Monday, November 27, 2006

On Fanaticism

Main Entry: fan
Function: noun
Etymology: probably short for fanatic
1 : an enthusiastic devotee (as of a sport or a performing art) usually as a spectator
2 : an ardent admirer or enthusiast (as of a celebrity or a pursuit) fans

Sports fanaticism, defined both by enthusiasm and enduring devotion, is actually a comparatively rare thing. Few people are capable of unconditional love for anything, much less an athletic team. And for those who define themselves as fans, it is its own specific variety of love. In hockey, perhaps in other sports as well, fans speak of their team like a second family that they’ve never actually met, but which remains family nevertheless. Children tell me that the team is like their mother, and mothers tell me that the team is like their child. My peers say, this is my father’s team, I grew up with them, they shared my home.

What is this team to which they bind themselves? Certainly not the players, who are constantly being traded around the League like a pack of 700- some cards, shuffled and reshuffled. In fact, a lot of hockey fans spend their time fantasizing about such rearrangement. Neither is it the other people, the coaches, the managers, the owners, for such are also shuffled around- perhaps at a slower rate than players, but just as inevitably. Is the loyalty to the symbols, like a flag representing no nation, just colors and logos? These too change- some more often or more dramatically than others, but there is nothing necessary or true about them. Is it the city? The teams are not owned by the city, they are owned by individuals or corporations, and as private property they may be bought, sold, and moved as the owner sees fit, and indeed this also happens. Even the names of the teams change over time- some teams have been fortunate enough not to undergo such catastrophic an experience as renaming, but this is purely luck. The team that exists in a given moment is more or less an accident, bearing no necessary relationship to the team that was before, nor those that will be in the future.

We conventionally believe that fans are defined by their team- when I tell people I watch hockey, they ask me who my team is. However, the deeper truth is the reverse: teams are defined by their fans. The team, as a unified entity, exists only in the minds of fans. The love of a team is embedded in a sense of history, and it is the fans’ history. The fan is the thing that holds constant for years on end. It is the memory of fans alone that unites all the disparate elements- the symbols and names and cities and people- into a thing with a character all its own, that distinctive creature that is the Canadiens, or the Leafs, or the Oilers. The love of fans is what gives the game weight, meaning, purpose, what creates the rivalries and the legends. It’s what makes hockey, paradoxically, more than just a game. Much has been said on the problems for teams that find themselves without fans- the economic insecurity, the lack of motivation, but the problem goes far beyond than this: A team without fans has no memory, no history, and in fact no existence outside of the present moment. A team without fans is a fiction, an urban legend, a rumor.

The public pride of a fan comes from an accumulation of great moments, reprocessed into an glorious narrative and a personal identity, but the devotion comes as much from the memory of failure as from the recollection of success. They will boast of great players and Stanley Cups, especially when confronted by fans of different allegiance. But amongst themselves, late at night and in friendly company, they will speak of the hard times, the injury-plagued seasons, losing streaks, bad trades, as though these were the dark ages of their own lives, their own struggles. This, they say, is the time when we carried the team, when we still came to games and cheered again and again even as the losses mounted, even as the press howled, even as the players themselves seemed to give up all hope of success. We held. We remembered. And this, too, ultimately is a source of pride, just as the recovery from an illness or an addiction becomes a source of joy once the dangers have passed.

My own fandom is of poor quality, not only because it is new and has no memory, but because it is so invested in the actual team rather than the idea of the team. I have developed somehow an immoderate affection for the Canadiens I was given, the particular configuration of players and staff and symbols which exist at this point, the game they are capable of, in this moment. As such, my affection is fragile. Next year there will be some trades and hirings and firings, and in five years the team will be substantially different, and in fifteen it will be completely different, and what will become of my fanaticism then? Will it transfer to the new moment’s version of the Habs? Will it become diffused throughout the League, following different players as they pursue their careers wherever fortune leads them? Will it evaporate altogether? Or will I someday see some game performed in Nashville or Minnesota or Calgary that will recapture my love on new terrain?

Still, with the exception of myself, the Canadiens are fortunate in their fans. Not merely the quantity of them, but the depth of their investment and the length of their memories. I realize that this sounds like a strange thing to say about a fan community which is known particularly for its shrill yapping and sharp teeth, but there is always a price. Even the most good-natured fans of any team are still mercurial in their emotions, and as in the rest of life, to be loved dearly over a period of decades is to be in a position of considerable scrutiny, and to bear much criticism. At least the Habs have bought something worthwhile with their tolerance, for they may be very nearly the most real team in all of hockey, transformed from transience into permanence by the sustained affection of a loud, contentious, slightly deranged mass of fans. Win or lose and no matter who the players are, they will be mostly adored and occasionally loathed passionately and publicly. They will never have to play to a half-empty stadium, unable to even give away tickets to an indifferent public. They will never see hockey coverage dropped from the local paper. They will never be unable to find a television station to carry their games. They will never fizzle away into irrelevance, even in the worst season. Their present will never be just an isolated moment in time, but a passing part of a story that veers from the tragic to the epic and back again. They will always mean something.

We should all be so loved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written, but makes me so sad that I want to move away from the city that I otherwise really love; Phoenix.