Day 19: You’re a Fucking Bum

We’re winding down. The temperature in Ann Arbor today is in the 60s. The sky is blue. We’ve all started to check out and to go, at least mentally, our separate ways. I have mixed feelings. Summers, of course, are when the college teaching gig really pays big. And in my case in particular, the end of this term means the end of two semesters of horrible, exhausting weekly commuting back and forth between my home in St. Louis and my job at Michigan. But I still feel a little sad. I’ve grown attached to this course, and to the students in it. They’ve worked hard, their writing and class participation have been excellent. I’ve felt rejuvenated as a teacher and, in some ways, as a person. The course was the realization of a dream I hadn’t even realized I had and for that reason, no matter how many times I teach it in again, this semester, this one class I think will always hold a uniquely special place in my heart. The other day we had a lively discussion that in many ways captured this for me.

We didn’t talk about the assigned reading (an excellent chapter on the point scoring renaissance, unleashed in part through imaginative positional innovations, ushered in by the Mavs, Kings, and Suns in the early 2000s). We didn’t look at any clips. A brief discussion of the Men’s and Women’s NCAA national championship games, and of media coverage, drifted into a spirited discussion of the meaning of being a fan.

This was particularly interesting in that in many ways it returned us to our beginning-of-semester state – remember? – where I at least was hyper-conscious of the course as consisting of players and fans. Only back then it was a problem I worried over a little bit. And part of what was especially rewarding about this conversation was the way it subtly indicated how far we had all come in being able to relate to each other as human beings first, and as players or fans second, or, really, third. I mean that the discussion was marked by a consciousness that we mostly inhabit different sides of the out of bounds lines, but that consciousness led not to separation or antagonism, but to an enhanced collective understanding of the issues in play when talking about fans.

Among the players, there was a strong, touching sense, of dependency on fan support. More than one clearly voiced the feeling that fan support, especially when expressed loudly in the arena (but not only there) motivated and inspired them, and helped them find new levels of intensity on the court. But the flip side of that also emerged: a desire to be supported and loved by the fans, a desire for the fans to be informed and knowledgeable, to understand individual and team strengths and limitations and to adopt a broad perspective on this basis. Even more interestingly, though these particular players at least are thoughtful and measured in their words, there was a certain resentment of the segment of fan culture that loses sight of these things.

On the other side, the fans (i.e. the students in the class who don’t play for the UM Men’s Basketball Team) were certainly understanding of the players feelings. But they were also firm and articulate in expressing the feelings that lead fans to passionate, at times unfair, criticism of their beloved teams and the players on them. Fans talked about feeling that the teams (whether pro or college, but we were especially talking about the college game I guess) represented them and that they experienced the players’ behavior and performance on the court as a reflection of themselves (the fans). Even Coach John Beilein of the UM team, who came to class yesterday to speak briefly with us, said that he tries to keep present and to impress upon his players that you can’t have the adulation and attention of 13,000 people without accepting your accountability to them.

That certainly seemed reasonable put in those terms. But does accountability also mean that you have to accept vitriol, an every manifestation of the volatile roller coaster of emotion that fans experience? That’s a heavy burden to bear, I said. I wondered aloud how many of us as students and faculty are mindful of representing the University of Michigan in our public behavior – in bars or other Ann Arbor business establishments, in airports, on the web. Maybe it’s not exactly the same thing. I know that players, students, and faculty all participate in the University in slightly different ways (faculty get paid, students pay, and players, well, that’s it’s own thing). But whether we have deliberately signed up for it or not, our public behavior, once we are known to be associated with the University, shapes the opinion of the general public of what Michigan is about. Whether or not that’s fair – it is and isn’t at the same time, I think — is probably beside the point. My point was just to try to get across that the players don’t stop being human beings any more than the other students do, or than I do, just because we are associated with the University of Michigan. And as such, like the rest of us, they will sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes their attitude or behavior will leave something to be desired. Sometimes they will make errors in judgment. Sometimes their performance will fall short of hopes and even of reasonable expectations.

I think every student in the class understood this point and accepted it. And they were quick to affirm — and to look straight at the players in the class in saying so — how much of their fan experience involves pride, joy, gratitude, and a vicarious relishing of another’s excellence. But they rightly asserted that being a fan isn’t only cheering and especially that it isn’t only – or even mainly – about what’s rational. It’s about feelings. And they insisted on their right to experience the emotions awakened by identifying with a group of young men, and investing in the outcome of events, that they had finally very little control over.

