What am I a fan of these days? Once upon a time, I would have said the New York Mets (or, far earlier, the Brooklyn Dodgers), or the New York (football) Giants, or the New York (basketball) Knicks. No longer. I can't tell you why, but since the pandemic began, I've simply stopped doing what I had done all my life listen to "my" team on the radio, then (once a TV arrived in our house) watch them on television. I still remember, for instance, seeing Willie Mays of the New York Giants running full-speed toward the wall in center field in the eighth inning of a tied game at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series I was 10 then to basket-catch a blast by Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz. (My hometown team would win that first game and the series.) At the time, I was still watching on the black-and-white TV we had only had for a little over a year then. And from that moment until 2020, I never stopped watching sports. It was part of the background of my life. Until, at least, the pandemic came to town, I was the definition of a fan.
But it seems that I've drifted elsewhere in a rather radical fashion. After all, I haven't watched sports of any sort since Covid-19 broke on the scene. It wasn't a decision, mind you. It just happened. Who knows what the pandemic did to my internalized version of fandom? So, am I a fan of anything anymore? Well, maybe, for instance, you could call me a "fan" of Greta Thunberg. No, that Swedish teenager will never play in the Super Bowl, but her striking devotion to saving our world from the worst imaginable harm makes me, in at least some sense of the word, distinctly a fan.
As for the rest of American fandom, the focus of former New York Times sports columnist and TomDispatch jock culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte today, whether watching sports or not, all too many of us have drifted all too far off course in these years. No basket-catches or slam dunks for such fans in the era of The Donald. It's all slam bunks now. Tom
Flaming the Fans
How the Age of Trump Has Changed Fandom
If you think that the true focus of the recent World Series was what the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves were doing on the field, you were either living in Texas, Georgia, or on some billionaire's space station. In the world that lies somewhere between rabid fandom and total baseball disinterest, the fall classic actually proved to be a contest pitting the cheaters against the racists with a disturbing outcome that might be summed up this way: to the spoiled belongs the victory.
And don't think this was purely a baseball phenomenon. I can't wait to see who will be competing in next February's Super Bowl, although the most obvious early contenders are homophobia, sexism, and vaccination misinformation. As for the basketball, hockey, and Olympic seasons, I'm putting my money on the likelihood that predatory sexuality, financial inequality, and transgender discrimination will be right up there alongside the commercials for Nike and gambling.
I consider all this the upshot of what appears to be a shift in the very nature of fandom, a moral drift. Fandom has traditionally been mostly regional. In recent years, however, it has begun to take on the worst of the corrupted tribalism that has dominated so much of life outside the arena, the ballpark, and the stadium ever since Donald Trump became America's coach. Before that, sports was generally considered a crucible for character, a place to define righteous principles, or at least to pay lip service to the high road, whether anyone was on it or not.
Of course, as Trump himself was more a symptom of ongoing developments in this country than the originator of them, this moral drift in sports started years ago when TV and shoe company money further corrupted the arms-race competition among colleges for box-office athletes. Think of Trump as the blowhard who fanned the already growing flames, or perhaps more accurately by provoking the fanatics flamed the fans. This shifting sense of sports, fandom, and life in America started gathering velocity in the late 1990s as performance-enhancing drugs proliferated and the National Football League's (NFL's) ongoing cover-up of the brain traumas the sport caused so many of its players began to be revealed.
Soon enough, though, cover-ups of just about any sort became unnecessary as the world of Trumpism affirmed that the strategic use of lies and bad behavior was at least as acceptable as were well thought out personal fouls in soccer and basketball. And all of that was before the complications of the Covid-19 pandemic led professional athletes to realize that it was about time they assumed active responsibility for their own physical and mental health if they wanted to survive.
International stars like tennis champion Naomi Osaka and Olympic medal winning gymnast Simone Biles found themselves crushed by the pressure exerted on them by major sports institutions whose only interests, whatever their fates, seemed to be eternal profits. Even pro football players are becoming involved in their own mental health.
The Fall Classic
A milestone of the current moral drift was the World Series just past.
Like every major sporting event these days, it opened with a media-generated narrative. Such story lines generally feature a star's comeback (from a slump, an injury, or more recently, suspensions for drug use or domestic violence) or perhaps a franchise's chance to finally win a title and so repay a city for its endless sufferance of mediocrity and tax breaks. Such narratives help ratings and circulation. Baseball, losing popularity lately, depends on them, especially to reel in the "cool" Black audience so important to current pop culture and style.
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