Being a Fan

I have this encyclopedia in my brain that comes as a result of the work I do. As a sports journalist who often writes about athletes or coaches committing terrible violence off the field and the ways in which teams, universities, or leagues ignore or minimize the seriousness of that behavior (sometimes to the point of appearing to condone it), I watch games now where I mentally tick off the sad things I know when a person’s name is mentioned, when they make a great play, or the announcers praise them. I am informed and understand how leagues and universities exploit players’ labor and the damage being done to the players’ bodies and often their brains.

I will flinch at each hit a football player takes. I will know that same player who just took the hit is the same man who was accused six years ago of beating his then-girlfriend. When a college player goes down with what looks a career-ending injury to his leg, I immediately think about that player from a decade ago who did not recover well enough to return to the field and now works as a bank teller in the small town where he went to college, longing for his chance to coach. I know the stories of players on athletic scholarship who have to stretch every dollar to feed themselves each month while their athletic departments generate millions, or the NFL players who so deeply fear the trauma to their brains that they retire after only a year in the league (sometimes before ever playing a down).

And yet, I keep watching. As much as I am a journalist, I am also, and sometimes more so, a fan.

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For many people, being a sports fan is increasingly becoming an act of reconciling what you know with what you love, and then compromising. Stacey May Fowles, a writer and fan of major league baseball, says that she compartmentalizes while watching sports. “I suppose it’s similar to the enjoyment of film, music or books in that regard,” Fowles says. “How you can appreciate an art form, and still loathe the politics that went into creating it.” Trying to separate it out, though, doesn’t make it easy to consume sports. “It can certainly be frustrating and demoralizing–even devastating–to love a thing so much,” Fowles says, “and consistently see it marred by violence and injustice, by issues of sexism, racism, and homophobia. I would even go as far as to say it’s heartbreaking.”

“I’m critical of a thing I love so much that I just want to help make better.” -Kavitha A. Davidson

It is that heartbreak, though, that leads people to critique that which they love and enjoy. Kavitha A. Davidson, Sports Columnist at Bloomberg View who loves baseball and hockey, says that “readers often accuse me of hating sports because I sometimes write so negatively about the nefarious practices of players, teams, and leagues.” Davidson argues that they’ve got it completely backwards. “I’m critical of a thing I love so much that I just want to help make better.”

I understand this too well. One of the programs I have critiqued the most over the last few years is the one I love the most: my university alma mater’s football team. I still watch every game I can, as I have done for over three decades, now my heart is just heavy while I do it. As Davidson says, as a sports columnist, the fact that she does her “best to shed light on these issues and hopefully help move things in a positive direction, [that] serves as an outlet that helps me cope with these conflicting feelings.”

Much of this complicated fan-viewing experience seems to be relatively new, a product of a changing media landscape over the last decade or so. Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN2’s His & Hers who is fan of football and the NBA, says, “When I was coming of age as a journalist, there was a hard and fast rule about reporting on athletes’ personal lives. You just didn’t do it. And even if an athlete was accused of a crime, those stories weren’t handled by sports reporters. They were handled by news reporters who were felt to have a better understanding of those stories.” Now, though, “with the explosion of social and digital media and sports being covered on a 24-hour news cycle,” Hill says, “we’re much more aware and informed about [players’] off-field behavior.” The impact of having more information holds true for other issues as well. Hill says, “Ten years ago when I watched football and saw jarring hits, I never once thought about concussions. Today when I see a guy get the snot knocked out of him, I wonder if he has a head injury. If he returns to the game, I wonder if he’s been properly evaluated, or is a team just trying to win at all costs.”

“Sports and social issues are colliding more than they ever have.” -Jemele Hill

For Louis Moore, an associate professor of History at Grand Valley State University who writes about the history of race and sport in the US, sometimes all this attention on players’ off-field behavior worries him. Our interest is not innocuous or solely to better the world. He fears coverage can be “paternalistic, especially when it comes to the black athlete. Society has a set standard about what they think about black culture and so-called black pathology and target these athletes for minor infractions, like smoking reefer.” We enjoy policing and finger pointing, especially when it easily fits into narratives about black men and crime.

Yet, when it comes to serious violent crimes, Moore notes how media has altered our fundamental perception of what universities and leagues are interested in: “The Ray Rice situation changed everything. The video, and the lack of punishment, showed society that sports teams don’t really care about the victim or violent behavior, they just want bodies.” This is as true when a new study announces yet again the extent of CTE in brains of former football players. There is no sugar coating in moments like that.

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

On some level, we simply know so much more than we’ve ever known before. Much of what we learn about the corrupt systems that oversee our teams and the imperfect human beings who play sports contradict our imagined idea of sports as a pure, sacred space where rules are followed, people compete, and their is a winner, the impact of the game staying squarely on the field or court. There is no going back from learning this kind of knowledge that exposes the seedy underbelly of the sports we all love.

Hill thinks, in the end, this is all a good thing. “Sports and social issues are colliding more than they ever have,” she says, “but we should embrace that as an opportunity for deeper understanding and change.” Fowles echoes this. “We’re increasingly having open conversations about these things, starting a much needed dialogue about inequity and injustice. Though pro-sports is a deeply embedded boy’s club, rife with archaic ideas,” Fowles says, “I’m optimistic–more so than I ever have been–that change is possible.” For her, that belief in change, “that’s a fundamental part of the reason I keep watching and loving baseball.”

“We should embrace that as an opportunity for deeper understanding and change.” -Jemele Hill

There are times when cultural products become so corrupt or so distasteful, a person can do nothing but set them aside and move on. Perhaps one day I’ll get there with sports I love to watch. It certainly is getting harder to enjoy them. I rarely watch NFL football anymore, and less of college football now than anytime in adult life. When I do put it on, though, I still love it. I love the athleticism and the competition. I am able for short bursts to simply enjoy the sport for what it is when it is in motion, contained to the field of play.

But then a player is carted off on a stretcher because of a neck injury.

Or one player purposefully injures another.

Or someone who has committed a violent crime off the field is praised for his brutal performance on it.

Then I’m right back, trudging through that encyclopedia in my brain. This is what happens each time I am forced once more to consider the complexity of the larger cultural context of the sport I love. And each time, I find myself wishing harder than ever for change, for sport to be as good as I imagine it could be.