As a fan myself, I wouldn’t want to argue with that. As a teacher, not just of basketball, but of human experience and its cultural manifestations (of which fandom is one), I also wanted to complicate and challenge that assertion. At the very least, I wanted to acknowledge the validity of the feelings while also putting the focus on the choices that we as fans make in how we deal with those valid feelings. As I’ve written here before, in some ways, this has become more important and more urgently impressed upon me as a result of this class. I mean, by the experience of getting to know to varying degrees the players on the team as adolescents, as young men, as college students; the disorienting experience of seeing them on national television – covered (I mean the word pointedly) by the media – and feeling the shock of familiarity at seeing that young face that I see twice a week in class, only now that face is looking anxious from the bench at the action on the court, or that face is lighting up with joy at some successful play, or that face seems a mask covering what I can only imagine are a rapidly evolving range of emotions in the wake of an error or setback, or that face seems to be fighting tears. These are my students and I care about them.

And that has led me, I confessed to the class, to try my best to employ a different criteria in my public and private fandom. It’s simple, but hard: I try to say or write about a player only what I would say to his or her face. This is new to me. Perhaps it is old news to many of you who have more experience covering and writing about sports than I do, though I have to say the media doesn’t seem very mindful of it by and large. As a fan, as an individual human being, I have a right to experience my full range of human emotions. And as an individual human being who must – who wants – to live with and feel connected to other human beings, I think I have an ethical responsibility to process those feelings in ways that keep present and don’t diminish the reality of other human beings. That includes athletes. And that includes athletes getting paid millions and millions of dollars, essentially, to entertain me. I think I can complain and criticize. But I think I ought to do so in ways that can meet the standard face to face communication.

It’s not that I think that totally covers my responsibility as a person. After all, I can be as much of an asshole to someone’s face as anyone else. But for me, at least, it’s a good start because imagining the real person really in front of me, imagining the look in their eyes, the way their muscles tighten, as I begin to say that I hate them, that they are losers, that they have no business being out there, that they are a waste, that they’re a piece of trash – imagining all that creates a pause in which I can reflect on my feelings and choose my words with a little more care.

I think I rambled a bit on this point in class, as I think I’m doing now. I think I probably let my point extend to culture in general. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. I’m aware as I write that I’m looking at a computer screen and that I’ll send this off where it will be read mostly by people I will never see. And I’m aware of how much of my time, of our time, is spent in interactions like this. I know I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. And I don’t mean to be hectoring or pontificating, let alone some kind of cop. I just mean to speak for myself and to let that resonate to whatever degree it will: I don’t think my experience as a fan or a person would be diminished by holding myself to the standard of only saying or writing what I would say to someone in person. Maybe this small constraint would stimulate me to be more creative and imaginative in my expression of emotion.

I think, too, that it’s important for me to try to practice this in the privacy of my own home as I watch games as it is in what I might say in a public forum. And the reason for that is that I think it is, in fact, a practice. For me at least, it’s not reasonable to expect that I can in the privacy of my home permit to flourish one sort of unrestrained expression of my fandom and then expect in public to regularly cultivate another sort. Or maybe it’s reasonable, but I don’t think it’s healthy for me. Public and private aren’t the same, and I’m okay with that distinction, don’t get me wrong. But with certain spheres of my behavior and my culture, I think it’s best for me to cultivate in private what I’d like to manifest in public.

I feel a little embarrassed by this. I’m not sure this is the sort of thing anybody comes here to read. Just as I felt embarrassed in class, unsure that it’s the sort of thing students come to a class to hear. But I’ll take heart from the fact that as they left the room several students – players and fans both – told me they felt it was the best class of the year.

Postscript (for humans like me):

Oh yeah, and then two other things happened:

1), one fan (coincidentally named Tim) confessed with a smile to feeling sad and embarrassed as CBS showed over and over again the footage of Duke’s Nolan Smith breaking Michigan player Tim Hardaway Jr’s ankles with a crossover during their NCAA tournament game. This fan named Tim was sitting right next to a player, also named Tim (as in Hardaway Jr.), in class. Then, someone (another player) shouted out that we should see the clip. Tim Hardaway Jr. started laughing and said okay, we should. Then, when I pressed him, he admitted that seeing the clip made him feel bad. So I said I didn’t want to show it. Then he laughed, and said it was fine, and helped me navigate to the page on youtube where he knew — because he’s seen it dozens of time. And we watched it. And we all laughed. And then we watched a clip of one of Tim’s ferocious reverse slams.

2), I had posted on our group Facebook Page a link to where a post by Matt Gordon (the student who has been blogging about the course for Hoopism.com) was picked up and cited approvingly by none other than Henry Abbott of ESPN’s Truehoop. Before long, another student had “liked” the link and wrote “Damn man, nice!” and then Stuart Douglass, one of the players, cheered: “Yeahhhhhh boiiiiiii!” This was right after class.

This is a special group.

Read about last class’ discussion of Allen Iverson

or

Go here for our discussion of homophobic language in NBA culture

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