Sports Fandom: A reflection

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Photo from The Sports Quotient.

The following is an excerpt from C.L.R. James book, Beyond a Boundary.  It was written in 1963 about cricket in the West Indies, but while I was reading it on my commute yesterday this passage stood out as painfully relevant:

But that is not why I remember Matthew. For ne’er-do-well, in fact vicious character, as he was, Matthew had one saving grace – Matthew could bat.  More than that, Matthew, so crude and vulgar in every aspect of his life, with a bat in his hand was all grace and style.  When he practiced on an afternoon with the local club people stayed to watch and walked away when he was finished.  He had one particular stroke that he played by going doing low on one knee.  It may have been a slash through the covers or a sweep to leg. But, whatever it was, whenever Matthew sank down and made it, a long, low ‘Ah!’ came from many a spectator, and my own little soul thrilled with recognition and delight.

Matthew’s career did not last long. He would not practice regularly, he would not pay his subscription to the club.  They persevered with him, helping him out with flannels and white shoes for matches.  I remember Razac, the Indian, watching him practise one day and shaking his head with deep regret: how could a man who could bat like that so waste his talent?  Matthew dropped out early. But he was my first acquaintance with the genus Brittanicus, a fine batsman, and the impact that he makes on all around him, non-cricketers and cricketers alike.  The contrast between Matthew’s pitiable existence as an individual and the attitude people had towards him filled my growing mind and has occupied me to this day.  I came into personal contact with Matthew. His brother ways my playmate and when we got in Matthew’s way he glared and shouted at us in a most terrifying manner. My aunts were uncompromising in their judgements of him and yet my grandmother’s oft-repeated verdict: “Good for nothing except to play cricket,” did not seem right to me. How could an ability to play cricket atone in any sense for Matthew’s abominable way of life?

Did I read this and immediately think of Patrick Kane, yes.  But, then I also thought: Tom Brady, Floyd Mayweather, Alex Rodriguez, Slava Voynov, Lance Armstrong, Ray Rice, Danny Heatley…And the  list goes on of athletes who aren’t very nice or good people or have made seriously bad decisions in life but are phenomenal at their chosen sport.  I have long believed that our natural penchance for upholding athletes as role models is a myth because having talent is in no way causal to also having good character.  We can certainly extract certain attributes to aspire to but, as the cliche goes, no one is perfect. What I think is interesting is how quick we are to defend our favourite athletes or, at the very least, root for their innocence because somehow their talent makes our individual worlds a better place – even if their actual presence is a menace to society.  Now maybe calling Tom Brady a menace to society is an exaggeration, but I hope you can see where I, and James, are going with this – How can an ability to play [insert sport here] atone in any sense for [insert athlete’s name] abominable way of life?  The abominations range from those, like Brady’s, that affect only those immediately around him and his legacy, to those who inflict violence on others.  Still, as fans, we are their first line of defence.  When actor Mark Wahlberg was asked about DeflateGate while promoting Ted 2, his response was, “Tom Brady has the most magnificent balls I’ve ever seen.” Entertaining was his comment, but Walhberg certainly did not seem to entertain the notion that his football hero may be a cheater.

James begins his book by posing the following question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” In other words, if all you know is hockey, or football, or baseball, what do you actually know? As fans this is how we like to consume our sports – insulated from the horrible world around us because it is our escape.  It is as if we can draw a line between athlete and human being/citizen.  But that’s now how the world works and to root for innocence or redemption where it may not/should not exist is to compartmentalize our feelings in a way that does not manifest for said athlete.  You can’t say, “Well, maybe Kane is a douche bag but he’s one helluva hockey player,” and continue to wear his jersey to the rink in support of Kane the player but not the man because his paycheque goes to both of those identities.  His name is etched on the Stanley Cup as “Patrick Kane”, not “Patrick Kane (the hockey player not the *alleged* rapist)”.  Sponsors support both the athlete at home and the athlete in the spotlight, which is why Nike released that ridiculous Tiger Woods apology commercial for his extramarital affairs, in which he didn’t actually say a word.  His affairs had nothing to do with golf but they had everything to do with his image and it’s the image we try to salvage and protect.  However, while Sprite may want us to believe that “Image is everything,” it is time that character take a leading role from fans, league officials, and athletes. I’m not expecting athletes to somehow become the role models we want them to be but protecting them is not noble, it is naive.  It does not make sport better, and therefore it does not make society better.

