Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Beyond the Broken Looking Glass

   There is a great tale told by the legendary sports writer Bert Sugar about Babe Ruth, handed down to him by sportswriters from his early day: Sportswriters use to take trains with players to games in those days. One day, on a trip to Chicago, Babe Ruth comes running into the sportswriter's car completely naked, followed by a woman who was equally as naked with a knife in her hand. One writer joked, "well there's another story we're not going to write".

   Sports journalism and fandom has evolved dramatically from that anecdote during the roaring 20's, the supposed "height" of American sports. The collective is far more aware of the issues behind sports, be they social, political, economic, racial or anything to that effect. And with the 24 hour news-cycle, combined with social media platforms giving everybody and anybody a voice, the mixture has brought about some interesting decisions to be made about sports and fandom: what are we to do when sports and the outside world crossover?

  Only 10 years ago did ESPN have a segment on Monday Night Countdown called, "Jacked Up". Back then, big hits were brushed off with little concern for what damage may have been inflicted with these hits.

   Does anybody look at these hits the same way anymore? Can anybody look at these hits the same way anymore? Can anybody not cringe at how these hits are being talked about? It's not necessarily PC culture that has made the world at large so much more sensitive to issues such as concussions in football, or the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, race, gender, etc. in sports, but the result of more education, and more and more people making their voices heard.

  It's no different than watching film, TV, stage or loving art, video games, or any form of popular media today. Do ardent video game fanatics sometimes cringe at the thought of the rampant sexism that pervades that culture, whether the individual is or isn't responsible for some of that? Will someone put down Call of Duty because they are sickened by Gamergate and its deplorable actions?

  Maybe someone reading this is a Mel Gibson fan and loves his filmography, but cannot rationalize that with some of the terrible things he has said in his life and his actions too. Someone reading this might like Chris Brown's music, but absolutely loathe what skeletons he has in his closet.

   Somehow, sports and the outside world stayed mutually exclusive until recently, with the occasional crossover muted and not given the proper time of day that it deserved.

   The vastly different media landscape certainly plays a role, since now it's almost impossible to ignore the off-the-field aspect of athlete's lives, even if they make much of it available to the masses through social media. There still is a feeling the general public doesn't know what these great athletes are like as normal human beings, and our insatiable craving for knowledge combined with the media cycle makes it impossible for human stories such as Ray Rice's or Adrian Peterson's to emerge. Does that change how we as fans reconcile the leagues and teams we spend so much physical and emotional capital on? For some, absolutely.

  The Patrick Kane ongoing legal drama is a black eye to everyone involved, and has made many women and even men too consider what their future relationship should be with the Blackhawks and the NHL for the stand that they have chosen. No one person can tell anyone what they should or shouldn't think and what they should or shouldn't spend capital on, but even in the murky mess that lies beneath the tampered evidence and 140 character lawyers, there is a brightside.

  Has anyone reading this thought about sexual assault in the same way they now do? The issue has been rampant for years and coverage of them, namely finding ways to help victims, has been almost dead silent. I for one am more informed on the issue than I ever have been. The same holds true with domestic violence, the struggle of religion in sports, LGBT activism, and the list goes on.

  Our idealistic view of sports is that it is an escape from the travails of everyday life, when that couldn't be any further from the truth. The line that has been peddled by many of our media forefathers is that sports and politics should not and cannot mix, let alone inhabit the same ecosystem. But when almost every other form of entertainment coalesces and crosses over with the problems blighting the world at any given moment, why were sports the exception?

   If anyone is re-considering their Blackhawks/NHL fandom because of what has or hasn't happened with Patrick Kane, no one can stop you. You're entitled to that viewpoint as I am to say that sports hold a place in society that almost nothing else does: people of differing backgrounds, life experiences and belief systems come together and share a unique and common experience. For many years, it was yelling about whether Patrick Kane fits on Jonathan Toews' wing or something to that effect.

  Now, the same people are talking about sexual assault and the damage it has caused to so many. Some may not be talking about it in a responsible manner, but at least their minds have been opened to the issue where they would never have been otherwise.

  Fandom doesn't exist in a vacuum. I have cheered for morally reprehensible characters in sport before, and I likely will in the future. I will more than likely write or commentate about some in a false light before I know the facts. The ideal world of sports that was perpetrated in the past was nothing more than a lie, and a lie that is almost impossible to shake from our collective minds.

  Do sometimes I wish I didn't like the NFL as much as I do? Sure. Same with soccer. "Love the game, hate FIFA" is a common refrain for a reason. Everyone has those crossroads moments, as they will with every form of entertainment the human experience offers to us. Nothing is clean, nothing is sacred.

 Accepting that will make swallowing the realities of the modern world, therefore allowing complete disgust of Patrick Kane's alleged actions to exist in the same space as fandom for the logo he wears/wore on his chest.

  Our minds being opened allows us the space to talk about the world outside of sports, and gives so many who neglected it (i.e. me) to understand issues facing society and what some of us can do to fix it. The ideal world of sports is a myth that has been thoroughly and thankfully shattered, and beyond the broken glass so many of us have been exposed to a world that is not all milk and honey.

  Without my sports fandom, I would have never been able to even acknowledge that. And for this, I am grateful.

Inspiration for this piece came from Jessica Luther's "Being a Fan" on Fanside, which you can read here.

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