By J.P. Pelosi
There’s a prevailing idea in popular culture that sports fans must be loyal to their team — forever. This heavy burden, which is typically imposed from a young age, not only demands an incredible commitment, but also whips up barroom debate whenever the chips are down for the club in question. Let’s face it, the chips are often in short supply for many teams, but perhaps none have been more empty-handed of late than the New York Knicks.
So I’ve been wondering why fans of such teams remain so blindly dedicated to them, particularly when owners and their management seem to operate in spite of their support? Listen, if your chief goal is to make money, and certainly when you run a corporatized sporting club it is, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your fan base is the top priority. I know this as a part-time fan of the Toronto Raptors, a club that’s preferred low impact spending sprees over the past 20 years to thoughtfully building a winning team and culture. Thankfully that’s changed lately, but man it’s been soul wrenching existence to this point — an exercise in supplanting one’s love of the game in order to stick with the team.
In light of this, the sports fan, unlike many punters who seek and often pay for what is essentially popular entertainment, is really held to a different standard. After all, I loved Bon Jovi growing up in the eighties, especially their album Slippery When Wet, but does that early affiliation require me to serve a lifetime commitment? I actually still like Bon Jovi, though certainly feel a particular nostalgia for their earlier work, and I don’t imagine anyone takes issue with this. Indeed many of us follow similar trajectories in our cultural journeys, along which our tastes change and our idea of what’s worth committing to — at least in the present phase of our lives — develops, shifts, or expands. Though I’m sure for some people that a band like The Rolling Stones were the benchmark of rock and roll in 1971, and remain so today. This happens, for better or worse.
Sporting club loyalties are different, however, mostly because they don’t produce singular outputs that are easy to return to after a long absence, the way you’d return to, say, The Stones’ Sticky Fingers album. Let’s also not forget that Mick Jagger still quarterbacks the Stones, so to speak, while on any given sports team, the players seem to change annually. And so as fans, we’re continually asked to support the club or the jersey, not the front man in the jersey. This can be a testing practice, because it means one’s sentiments toward a particular team must be sort of esoteric in nature, impenetrable because they reflect the tastes of a group.
While there is strength in numbers, long-term fandom requires a completely illogical state of mind, because undoubtedly your feelings about your team will change as you grow older and your world views are shaped, despite the collective ideas or passions of anyone else.
Which leads to the simple question: We form and join tribes, but are we beholden to them forever?
The majority of fans will continue to love their teams despite lengthy periods of losing, or the deplorable behavior of some players, or even the incompetence of front offices. That’s the life of a fan— you roll with the punches. But there are extenuating circumstances — surely. For example, as I’ve watched the Knicks fall from their intoxicating highs — a club that’s almost unrivaled in the excitement it seems to generate when it succeeds — I’ve questioned how even the loyalist Knicks fan can maintain a passion for, or even an interest in, a team that hasn’t been relevant since before Facebook. Some fans haven’t budged. But, fortunately, there are those who see their fandom in isolation, separate from the madness of peer pressure, like filmmaker Brian Koppelman, who against the grain, questioned his allegiance to the Knicks in a short essay that he wrote for Grantland, a few years back.
We can decide to recognize that the team we loved does not exist anymore. That it can never exist as long as the Dolans own it. We can decide to see the Knicks for what they actually are, not what we wish them to be, like the husband who realizes, finally, after everyone else has told him, that his wife is not only cheating, but poisoning his mac and cheese. I am done eating poisoned mac and cheese. And I am done with the New York Knicks. Let’s go, Brooklyn!
If you’re a Knicks fans and spitting your Ruffles right now as Kristaps Porzingis throws it down, naive to Koppelman’s brave declaration of 2012, it’s worth thinking about the purity of his stance. What’s easy to miss — and you need to read the entire piece to understand this — is that the man clearly loves the game, and has a history with it, which is why he’s demanding a higher standard. We could argue over what it means to be a real fan until the end of time, but a genuine passion for the sport should count for something. It just might be everything, in fact. (Koppelman seems to have reluctantly stuck with the Knicks since writing that piece).
And still, we’re led to believe that our initial sporting bonds, the ones between each of us and our respective clubs, must hold firm.
It’s in our blood
Some sportswriters, like Bill Simmons, typically cry foul at the ‘team switching’ notion, insulating themselves from such fair-weather nonsense with a fraternal-like bond for the team they grew up with. Fair enough. I imagine that it’d be near impossible for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, or indeed Boston Red Sox supporters like Simmons, living in those respective cities during their formative years, to disassociate from the home club — no matter the circumstances of the day. Changing allegiances is never even suggested in these towns, which is why so many people seem to bristle whenever the topic rears up.
You get this sense in Toronto, where the majority of residents are devotees of the storied but long-suffering Maple Leafs hockey club, which is so ingrained on the city’s consciousness that an almost 50-year Stanley Cup drought has done little to curb enthusiasm for the team. I lived in Toronto for a short while and the commitment of local hockey fans was so steely that I’m pressed to think of supporters in any sport that could surpass its level of fanaticism, though I’m certain many towns would promptly offer their own examples — be it the Celtics in Boston, the Browns in Cleveland, the Canadiens in Montreal, or, say, Liverpool fans in English soccer. There are, of course, numerous places where a single club is as much a part of the city as its most beloved diner. I mean the experience of following the Green Bay Packers from within the city limits must embolden the locals like few sporting experiences could, mostly because of the colorful history and tremendous success of the team, and certainly because of celebrated names like Lombardi and Favre, who are as integral to the sport’s fabric as Knute Rockne, Pete Rozelle and Monday Night Football.
Infantile and ignoble
When it comes to fan loyalty, I often think about the Seattle Supersonics. It’s certainly hard to rationalize undying dedication to any professional sports clubs when a sudden break-up is possible, isn't it? But sports fans so deeply care about their teams, as seen by Seattle’s ongoing campaign to win back its club, and this is at the very heart of being a fan — the infantile and ignoble joy — as the great writer Roger Angell once called it. The problem is that when you lay your heart on the line, you don’t always count on the irrepressible powers of commerce. I imagine Seattle’s story wouldn’t have felt so cruel had its collective adoration amounted to a few more championship banners.
When our passion has been bled dry though, there’s little left but numbers formed by dimly lit bulbs on a scoreboard.