Last night, the 2012-2012 NHL season was supposed to open and it didn’t. Most of us commemorated this occasion by sitting at home in front of black television screens with a bottle of cheap whisky and a cat, but not all. In some parts of the sad-NHL-fan-land, people were organizing. Some tried to hold protests, others held anti-lockout parties, still others went to AHL games. In Washington and Minnesota there were pub crawls to watch other sports and support arena-dependent businesses. And, of course, there was a lot of angry ranting on the internet- sign this petition, read this blog, join this Facebook group, never buy another ticket/jersey/bobblehead again.
But although boycotts and protests are very popular now, shitting on boycotts and protests is almost equally popular. Follow the comment threads in any call-to-arms article, read the replies to any take-back-the-game Twitter account, and find tight interweaving of HELL YEAH LET’S DO THIS and you’re all a bunch of morons for even contemplating this. It’s as if the fan population, in the absence of team loyalties to divide us, has decided to factionalize along lines of activism and apathy. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; for every call to do something there is an equal and opposite call to do nothing.
The backlash against activism- the do-nothing movement- crystallizes around one key point: none of this shit will work. Fans have no place in this negotiation. The owners don’t care what you think. The players don’t care what you think. Names on a petition or signs on a streetcorner are irrelevant to the men around the conference table. Nothing a fan, or a thousand fans, or even ten thousand fans can do will speed the return of NHL hockey by so much as a second. If the goal is to impact the labor negotiation, then every single one of these grassroots gestures and movements is doomed to miserable failure.
This is absolutely true. No fan protest is going to have one iota of influence on CBA negotiations, because such actions will always be small and fragmented. There are just too many fans for meaningful, cohesive, effective collective action. The owners are 30, the players are a thousand, but the fans are millions, all with different desires and dispositions. No matter what way some mass of us pull, somewhere else in the community are fifty other masses pulling in fifty other directions. And even if the hardcore could somehow come together around one idea, our leverage is always going to be undermined by the vast innumerable ocean of the softcore. A wide swath of the NHL audience is composed of people who identify with a team, buy gear, go to games now and then, and still barely even care that the lockout has started. They’ll come back whenever hockey comes back, but they’re not suffering much from its absence. There may be, in some markets, at some level, some kind of retribution on the League for this bitter labor war, but it will be through the natural attrition of casual fans, not the conscious vengeance of the serious ones.
Even though none of these protests will accomplish a damn thing as far as the NHL is concerned, they’re still important, and they’re still worth doing. Not for the League, but for ourselves.
Forget hockey for a second. Think about how social movements work in the contemporary world generally. Think about the evolution of, say, environmentalism. It is not a unified, targeted, single entity. Various groups may take up various policies or projects from time to time under its name, but for the most part ‘environmentalism’ is a huge mass of small, diffuse, disparate gestures taken by regular people in their regular lives- whether it’s conserving water or driving a hybrid car or eating only organic chicken or whatever. People participate in environmentalism to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their time and their ideology, but despite the bajillion vague and often contradictory behaviors that fall under the heading of ‘environmentalist actions’, the movement has been ridiculously effective in changing the underlying social assumptions and practices of the North American population. And, in fact, because it does not need to unify people, environmentalism comes to transcend activism and become a more basic aspect of life. ‘Green’ activities have seeped into routine ethics, and so, slowly, changed the world.
In the context of something like environmentalism, people do not perform the actions with the expectation of having a specific, immediate impact on a Big Issue. Perhaps, in a general way, they would like to see such an impact occur, but no one has any expectation that their personal recycling or composting is going to save the planet. The gestures aren’t judged by whether they reach a certain end this week or next week or the week after that, but by whether they are good in themselves. People do it, to the extent that they do, because the action helps them to be the sort of person they want to be. Environmentalism became most effective, paradoxically, when it became something people would do for themselves rather than for the cause.
