Why We Do What We Do

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a mess. They started the season hot, which is often a curse that almost invariably presages a regression, but the Leafs haven’t just regressed. They’ve collapsed like a Guatamalan sinkhole, popped like a bubble in a pin factory, imploded like Fat Man over… okay, that’s not a classy metaphor. But you take my meaning, no? The Leafs are 1-8-1 in their last ten games. They’re terrible.

This kind of sudden failure elicits a particular activist sensibility among the fans. As the team collapses out of the playoffs and some segments of the base fall into depression, the  more vocal and/or egotistical sort get pumped up with righteous indignation- we will not stand for this kind of failure! They start trying to rally their fellow partisans DO SOMETHING.

Do what? Well, in the case of the Leafs, the notion of the boycott is particularly powerful. As @SuicidePass characterized it in a very eloquent Twitter rant yesterday:

You will be told by many, many people who haven’t thought it through all the way that the only way to help this team is to withdraw support. They will tell you: “Don’t go to the games.” They will tell you to vote with your wallet. They will tell you to boycott.

Leafs fans are especially drawn to this idea of boycotting the team to show displeasure because their great storyline over the past fifty years has been that of ‘the team that doesn’t have to win.’ All Toronto sports narratives have a self-flagellating tone of hopeless futility, but the hockey one is especially so: The Leafs aren’t good because they don’t need to be good to be insanely profitable, so they don’t bother trying. (N.B. This story, of course, ignores the fact that the Leafs would be even more insanely profitable if they had some playoff revenue, meaning it makes the curious assumption that management is driven by primarily by greed but somehow isn’t that greedy.)

If you believe your team is failing because they make money regardless, than the boycott seems like a logical conclusion: if they had to be good to be profitable, then they’d try harder to be good. The problem is that, as Mr. Pass went on to point out, “If indifference made poor teams better, the Phoenix Coyotes would be 10-time defending Stanley Cup champions.” Sports teams don’t work like regular companies. A regular company selling a regular product has an enormous staff of people in high positions who need that particular product to flourish in order to flourish themselves- the ownership and management rely on the success of the company. But nobody at the upper echelons of a sports team really needs the team to succeed for their livelihood. For most owners, the team is just one especially shiny bauble in a large collection of shiny things: easy to keep so long as it’s fun or profitable to have, just as easy to dispose of when the charm or money runs out. For management, it’s just one stop in a vagabond career that is likely to span several cities no matter what. If the fans stop coming and the money dries up, the team will be sold away, the owners will move on to other business ventures and the management will move on to other franchises. Their lives won’t be so dramatically affected. A fan boycott, if successful, won’t hurt anyone but the fans.

So, if not the boycott, than what can fans do to push a failing team to get better? In my own native Habistan, while the boycott notion has certainly been floated from time to time, the more common form of fan activism is bilious hate. Hockey fanaticism in Montreal is not a sunshiney thing, people do not subscribe to the notion that being a hardcore fan means being in any way kind, positive, or optimistic. There are Habs fans who have hated the Canadiens for twenty years. Not just disliked them, not just been frustrated with them, but hated them with a red-hot loathing that even the most ardent Leafs zealot could not hope to match. Yet these anti-fans don’t leave the team. They still buy gear, they still go to games, they still call in to the sports talk radio shows. In Montreal, the disaffected activist fan seems to see vocal, intense anger as their moral duty. I think it comes from a sense of history- fans see themselves as the custodians of the team’s legacy, and thence conclude that it is incumbent upon them to act as the braying, nostalgic conscience of the modern franchise, prodding it to live up to the glorious past.

This method, sadly, is no more effective than the Leafs’ boycott notion. All Montreal fans have gotten for their rage and venom is a franchise that finds it nearly impossible to attract free agents and is never on any trade-bait star’s list of teams he’d be willing to go to. The expectations in the city are so high and the consequences of failure so nasty that the fans drive away exactly the local boy players they most deeply desire. Management is cold and distant, releasing as little information as possible, hiding everything behind a façade of rigid, corporate formality. Rather than a successful team, the hate just breeds an ever-increasingly alienated one.

Here is the truth: as a fan, there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect your team’s fortunes. You are powerless. Perhaps you should be powerful, since it is in fact your money and your interest that keep the game going, but that power is a horribly blunt instrument that can never be used to effect any specific or detailed changes in the team. It’s the hockey-influence equivalent of a kill switch. Maybe, with enough indifference or enough hate, you could destroy the team. But you can’t improve it.

The more interesting question is why we even have this idea that we should deliberately and artificially create a certain feeling- disinterest in the case of the Leafs, rage in the case of the Habs- in order to change the fate of the franchise. We are forever telling each other how we should feel, acting as though our feelings were somehow in themselves important gestures. We have long, intense debates about the proper emotional register to bring to a given situation, whether we collectively ought to be hopeful or cynical, angry or resigned, hot or cold.

People don’t behave this way about other hobbies. Most other things, we just feel as we do and act accordingly, and there is no demand for emotional discipline. No one ever tells me how I ought to feel towards my book collection, or the proper disposition to cultivate about soup-cookery. We don’t hector each other to feign a skeptical disinterest in unsuccessful knitting. Other things we just do or don’t do, our actions reflexively reflecting how good or bad we feel about it. It is only in sports where we insist that it is necessary to make a theatrical performance out of our emotional engagement.

When the team is bad, why don’t we just walk away? Why are Leafs fans calling for fake disinterest, in the form of a boycott, rather than simply being disinterested? Why do so many Habs fans insist that we have a responsibility to be angry at the Habs, rather than just getting fed up and defecting to the Red Wings? Why do we go through this routine of pointlessly attempting to artificially manufacture feeling rather than just doing as we feel?

The most common answer is to speak of one’s fanaticism with metaphors of obsession, addiction, or disease, as though one has been tragically afflicted with this loyalty against one’s will. We disingenuously pretend as though we just can’t quit.

We can. We just don’t want to.

The dirty little secret of sports fanaticism is that, despite what you might tell others, the team’s success is not really the important thing. Yes, it is a terrific high to win, and yes, losing hurts like hell, and certainly there are times when it seems more painful than it’s worth. But if it were ever actually more painful than it’s worth, we’d give it up.

Our primary relationship, the main thing that defines us as hockey fans, is not our relationship to the team. It’s our relationship to each other. Being a part of a fan base isn’t so much an ideological commitment as a series of small, daily rituals. It’s the things we listen to in the car as we’re driving, the articles we read in the paper. It’s the arguments we have with friends and the small-talk we make with strangers. It’s the immediate, instant connection you can make suddenly, in one evening, that might endure for three hours or could last for years on the basis of this silly shared interest.The powerful, needful thing about being a fan isn’t really watching the game, it’s watching the game with people, for we are all always watching the game together, even when we’re alone.

These things are the real pleasure we get from the game- not the joy of watching something but the joy of sharing something, and that doesn’t depend in the slightest whether the team is good or bad. If anything, bad times add an extra level of intensity to fan interactions, as failures often provoke the most heated debates and the deepest moments of shared sympathy. As the superficial pleasure, the laughing and cheering pleasure, wanes, something else waxes- a sense of common cause, or perhaps a kind of strength. Adversity doesn’t kill a fan base. It reinforces it.  Every call for fake disinterest deepens the very real interest.  Every demand for expressions of venomous hate masks a much more sustaining- and somewhat embarrassing- love.