Sunday, January 30, 2011


January 30, 2011, 8:30 p.m.

Super Bowl, Super Mystery
(bought to you by*)

We are sports fans. We love being sports fans, and at times, we live to be sports fans. As loyal fans we empower ourselves to break free of the realities of everyday life by joining a greater cause. We gain access to a community of others like us, a nation of people energetically united by something powerful. The only requirements for membership in this family are loyalty and a belief in the cause.

If we’re fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, we don’t care if our starting running back is originally from Kansas City, Florida, or California—he is a Chief, he is one of us, and he’s in the family. It’s irrelevant that as fans we don’t actually play in the game. We jealously covet our season tickets. We stay focused and disciplined as we, along with 80,000 of our closest friends, show off our spelling and counting skills after every touchdown. We proudly display framed Sports Illustrated covers, faded pennants, and other relics as evidence of memories that we already know will last forever. Like the players, we fans are also in the family, and we know the potential for that family is limitless.

Sports and fandom give us hope. They give us a sense of belonging. They teach us to believe in ourselves and our ability to contribute to something special. Once that opening pitch is tossed, or that ball is tipped, or that kick is returned, the outside world and all its worries and pressures quietly fade away—for we and the rest of our family are busy transcending greatness.

-- Jim Mosimann
A week from today 100 million Americans (give or take) will be watching the Super Bowl game. It's one of television's highest rated shows.

I will be a part of that audience. I have enjoyed sports of all kinds, whether participating, in the stands, or watching a television or laptop computer screen -- the skill of the athletes, the thrill of the last minutes of play that so often determine the outcome.

But I've always been a bit mystified by what I will call "extreme fandom" for the professional, commercial, TV performers (players) in the for-profit TV shows called, for example, "professional football." See Ken Belson, "Rapid Fans Put Dallas on Their Itinerary," New York Times, January 31, 2011.

A family friend, now deceased, was such a Denver Broncos fan that he would stand, watching their every game on television -- for the entire game. I guess it was a gesture of respect. There are fans who travel to all of "their team's" games, like the Deadheads who used to follow the Grateful Dead from concert to concert. Fans dress in their team's colors, like the "bumblebees" who dress in Iowa's black and gold for Hawkeyes' football games.

They are willing to follow directions on what "uniform" they should wear to the game (for the benefit of, among others, the television cameras). At Iowa's last Homecoming game, all the fans seemed to have followed the instructions on their tickets regarding whether they should dress all in black or in gold. It made for striking TV coverage.

At Penn State they are all sometimes told to wear white -- and obediently do so. Penn State seems to have a formula for whipping up the fans' enthusiasm before and during the games. Here is what they call their "Penn State Football Crowd Pump Up Video" from 2008:

What is it I find so mysterious about this?

I can understand how one would be a "fan" of their high school, or even college, teams. After all, at that stage of your life the school is a major part of your community, your circle of friends; and the players are people you at least see regularly off the field, and may even have as acquaintances or friends.

Even so, some might suggest we're even carrying high school, and junior high, sports to extremes, as the New York Times reports this morning about a little town not that far from what will be the Super Bowl stadium next Sunday.

"The $60 million football stadium at Allen [Texas; population 650 in the 1960s, 85,000 now] High School, where [Steve] Williams is the athletic director, was starting to take shape. . . . To the residents, who voted 63 percent in favor of a $119 million bond in May 2009, this project, which includes the stadium, an auditorium for fine arts and a service center for the district, is designed to scale. Their scale just happens to be larger than most. . . . Chris Tripucka [owner of the souvenir shop, Eagle Designs, says] 'I’ve been around sports all my life. You can’t explain it to people who don’t live here. You have to experience it.' . . . The new stadium . . . will hold 18,000 spectators in a sunken bowl designed to improve sightlines . . . [and] include a two-tier press box, an indoor golf practice area, a high-definition video scoreboard, a practice room for wrestling, and enough parking for every car in Dallas . . .. 'Look, football has always been a big deal here,' Williams said."
Greg Bishop, "A $60 Million Palace for Texas High School Football," New York Times, January 30, 2011, p. SP1.

