WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 14: A Philadelphia Phillies fan holds up a sign during the Phillies and Washington Nationals game at Nationals Park on April 14, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Are all obsessed sports fans miserable and obnoxious? Can we be a "hyperpartisan" fan without falling into those categories? Is every type of fan capable of being a total idiot? We explore all these aspect of fandom and more.
The ineffable Brian Phillips of the world's most beautiful soccer publication The Run of Play has written a biting critique of fandom, or more precisely fandom that elicits and is fueled by rage.
The pivot of Phillips' argument turns on the idea of the hyperpartisan fan, and how dishonest self-delusion sucks both reality and fun out of sport.
In Phillips own words:
The truth about hyperpartisanship is that it is an absolutely miserable and unpleasant way to be a sports fan. No one talks about this, because (a) people who complain about rage in sports tend to want to mourn some lost standard of politeness, which has nothing to do with anything, and (b) because hyperpartisan fans are the most outwardly invested in their clubs, so there's a presumption that they're the most authentic or admirable supporters, even if they're also, everyone knows, unbearably obnoxious.
Phillips is a liberated fan; this concern, in NBA circles, has been spread widest by my friend Bethlehem Shoals, who has long championed the freedom of team bachelordom. For the liberated fan, hyperpartisan fandom does look miserable, because we partisans are often miserable. That's when the partisanship most frequently shows: when things go wrong and neutral parties are looking for the rage.
This isn't to say Phillips' concern (the obnoxiousness of fans and noxious flavor of post-game discourse) is invented or overstated -- it's damn real. But it's not the only way.
As a proud (and self-conscious) hyperpartisan I present a defense of my kind: a taxonomy of fans.
This is my view of fandom. Let's dig in. (Note that the graphic is not to scale.)
Fans can be casual (as known as "normal people"), partisan or liberated militants. The liberated militants represent those with an obsessive, vested interest in the game, but not a particular and consistent team. (Liberated militants might attach to a team that represents an ideal, but only insofar as the team is singularly identified by that ideal; in other words, there isn't anyone outside of the desert rooting for the Phoenix Suns any more.) Sport-specific writers unattached to a team are liberated militants; this allows them to opine on subjects such as the health of their sport, or the good ol' days of their sport.
The partisans constitute fans of a specific team, or a specific set of teams. (The latter would be the case in soccer, where you might root for Manchester City and England, which gives you cover to occasionally cheer Rooney. Myself, I prefer the Sacramento Kings and French basketball. Ronny Turiaf, once a Laker, used to keep me awake at night!) Among partisans, there are hyperpartisans. If you read an SB Nation blog on your team religiously, you're a hyperpartisan. If you attend games in regalia, you're a hyperpartisan.
Does that make you a miserable, obnoxious fan? No. But it does set up the conditions required for miserable, obnoxious fandom. But to reach that you need to also be a malcontent, someone predisposed to anger. There are hyperpartisans who don't sink to surreality and who are well-adjusted enough to know when enough is enough.
I am, again, a Kings fan. Sacramento is said to have suffered the greatest injustice in NBA history, a loss in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, particularly in Game 6, in which it seemed to not just the naked hyperpartisan eye, but to the eyes of most neutral parties, that the referees had it in for the Kings in order to guarantee a Game 7. There were egregious foul calls, bizarre ref miscues; even Ralph Nader got involved after the game on behalf of wronged Kings fans.
Many called for David Stern's head. A number still hold a grudge against the commissioner, the league and the referees in that game. Some use internet handles like "27freethrows" -- that's how many the Lakers had in the fourth quarter of Game 6 alone. Some wear t-shirts that say "2002 Western Conference Champs."
Tim Donaghy came around a few years after the 2002 WCF. After being booted from the league and tried, he began making accusations about Game 6, saying he knew that the league assigned the particular referees it did under orders to get to a Game 7. (The Kings had led 3-2 going in.) He said that those refs were "company men" and those bad calls were intentional, were meant to essentially fix the game.
This is honey for the hyperpartisans, under Phillips' model. Phillips discusses the thirst for explanation of that which fans refuse to admit or see clearly; in the Donaghy/Game 6 case, Kings hyperpartisans had every opportunity to rage ... but didn't. A few did. Most ignored Donaghy, and continued to move on. We did not linger on the conspiracy theory or allow it to make us miserable as fans. Those who did allow that? They were looking for trouble anyways. They became Phillips' stupid ragers, and they were in the minority among even the most obsessed Kings fans.
But rage and stupidity is not exclusive to hyperpartisans -- far from it! Casual fans are just as likely to be unbelievable idiots. We'll call these aimless barbarians: they don't know exactly what they are angry about, but they are angry. If these malcontents have a consistent team but aren't obsessed over them, they are hooligans -- they will cause trouble if their team is wronged. They are unbelievable idiots. They are not a majority of partisan fans.
The beautiful result: anyone can be an idiot -- casual, liberated, partisan or hyperpartisan fan -- but the majority can remain happy, approachable and even-handed. I am a Sacramento Kings hyperpartisan, and I have every reason to slip into rage. And I don't, and none of the Kings hyperpartisans I know slip into rage or are made miserable or obnoxious by our team's wonderful failings. My team has won 49 games in two years, and I still find joy in following Donte Greene on Twitter and wondering how much Marcus Thornton will cost and hoping for a top-two pick.
I've been told that perhaps due to undefinable circumstances, the NBA could be more "mentally healthy" in total than other sports, particularly soccer and college football. This makes sense, and it'd be lovely to assess a Miserability Index for the different sports.* But is it really so bleak in other sports, that to root hard and deeply is to lose control of the rage-tap, to lose control of reality and full enjoyment? Am I a snowflake?
If so, please don't let this facade melt and turn me into a mess.
*And beyond sports, everything one can concern himself with. Being a Wire ultra would seem to be without misery-making repercussions, but I find many of my hardcore Wire fans fretting over bad Wire references in sportswriting, for instance. There's also the elephant in the room: love itself. It's obviously worth being a hyperpartisan toward a particular person, even if the heart is fragile and susceptible to misery. Unless the cynicism of our world has made even love too volatile to abide.