I’ve noticed something; not quite sure how long it’s been going on, but since the advent of social media and YouTube it seems all too prevalent. It’s the practice of burning jerseys, shirts and/or memorabilia when an athlete leaves one team for another. I’ve always wondered what makes sports-fans so crazy to the point of destroying property in riots, sending hateful messages via social media and/or lighting their clothes, and essentially their own cash, on fire; so I’m going to try to talk through why I think people get pissed off.
There’s a saying that derives from the great English playwright William Congreve, of which I’m sure you’re familiar: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” If you’ll allow me, I’d like to coin a similar saying: Hell hath no fury like a sports-fan scorned.
One might think sports are merely an escape from the mundane, ordered, “real” lives we tend to live, but for many around the globe they are much, much more. It’s interesting that as far as reality goes, sports is probably the closest thing to “real” in existence. An argument could be made that everything outside of organised competition is rigged, or at the very least altered. One’s socio-economic status could deem them redundant to society as far as running for public office or becoming a CEO; but, if you put two different people in the same arena, where the rules of the game are the same, and have them complete a task based on mental, as well as physical acumen, the best person normally comes out on top. This remains true regardless of class, race or any other subsets of characteristics society has created.
Why is this important?
As kids, most guys (I won’t speak for women, but I’m sure the same ideas apply in some sense) want to be athletes of some kind. Unfortunately, as in any profession, the spots at the top are limited. If you wanted to play in the NBA for instance, there are 30 teams with 15 roster spots, which translates to 450 jobs. Which isn’t that many considering the millions and millions of people around the planet who play the game — add the people who never wanted to be professional, but like watching the game anyway, and we have an overwhelming majority who resort to fandom. It replaces the want to play on the team and gives you license to make the team “yours.” So where a CEO or politician may support a chronic loser out of a childhood memory, an hourly wage worker may support a team known to dominate their sport based off a similar childhood memory. Fandom’s a place where the jersey carries clout, regardless of the person wearing it; yet the reason for wearing the jersey differs from person to person.
This is where things get tricky.
There’s an interesting split in fandom — the team fan and the player fan. Team Fan is born in/or near the city where their team plays, and/or has an emotional connection with the team that comes from a childhood experience or family member. Player Fan loves the individual displays of a talented athlete and chooses to pledge loyalty to that player rather than to a specific team. Come free agency or a trade — Player Fan is on the move with their favourite player. This split is the overarching factor which leads to anger and some cases, ashes.
Prime example: The most loved and hated player in the NBA is LeBron James. His supporters are LOUD and in most cases unbearable, similarly, his detractors are just as vocal and just as annoying. Drafted by the Cleveland Cavilers in 2003, James was an instant superstar, the city of Cleveland became attached to their star man, and so did the rest of the country.
The NBA is a star driven league. There are no helmets or masks, it’s a fast-paced game where individual brilliance can change games, seasons, and in some cases eras. Russell and Chamberlain, Bird and Magic, Michael Jordan, these players transcended the sport and created the platform by which superstars of today can build their own brands. The NBA is a unique sport, in the sense that someone can say: “I’m not a Knicks fan, but I’m a Carmelo fan,” or “I hate the Lakers, but Kobe is a beast.” These things are said in schools, barber shops and any place where sports are discussed.
The hope a great player contributes to your fandom makes the thought of them leaving all the more raw. The connection with club and player runs so high, that in 2010 when LeBron James decided to switch teams, this happened:
You watch the video and ask yourself, or at least I do: “Why?” There is only one logical conclusion I can come up with, as to why sports-fans get outraged and start burning their possessions:
Thinking because you cheer for a player, he/she is indebted to you, and they are therefore obligated to remain with your chosen team until they are washed up.
On the surface it makes sense. “I pay money to come see you, and I cheer for you, therefore you should stay.” I see the logic there, but if you take the time to actually explore the mentality, it’s tantamount to indentured servitude, or dare I say slavery. To think you’re owed another adult’s loyalty based of money you paid to watch them perform is ridiculous. If you’re a U2 fan, and you’ve been to countless performances, does that mean when the band dismembers, you’ll burn your CDs in the street? It gets extremely stupid after a certain point.
