I was listening to the best sports talk radio program in Chicago the other day and the discussion of hero worship and idolization of athletes came up. I started an e-mail to the show, but soon realized it was going to get long, much longer than anything that could be read on air. As the discussion continued, I kept on writing and well this is the slightly edited version of those thoughts. Dan Bernstein and Laurence Holmes this is your fault.
Basically as the final defenders of Lance Armstrong breathed their last, a whole host of new defenders came rushing to the aid of Manti Te’o, he of the fake girlfriend and at the very least guilty of extreme dim-wittedness. I’m not so much concerned with the specifics of Te’o’s case, but why when the story broke were so many so ready to defend a young man from any accusations of wrong-doing. Before Te’o spoke to the press, Notre Dame came out swinging that Te’o was the victim of a hoax and that was it, even though the story had been out for only a few hours and more bizarre details were still to come. At least Notre Dame has a stake in the image of Te’o, many people from the general public to members of the press also took to defending Te’o. Some in the press were defending themselves more than Te’o themselves, but it is still at the heart the same issue. The question then, is why? Why do so many go out of their way to defend someone or some institution that is obviously guilty of some wrong, scandalous our downright hideous?
I won’t say I know for certain, but I think it comes down to a certain kind of tribalism. It is a community reaction, a groupthink if you will, that is personal, almost visceral. It is a tie to personal identity that in many ways mirrors ethnicity, race and nationalism. In some ways it transcends those concepts and gives us a group identity within a modern context. It is more than simple group identity, however because there is a personal dynamic that also comes into play when one is a fan of not just sport teams, but of individuals in many other areas such as music, television, film and really anywhere else that success breeds celebrity.
It may be a bit of a cliché, but people identify with their sport teams to such a level that it goes beyond cheering and support, but it becomes a part of who they are. It is why when they talk about the team they refer to it as “we” even though the only connection they have with the team is as consumer. Sure, it can feel as though one is valued. I love getting personal e-mails from the White Sox, the reminders of ticket sales, the little perks of being a season ticket holder. For me, however, it ends there. I don’t feel as though I’m part of the organization. For many those waters getting even muddier when college sports enter the picture. Not only is it a team playing a sport, it is MY school that is playing, and it easily becomes “we.” When one enters into that kind of relationship with any entity, the need to support that entity becomes paramount, sometimes to absolute absurd ends.
The best example of this is the reaction of the Penn State fan base to the sanctions levied against the football team in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Many fans identify themselves as victims of a great injustice that they are “pissed off” about what the NCAA has done to them. They want to place all the blame on the monster that is Jerry Sandusky, but simply refuse to see that Penn State, as an institution, was guilty of great wrongs as well. While this is the worst recent example, many other fan bases have reacted similarly. A siege mentality takes over and more. It becomes denial. A denial that something that one has vested so much into, personal identity, personal value, money, time can do something wrong. Many will say that it comes down to loyalty, that if one’s team breaks the rules (or worse) well it is one’s duty to defend the team. Of course there is no real reward for such loyalty except on the personal level. By defending my team, in essence my identity, then I don’t feel so guilty about supporting them, that I haven’t invested so poorly, that in some cases, like Penn State, I haven’t supported evil. Since I know that I’m not the only one, the only fan, we can band together, we can support one another against those that are striking our beloved institution.
Why do sports fans give so much to their teams? I think it has something with a need to feel connected, to be a part of something greater than ourselves. It is a natural inclination and for many that need is fulfilled by church, organizations, and other fellowships. Yet nothing compares to the investment made by so many into sport. I think that there is another urge or compulsion at work and that is one of excellence. We are drawn to physical excellence. We are in awe of what some of us can do with the body, how it can go beyond the place where so many of us are. Strength, grace, precision and so many other things make us simply stop and say wow. It is hard to get that from the Elk’s Club. We want to be amazed and very few things deliver quite like sports, especially in a group.
As we see these feats, we want to believe that those that we admire are inherently good that we are not cheering and rooting for cheats, liars or criminals. Unfortunately all of those elements are within the arena of sports. Even more unfortunate, fans defend those bad elements and even insist that their team isn’t as bad as others, evidence to the contrary. I think people ultimately want to believe that people are basically good and that those they admire are especially so.
This last point is especially tricky and it goes beyond sports. For example, I would like to think that the aforementioned Dan Bernstein is a nice guy, good to his kids and a decent human being. I spend a considerable part of my week listening to his show as I work and it is easy to feel like I know him. Of course I don’t know him, at all. For all I know he beats his kids, cheats on his wife and shaves stray kittens. I would like to think the best of Dan, but I honestly don’t really want to meet him or anyone I admire, like Trey Anastasio or Neil Gaiman. I don’t want to find out that they are jerks and let’s face it: the more famous a person is, the more likely they will be a bit egotistical at the least, a complete piece of crap at the worst. I think that is the best way to view our heroes; from a distance not giving them more credit than they deserve. That way when they engage in unsavory or horrible behavior we aren’t so disappointed. Perhaps that way those heroes won’t fall so far and we won’t feel the need to defend institutions that are untenable. I don’t think, or want people to stop enjoying sports or music or movies. I would like it if people realize that everyone, even those we love, are not infallible and it isn’t our duty to defend them.