A little over four years ago, Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford, who provides NPR's listeners a little sports insight every Wednesday morning, noticed this "big deal" seemed to be forcing its way into junior high schools as well.
"I've decided to rewrite my will. . . . [T]he bulk of my estate is going where it's really needed -- to . . . help renovate the weight room and build a 20,000-seat football stadium with a retractable roof for the disadvantaged little fourth and fifth grade student athletes at my alma mater. . . . [R]ather than correcting all the abuses of college athletics, we Americans are instead simply taking all that's wrong with college sports down to high school. . . . Just as colleges recruit high school players, now high schools scout middle schoolers. There are now newsletters which identify the best sixth grade prospects in the nation. . . . And given good old American know-how, I figure that by the time I'm pushing up daisies the same sins will have reached the elementary school level."
Frank Deford, "Sweetness And Light: College Sports Excesses Seep into High Schools," Morning Edition, NPR News, September 27, 2006.

I spent much of the 1950s in Texas, a state for which I still have a great deal of fascination and affection. So it didn't surprise me that Greg Bishop was able to pick up on the fact that Texas is a "state where only football supersedes faith and family." But I have to admit that it surprised even me when he quoted the Allen High "fine arts director" saying, “It’s controlled chaos. There’s an energy you can’t describe. When they say football is like religion in Texas, it’s true." Knowing a little something about "religion in Texas," as well, that's not comforting.

Maybe finding an analogy for fandom in religion is helpful. After all, Mosimann mentioned "transcending greatness." Does a part of the explanation for fandom have something to do with being a part of a crowd of like believers, what he calls "a sense of belonging"? Are Mosimann's "80,000 closest friends" in the stadium, or the 18,000 Allen High fans in its new stadium, attracted to joining fandom for reasons related to the reasons those 24,000 Texans had for joining Houston's megachurch, Second Baptist?
Second Baptist is the second-largest "megachurch" in the U.S., a modern cathedral complex the size of an airport terminal. Inside "E Gym," where the congregation's "small" Saturday evening service is being held, two basketball courts full of believers in jeans and flip-flops rock out, sing along or just watch as a huge contemporary band jams to the song "Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?" [Photo credit: Jessica Kourkounis, AP.]

White and yellow stage lights hit the rising smoke before the performance cools down for the opening prayer. The sermon stops for applause as the audience watches an video projected overhead of a Christian-gone-wild beach retreat, where the church baptized nearly 700 teenagers.

Spread across five campuses, Second Baptist has about 24,000 people attending one or another of its programs each week. The church has fitness centers, bookstores, information desks, a café, a K-12 school and free automotive repair service for single mothers. The annual budget: $53 million.
Jesse Bogan, "America's Biggest Megachurches; Rock bands, jumbotron screens, buckets of tears and oodles of money. Meet the next wave of Christian worship," Forbes, June 26, 2009.

But it's not college -- or even junior high -- sports fans that I find so mysterious.

It's the fandom gone wild for the commercial pro teams.

I have a colleague who makes a practice of rooting for whichever team happens to be ahead at the time during the Super Bowl game, or other athletic contests. I am not quite that fickle. Green Bay has always fascinated me, primarily I suppose because of the community ownership of the team. ("The Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned franchise in American professional sports major leagues." Green Bay Packers, Because Carroll Rosenbloom was a family friend, when he owned the Baltimore Colts, and I lived in Washington, I took a greater interest in that team.

But I've never become a rabid fan of any one professional team. Maybe it's because Iowa has none. If you live in Iowa and want to be a fan of a professional team, your only choices are at least a couple hundred miles away in another state.

Professional teams are not like school teams. College sports may be big business, but it's nothing like the multi-billion-dollar industry that is the TV show called "professional sports." When you're watching a pro football game you're watching 22 millionaires -- few, if any, of whom have any connection to your home town -- playing for two billionaires. (See this morning's AP column from Tim Dahlberg, "After This Super Bowl the Real Games Begin," Associated Press/Yahoo! Sports, January 29, 2011 ("The billionaires believe they gave the farm away five years ago when they caved in to an agreement with the millionaires in Paul Tagliabue's last big act as commissioner. They seem determined to get it back, no matter what the cost."). Moreover, they're playing in a multi-hundred-million-dollar stadium most likely built at taxpayer expense for the billionaire -- who then charges ticket prices that many of those taxpayers can't afford to pay.

To become emotionally involved, to the point of cheering yourself hoarse, over such a corporation, while dressed in its colors and logos, always seemed to me somewhat analogous to arguments regarding the comparative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, or Coke and Pepsi.

Teaching Sports Law this semester has (so far) been rewarding from a number of perspectives -- mostly having to do with the quality, and enthusiasm, of the students. One day I shared with them my near-lifelong perplexity regarding fandom for professional teams. It produced a lively discussion -- including the essay/poem of Jim Mosimann's with which I led today's blog.

It seems to explain about as much as can be explained about the phenomenon called fandom.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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