There are two ways of looking at how character is formed. One says that your character is intrinsic and the things you do merely reflect this inner state. The other says that character is formed by the actions you take in the world, that doing constructs being rather than vice-versa. The latter should be very familiar to sports fans- actually, it’s kind of the essence of sports. No one begins as a hockey player, you become one through the things you choose to do, through practice, training, and discipline. You start out as a person who hates running, dragging your reluctant bones out of bed at 6 am every day in utter misery, until you’ve made yourself do it so much that you start to love it. You can see the players doing this all over the negotiations with their ‘solidarity’ gestures- they show up, they take notes, they participate not because they already are experts on the intricacies of the CBA, but because they’re trying to become that. People are very critical of ‘fake’ behaviors- things that they don’t think emerge naturally from preexisting character- but sometimes the only way to change your character is to fake being a different sort of person so long that eventually it’s not fake anymore. Act like a hockey player long enough, and eventually you become one.
The standard for judging popular resistance to and criticism of the lockout should not be: is this going to change the NHL? But rather, is this going to change who they/we are? The single greatest anxiety fans face about this whole situation is the feeling of powerlessness, or worse yet, of being doormats or stepping stones, the pawns of Gary Bettman. The protests and angry videos, the Twitter rants, the petitions and the Facebook pages are all ways diverse fans are trying to restructure their own identity, of claiming agency and initiative, of asserting that whether or not they are powerful, they are not doormats. Considered as leverage against Ed Snider, they are utter failures. Considered, however, as people trying to reinvent what it means for them to be a hockey fan and what it feels like to be part of the community of hockey fans during the lockout, these gestures are important and, actually, pretty fucking awesome.
Like having a green disposition, having a screw you, you out-locking gajillionaire assholes disposition is desirable for its own sake. It is a good thing, as an end in itself, as a human virtue, not to be a doormat. It is a good thing not to sit at home, complacently accepting your misery as inevitable. It’s a good thing not to lapse into dull cynicism just because you’ve been thrown into a shitty situation over which you have no control. It’s better, as a fan, as a person, to be angry or righteous, sarcastic, nasty, or irreverent, to sneer or scream at the powerful. There are dozens of different ways that fans are going about trying to protest, boycott, undermine, or divest themselves from the NHL, none of them more right or wrong than any other. I’m on record as being part of the ‘invest your time, money, and love in non-NHL hockey’ movement, but there’s a whole other movement of people who are asserting their independence from the League by transferring their love to other sports, and that’s cool too. There are people who are protesting at the gates of arenas or supporting businesses around them, people boycotting buying gear or tickets or sponsored products. There are people ranting on the internet, on the radio, on TV. Not all of it is shit I would do. Some of it, frankly, seems a little insane. But nevertheless, it’s all part of the same underlying, wonderful process: the process of hockey fans telling the League to go fuck itself. The process of not being sheep.
By protesting, in whatever way we do it, we’re remaking ourselves individually and our community as a whole in a way that is more satisfying to us. We’re not changing the NHL, but we’re changing the way we experience the NHL, and the way we experience the lockout. With all this useless action, we’re giving each other things to talk about and read about, ideas to argue over, events to go to, and that alone is reason enough to side with the do-somethings against the do-nothings. I’d rather be a member of a hockey community where people express themselves. Most of what we-the-people participate in isn’t NHL-created culture, it’s fan-created culture, and a fan culture where people heckle Bettman and make Youtube montages and Occupy the NHL store is a waaaaaaay more fun culture to be part of than one where everyone just shrugs and says, we can’t do anything, wake me when it’s over. You might argue with me about whether or not complacency is bad for the soul, but hopefully we can all agree that it’s dreadfully boring.
So yeah, guys, do stuff. Don’t do it for the NHL or the NHLPA. Do it for yourself, for your friends, for the people who hang out in the same sports blogs or sports bars as you. Do crazy stuff, emotional stuff, rebellious stuff, snarky stuff, whatever. Whatever stuff interests, amuses, or soothes you. Whatever stuff helps transform you into the kind of hockey fan you want to be.