Thursday, April 12, 2012

How much is too much? Limits of fandom & Pieces by Patrick Hruby and Tim Brown

There's a topic I've been thinking about lately that's become more front of mind with two different controversies in the sports world, and two different pieces of writing I've seen on them.

First to the topic... that of sports fandom, and what it takes to cause someone to abandon a rooting interest for what I'll call "moral grounds."

It's important to note this abandonment very different than someone simply letting go of their once favorite team for more banal reasons including (A) moving away or (B) sick of their team losing all the time. Rather, the type of "favorite team dropping" I'm thinking of is the willful and sudden "no longer do I want to cheer for a group like this" casting aside of a favorite team. While I'm busy noting frameworks for the discussion, should also state that this type of abandonment often precipitated by ones views on a particular player on said favorite team. Especially if a star, that player and team often can go together as the guy can very much be a reflection on and shaper of views about the entire group. Yep, it's true... a rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch.

The specific example in my mind (prior to the last few days and aforementioned writing I came across) of a player that could have caused fans to cast aside their favorite team was Barry Bonds. I don't think many Giants fans thought him a great guy while he helped win games (you know, through his particular ways and methods), but they still cheered him. In fact, Bonds even in retirement/exile from the larger baseball community still appears beloved as a former Giant with the cheers he appears to receive whenever attending games at AT&T Park.

So... it's a question that could be examined in much greater detail than just via this blog post (and Bonds would be me thinks a perfect subject to evaluate the larger topic through), but the working theory I've developed is fans primarily want to be entertained (not gonna win any major awards from that insight), but also want to not feel foolish for their rooting interest. What I mean by that is me thinks someone wants to not be embarrassed by and for the players and team they support. When sports fans become adults we by and large accept that "because they're on our favorite team does not by definition make them good guys", but we want to be able to sort of believe it's possible they are. A couple of guys on your favorite team who go out and kiss babies can help in thinking you support "good people", but really you just don't want guys (especially the best players) on your favorite team kicking the babies. It's basically a concept of plausible deniability and not thinking the players you cheer for actual bad people.

To the example of Bonds for Giants fans... he was by most accounts not a nice guy while on the team, but never went completely over the line towards bad guy status. The line of course gets drawn in different places and there's greater leeway given when greater production in effect (73 home runs in a season helped), but there's still a line (and post retirement, Bonds' image has been helped by the "well, everyone was doing it" view of steroid usage). So, here's a case of someone who didn't appear a great guy, but could have that explained away and excused. When this can't be done for someone and the concept of plausible deniability lost, that's where things get sticky and a fan more likely to cast aside a team rooting interest based on the actions of a player. These are the situations in which teams should and often do act quickly to "draw a line in the sand" and reprimand or release the player. It's usually not really that the team and its management are acting from a moral high ground, but rather than they see a particular player or players actions jeopardizing the paid (emphasis on paid) fan rooting interest in the team.

Example I always think of in relation to this is Virginia Tech and Marcus Vick. The guy was a highly skilled quarterback (didn't hurt that his older brother was supremely skilled former Tech QB Michael Vick in his pre-arrested for dogfighting days), but also seemed quite the miscreant. Team rule violations seemed to happen again and again, but (so goes the story I've heard from "people who know things") Vick finally got booted from the team after prominent boosters began making noise about his reflection on the program. Going only a tiny step beyond that, really it's not just "the program" as some sort of non-affiliated entity, but rather an institution that said boosters affiliate themselves with (you know, in a financial way). Back to the plausible deniability concept, it's one thing to support a team that you know isn't filled with saints and choir boys, it's another entirely when you're embarrassed by the actions within the team you support.


So... here's the views I've had and the impetus for putting them done in this post (you know, Words Written Down) two different pieces I've seen lately. For his website, Patrick Hruby wrote "Ozzie Guillen, Bobby Petrino and the real business of sports." It's excellent writing that seems to be completely in line with my views (gee, surprise I consider it excellent) and includes what seems the very well stated paragraph below...

"Winning on its own doesn't matter. It may as well happen on a desert island. Winning that excites the public enough to buy tickets, splurge for jerseys and tune in on television does matter. In fact, that's the only winning that matters. The ultimate point of revenue-generating athletics isn't building character or testing the limits of human performance or hoisting championship trophies; it's hawking merchandise and selling captive audiences to advertisers."
The second piece I've come across lately on these twin controversies (or put a finer point on it - dumb statements and actions from Guillen and Petrino both) was "Ozzie Guillen's remarks on former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro should be tuned out" by Tim Brown for Yahoo! Sports. Brown makes the accurate point that Guillen not being evaluated or paid based on whatever social or political nonsense (or even brilliance if he reversed course and said smart things), but rather to manage winning baseball games. Where I disagree with Brown, though, is on this whole affiliation, plausible deniability and support of something completely messed up platform I've brought up. It's ok to be wacky and say dumb things, just don't go over the line to where it's an embarrassment to say "yea, I'm a fan of the team that employs that guy." Maybe Guillen will be sufficiently contrite to get people in Miami back on his side, but given where is and what he said... it may well be tough sledding from a business perspective (and is there any other that really counts?) for Marlins ownership and management to keep him at the helm.

The whole thing is a fascinating topic... and I'd love to see some longer-form writing about the ideas of sports fandom and paid affiliation I've brought up and Hruby wrote about as well.