Friday, June 13, 2014

Trying to Be the Better Fan

About a year ago, I found myself being introduced to a member of the Sounders' arch-rival Portland Timbers (the rivalry has its own Wikipedia page if you need to be brought up to speed). The introduction was a chance meeting. I ran into an acquaintance who is affiliated with the Sounders and he just happened to be hanging out with this member of the Timbers.

The friend introduced him, jokingly, as "the enemy." Instead of taking the bait, though, I answered back more simply: "no one's on the field right now."

Granted, I'd like to think I have enough class that I wouldn't make some snide remark to a fellow human being simply because of the logo on his professional uniform. That said, in today's world of anonymous or quasi-anonymous commentary on various online channels, I cannot say that everyone has the same restraint.

A brief look through Twitter at any moment will show buckets of vitriol and that's not even getting into the cesspool that is most internet comment boards. It extends offline, too. Now and then, there's a story about someone's car being keyed because it had a logo sticker of a disliked team. Fans of the Dodgers and Giants seem hell bent on killing each other. Fights among fans are woefully common in NFL stadiums.

Some of this, too, is spurred on by our national sports media. Growing up a Yankees fan, I always wanted to beat Boston, but I don't think it was until 2000 or so when beating Boston seemed critical to the self-esteem of many New Yorkers I lived around. Around that time, ESPN started making sure every last piece of minutiae of the rivalry was given intense coverage.

It's funny, with sports... it's a mass activity that is tremendously personal. There have been studies that show that when "your team" wins, it validates "you." The energy you put in to cheering and the time you spend following the team are all worth it. Lately, though, it seems like it's no longer enough for your team to win, as much as leave a trail of scorched earth through your rivals and all attached to them. When a team wins, many of its fans look to further bury fans of a losing team, rather than simply celebrating. When a team loses, its fans often turn the anger toward the very team they cheer for... often instead of tipping the cap to the victors.

The hard truth of being a sports fan: the team will lose. In some cases, more often than not. When it comes to championships, the hard truth is that, from a simple math/probabilities standpoint, your team will likely not win it. But outrage often wins the day instead of acceptance of the odds.

In truth, that's a natural reaction to things we take very personally. I, though, was finding that it was getting in my way of enjoying the games I love.

Even 10 years ago when I lived in New York, I made a decision that I was done attending Yankees-Red Sox games. Honestly, they weren't any fun. A stadium full of Yankees fans was rooting at least as hard for Boston to lose as for the Yankees to win.

A quick aside: few years ago, I started playing craps. It's a much simpler game than it looks like and, in most American casinos, it carries the best odds in the house. The entry-level bet - a Pass Line bet - is a very simple 50-50 bet: when you make a Pass Line bet, you are betting the person with the dice will win their turn. Everyone makes a Pass Line bet... except the one guy who makes the "Don't Pass" bet. That guy? He's betting on the roller to lose. In doing so, he's also betting against everyone with a Pass Line bet in a sense. And, sure, he has the same odds to win as the Pass Line bettors. But given the choice between two equally-likely outcomes, would you pick the one that makes everyone happy or the one that doesn't? Do you root for something or against?

Why on Earth would Yankees fans - this team has won 27 World Series... nearly 1/4 of all World Series ever played - put energy into anything but rooting for their team? It made no sense. I found myself giving the side eye to people in New York wearing Red Sox apparel... because why now? I remember reading stores of New Yorkers and Bostonians who said they "could never marry" a fan of their rival team. How awful to fall in love and have to endure cheering for opposite teams! You might even have to be happy for your spouse instead of wallowing in your own despair!

College sports are the worst. I have seen otherwise normal people turn into some of the most hateful people in the world over college athletics. The things UNC fans say about Duke... these are supposed to be polite southern people, no? UNC is, by the way, the New York Yankees of college basketball, but the moment their team falters, it's rage. When Duke beats UNC in basketball, I have seen people say things that I cannot imagine them saying in any other circumstances.

It's silly.

About the time I met the member of the Timbers, I realized that the only thing I could do was try to be the better fan. I've dialed back the way I approach rivalry games. I desperately want the Sounders to beat the Timbers for regional bragging rights... but I desperately want the Sounders to win every game. The Timbers could be from Thunder Bay... I still want three points.

When the Timbers lose (or have a hilarious draw like they did the other night), I may chuckle... but I'm keeping it to myself. Their results aren't a reason for me to go harass some people who, once they take their jerseys/hats/scarves/team-apparel-of-choice off, I might actually find to be interesting people.

I'm not much of an NBA fan anymore. I have my reasons, mainly dealing with invented drama in a league that I feel has no parity, but it doesn't mean I need to go tell NBA fans why what they're watching is bad. I can let them watch - and enjoy - their game.

Because it is just a game. It's something we pay attention (and money) to for escape from our daily routines/lives. It's fun to yell and cheer. But when the final whistle blows, we all go back to our families, jobs and lives. We're not the jerseys we wear. We're people.

So, I'm making the resolution: be the better fan. So far, it's having its rewards.