Anatomy of the Sports Fan
The flags are out again.
The yellow-and-purple banners flicker in the breeze, mounted on the SUVs of dedicated Los Angeles Laker fans who demonstrate their fealty to the 14-time NBA Champions by wearing replica accused-rapist jerseys and plastering their homes and vehicles with admonitory signs.
If it all seems vaguely fascist, it’s because Laker fans — and Piston fans, and every other group of fanatics who “support” a professional sports team — are devoting their passion not to a real team or a community but to a color scheme. Indeed, the “Lakers” are a franchise transplanted from Minnesota, where the nickname Lakers actually makes sense.
The army that represents the sports fan’s country isn’t comprised of volunteer athletes who love their community. Pro sports teams are put together like this: A rich guy, the owner, compiles the best roster of mercenaries available. And when one of them is injured or fails to consistently throw a ball through a metal ring, he’s replaced by someone better, usually from a community far, far away, where only yesterday the newly transferred gun-for-hire was wearing a completely different (and hated) color scheme. Many of the players who toil for a particular city don’t even live there. (Which, when your paymaster is Green Bay, Wisconsin, is understandable.) The beautiful warriors that capture the hearts of the thousands are dedicated not to a place (or even an idea of place) but to themselves.
The Lakers, according to most fretful reports, will be “broken up” after this season. The hastily assembled cast of future hall of famers and their less famous minions will be gravely altered, with some of the biggest stars, including Kobe Bryant, if he isn’t sent to prison, toiling for rival teams. Just as Laker fans didn’t root for Karl Malone and Gary Payton last year, when they sold their services to cities other than Los Angeles, they surely won’t be rooting for Kobe and company when they’re wearing colors other than purple and yellow.
So what, exactly, is the sports fan a fan of? Pretty uniforms?
Most diehard rooters confuse sports teams, which are often just a wealthy playboy’s high-profile toy, with something that they own. (Arena announcers encourage this misapprehension: “And now, please welcome your Los Angeles Lakers.” The most piteous fans consider themselves part of the team, as in “We didn’t rebound well last night, the refs were against us, but we still managed to win in overtime thanks to my dog, KG.” But the truth is, they are merely consumers whose appetite for this particular entertainment product has been encouraged and enlarged by the false pretext that the games actually mean something. It’s far more psychologically exciting to see battles about civic honor and tradition and all that than it is to see a bunch of inarticulate genetic anomalies run up and down a wooden floor.
We like watching physiological freaks like Shaquille O’Neal performing acrobatic pirouettes. We like watching human beings who can run like gazelles. But we would enjoy these individuals no matter who paid them to twist and shout. Unless we’re betting on the outcome, we don’t care who wins the game, or the championship. If Los Angeles wins another NBA title, nothing will be different about the city — except that the flag-makers will have to stock up on purple and yellow fabric.