nationalist rally than an open-minded, liberal university that I hoped to find while doing my undergraduate degree at a notoriously hippie school. Demonizing the other and claiming superiority based on group membership isn’t what I was hoping for in a liberal arts education. And there will be people who say this builds community and spirit, and I understand that. It is with whom we loved.

But what does the same thing do for a franchise? You divide a city, you rally to the cause of raising money for a corporation, you support an ever changing reality behind a corporate facade as you watch a shitty side in the name of being a “true fan.”

Earlier, I nearly ended the paragraph that quips about Sonics fanship with the following dig: “I do.” But I didn’t. In a sense, I am a fan of the club. Since I started following the NBA, there is no team that I would rather see win a game, no team whose roster I know better, whose record I follow more closely, whose injuries I am more personally wounded by. But I am still not sure whether I am a fan of the Sonics. Since I left, they’ve set the court date to determine how and when the new owners are going to rip the Sonics out of their home and ship them off to Oklahoma City. Will I still love watching Kevin Durant as he realizes his near limitless potential? Of course. Will I forgive the franchise’s history of drafting inept big men with bad knees and hiring incompetent head coaches? Less so than I am now.

As much as I learned the lesson with Weezer, I haven’t quite gotten to the same thing with sport yet. In that I give my love a little less easily, I suppose I have, but I still have some vestiges of loyalty to the franchise regardless of their nature. I grew up loving a Mighty Ducks that won by opening a game with one of the faster teams on ice, but I still feel the same loyalty to the team of grinding bruisers and thugs that won the Cup last year. They play a game I like less, but it’s a team I like as much as ever.

FreeDarko is NBA blog that challenges the notion that sports writing can’t be esoteric, brilliant, and over-intelligent, The blog has put forward any number of remarkable ideas, not the least of which has been the device of posting tangentially referential images in longform essays which we here at neonhustle have experimented with unapologetically. The most interesting, perhaps, may be the concept of
‘liberated fandom.’ Potential, excellence, speed, swagger. An inchoate conception of sport that ignores the franchise as a timeless enterprise to be respected and looks at the player, the League, and the team as the canvas on which the former paint and the from which the latter constructs its narrative.

Since I’ve started following the NBA, I’ve loved watching Suns. I’ve loved them because the game they play is the game I like to watch. Steve Nash’s passes threading through holes that I didn’t know were there and production coming from everywhere on the court because they’re always. freaking. moving. But now, with Shawn Marion traded to the Heat for Shaq, who I doubt moves for anything but his remote control, and even then quite slowly, I’m not sure I really care anymore.

I’ll always love the Ducks, because I always will have been there with my Dad and my sister during, and we’ll always have that first finals run and that first cup. But even though I’ll always want them to win, I’ll still love a beautiful save on a breakaway even if it stops us from taking the lead. I might get some personal satisfaction out of my loyalty to Weezer, and I’m sure they’re great guys who really appreciate my support, but I think I’ll listen to someone else’s new music now. I might have gotten something out of the geographical loyalty and city camaraderie to Seattle, but I don’t know how that will last when I’ve moved out of Washington and so have they. But now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see how the Lakers are doing with Pau Gasol. I’m not sure if I can love Kobe, but I think I can love the game the play, and I think I can learn to love them with my sister and Brendan. Maybe I’ll call some of those old Weezer fan friends of mine and see what they think of the new Rivers material while I’m at it…


Al said...

I'm curious why you don't like "White People For Peace" -- is your problem with the song itself (it's sentiments, etc), or rather how it fits in with the rest of the band's catalog (I understand this album was a bit of a departure in sound)? New Wave is the only album of their's I've heard, but I find the track a catchy, satisfying punk stomper, and while I don't entirely agree with its politics, I think there is some validity to their position.

Darryl said...

It's not a song entirely without redeeming qualities (it's definitely catchy, as you point out) but Against Me! is a band from which I expect so much more. I could get the exact same thing from a Social Distortion album (almost literally, "Don't Drag Me Down," from White Light, White Heat, White Trash is comically similar down to the guitar fills). I probably agree with their politics, but I'm not a fan of the topical punk song school of song-writing that they're increasingly subscribing to, though less on this record than Searching for a Former Clarity. When the truth/relevance of a song wanes after a war ends (if ever...) or an administration changes, I think that's a knock against the track.

Pick up Reinventing Axl Rose which is a far better album - musically, lyrically, politically - if you're interested in the band.

Brendan K. said...

For the record: Lakers, Angels and Ducks- no pro football allegiances (as I just don't care about the NFL), but I do follow my Arkansas State (soon to be renamed) Indians and Texas Tech Red Raiders in pretty much all arenas of sport.

"New Wave" was a very, very middling record for me. The more I hear it accumulate compliments the more dissapointed I am in what I hear on further listens. It really reminds me of how people used to call Midnight Oil Australia's answer to the Clash.

You know, 'cause the Clash sucked. Apparently.

Hava said...

Darryl, you are a fuckin' excellent writer. Anyone who can hold my attention writing about sports without making me fall asleep at my desk is someone to be admired, and envied. I am kinda jealous of you. You make me want to step up my game. I only hope you don't go into journalism someday, because then I'd be out of a job.