Yes, your beloved Blackhawks may take a big hit to their roster depending on how this pans out. But isn’t sport lauded for teaching its participants about discipline and consequences? Yet, it seems that the better you are the less that consequences apply to you. So then what are we teaching people? Suck less and get away with more, I suppose.  When Danny Heatley killed his teammate and friend, Dan Snyder, in a car accident in 2004 (indicted on six charges), his lawyer pleaded, “We don’t want any sentence that would put him in jail, destroy his career, or have him deported to the United States.” Why? Why is Heatley’s career so important?  Does it provide some sort of valuable service to the world?  Does he save lives on a daily basis (not that a doctor should be absolved of vehicular homicide/manslaughter)? Why does he deserve a second chance when the same opportunity is rarely afforded to others? Since that time he has played 10 seasons in the NHL, when his friend Snyder’s career was ended for him.  This is not to say that Synder’s death didn’t take a toll on him or his playing but his lawyer’s statement says it all – athletes are special/not part of society/above the law.  It is as if athletes have a gift to share with the world and putting someone like Heatley or Kane behind bars would be tragic for the hockey world because WE would be the one’s being punished. Not being able to see Kane’s magnificent stick handling would be an injustice to us! I hope reading those words makes you reflect on how ridiculous society’s defence of superstar athletes is, and if not, you might want to try reading it aloud. You know what is an injustice? A system that protects dishonesty, assault, and criminal activity for the sake of sponsorship dollars, ticket sales, and image is an injustice.

I don’t know how this Kane debacle is going to end but I can make an educated guess that nothing will happen to him.  Or at least, nothing of significance. We have built up the system and it is time that we build it down.  In Jordin Tootoo’s autobiography he explains this system quite well. It is one where he could drink and party right up until game time, and as long as he performed for those three periods all else would be forgotten.  Sports fans, like athletes, have short memories – often out of necessity – but with respect to actions and consequences, a short memory is not beneficial for sport or the society in which it operates.

On June 19th, The Sports Quotient wrote the following in an article titled, “The Power of Patrick Kane“:

While it remains highly unlikely that Kane has left the babes and booze behind, he has done a much better job of staying out of the tabloids, maturing into the professional he was meant to be.  While the comparable Jonny Manziels and Tyler Seguins of the world are still working to leave their immaturities behind and actualize their potentials, Kane has seemingly moved past his off-ice shenanigans…[Regardless of your choices off the ice, when you score the Stanley Cup game-winner at the age of 21 and win your second cup at 24, there isn’t much the naysayer can say].”

The professional he was meant to be, or the professional we want him to be? “Regardless of your choices off the ice” is a phrase that should never be written in defence of talent.  As fans, we have to ask if any number of dangles and snipes will ever be pretty enough to absolve one’s immoral/criminal behaviour. Certainly, different offences require different responses but what exactly are you cheering for, if for example, Kane is proven guilty but is allowed to continue playing? And, if he isn’t found guilty that doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t done anything wrong either. Our roles as fans do not start and end at the checkout line.  The whole premise of Hockey in Society is to question the place of hockey in the bigger picture and how the two inform each other.  We question the sport, its people, and its practices not because we want it all to go away.  We question them because we want and know it can be better.  Critiquing the institution of hockey does not make us unfaithful, it makes us part of the sport. That is the difference between fandom and mere consumption.

But hey, what do they know of hockey who only hockey know?

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