It’s also funny this standard’s only applied to the superstars among us. Mike James has played with 11 different NBA franchises, two French teams, two Turkish teams, two D-League teams, a Chinese team and an Austrian team, but I’ve never seen a Mike James jersey (and there are quite a few of them) being set alight. Journey men and role players can get away with leaving and taking more cash in free agency, they somehow get to fly under the radar, I wonder why?
It’s because fans only get mad when they think you’re worth it. It’s like the guy who sees a pretty girl in a club, walks up to her, spits a little game, gets shot down, then tells his boys: “I don’t care, she was ugly anyway!” No she wasn’t! Otherwise you wouldn’t started talked to her in the first place, much less gotten upset.
Similarly, if you just so happen to be a superstar swapping teams, you’re in a predicament. Fans on the inside see you as a traitor because they want you and fans on the outside see you as a mercenary for the cash. Your only saving grace is the team you’re going to, and your player fans.
In lieu of Dwight Howard’s recent departure to Houston, it seems Laker supporters have conveniently forgotten the main stay of their franchise for the better part of two decades was Luol-Deng-away from lacing up his Nikes in Chicago’s home dressing room.
In July of 2007 Kobe Bryant demanded a trade out of LA — the franchise responded by acquiring Pau Gasol in February 2008 for what seemed like the end of their bench; two championships later and for the most part Bryant’s legacy has been salvaged in SoCal. HIs near-trade to Chicago seems a distant memory to most, but I contest had LA not wanted Deng, and the trade gone through, every #8 and #24 jersey in Los Angeles would have resembled the Dwight Howard jersey above.
It reinforces the selective anger fans tend to show. If LeBron James is the most loved/hated player in the NBA, Kobe Bryant is certainly the most supported by his fan-base. Laker supporters would sacrifice their firstborns to have him play ten more years in purple and gold. They’ll gloss over the rough patches of Kobe’s career, but let another player make a decision they don’t like — let’s all burn his memory from our wardrobes.
The attitude of a fan is admirable. It’s their job to be irrational. Objectivity is sought after in Presidents, police officers, judges, etc. It’s the reason why this time of the year, every NFL team
with the exception Jacksonville has fans thinking this is the year they’ll make the playoffs and challenge for the Super Bowl; it’s called faith (Hebrews 11:1 for my church-folk). By the same token, that belief is also what makes fans blind to reality. As common sense as this seems: athletes are not as dedicated to your team as you are! It’s how Wayne Ellington (UNC) and Gerald Henderson (Duke) can be best friends, or how Brett Favre can play 16 seasons in Green Bay, then put on a purple, Minnesota jersey; it’s about the love of the game and money for them, not the childhood fantasy of playing for “Team X.” Attaching yourself to the best player on your team is dangerous — the moment “Player X” decides to leave, the need for lighter fluid and matches is in abundance, because your heart’s broken.
Not to mention
but I will it’s a bit short-sighted, as players have had the same M.O. since the beginning. Off the top of my head: Babe Ruth left the Red Sox for the Yankees. William Gallas played for every London club except Wimbledon. Shaq played for the Lakers and the Celtics. Deion Sanders played for the 49ers, Cowboys and Redskins. If athletes are given fair compensation and a better chance to win — they will leave. Simple.
It’s nothing to get miffed over. Look at it like this — if a superstar leaves your team, one, you’ve dumped a BIG salary. Two, in being bad, most leagues reward poor play with high draft picks; so the road to recovery isn’t as far off as you might thing — Kyrie Irving & Co. being example #1. Third and most importantly, if an athlete doesn’t want to play for your team, you should be ecstatic he/she’s gone! In truth — they’ve done you a favour!
The moment relegation enters in the four major sports, then you’ll have the right to start burning your clothes — but not a second before.