Townie Hawk: In Defense of Fans

It’s not particularly hip to be a fan. Not that I’ve noticed, anyway. I’ve personally suffered many an eye-roll from less fanatic friends and I’ve seen fellow fans dressed in their Hawkeye garb just barely get a drink served to them in certain elite Northside establishments. I’ve felt a pang of embarrassment hearing a nearby Hawkeye berate a referee for missing a call, or chastise a 19-year old for making a mistake. But while I may have grown as a fan to recognize that these sorts of errors are all a part of the game, I don’t judge the fans too harshly for their misplaced passion, because that’s what being a fan is all about: finding an acceptable outlet for social misbehavior.

Admittedly, on game days, it can be annoying to simply walk down the street. Being encouraged to “go long” while carrying a bag of groceries in one hand and holding my cell phone to my ear with the other is kind of scary. (I mean, this guy really seemed like he was going to throw a football at my unprotected face!) And if wearing a Hawkeye t-shirt is what it takes to get twenty-something guys to call you “shorty,” then I’ll take it. Consider it all in good fun–my good fun.

As I hear the evil of sport being blamed for everything from underage drinking to rape to the disproportionate gap between rich & poor in our country, I’m assigning my little piece of media real-estate to the task of defending the growling hoard, the evil empire of sport fandom. I mean, perhaps there’s a logical reason that so many of us give up a few hours of the best day of the week to guiltlessly feed the frenzy? Maybe being a fan can actually do something positive for a person?

Scream as Loud as You Want

It feels so good to yell sometimes. When in life does one get the chance to scream until your ears ring other than at Kinnick stadium, playing 12th man for the Hawkeye defense? When Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien fumbled a snap in last month’s ill-fated game, I felt like it was the deafening roar of fandom that caused it. It was ME!

Yelling for your team is also acceptable in most bars or in your living room. Yelling for your team in the streets, for no apparent reason, is okay too, but I hear a lot of people really hate that.

Work is boring, life is pretty grey most of the time, but Kinnick is wonderful color, bodies smashed together like happy wriggly little sardines. I even like the other team’s fans! I mean, just look at this guy with an actual badger pelt on his head. And we can all just scream our fucking heads off together. We can scream out the wretched work week, the girl who won’t call us back, our ungrateful conniving children, our broken down ride…just let it all out. Argument #1 for the beauty of fandom: Team love is cathartic. It’s good for one’s mental health.

Sports Builds Character

Ha! Doesn’t that sound just like your old high school coach? But in actuality, the sorts of life lessons intrinsic in being part of a team are completely applicable to real life. Don’t be a ball hog means sometimes you have to back off and graciously allow someone less clever than you to do the talking. Rising to your competition means becoming less self-satisfied and complacent. A healthy desire to become as good or better than the next person can help you win promotions! Get the girl! Impress your friends!

In sports, you learn how to lose without being an asshole about it. You learn to freak out a little bit about a really bad call, then move on to the next play, and try to make it a big one. You learn how to win without gloating too hard. After all, you have to go shake the other team’s hands once the game is over.

The Connection

Being a part of a team is a feeling that not everyone gets to experience. Some people just aren’t athletic, or maybe their parent’s couldn’t afford $150 shoes, or maybe they had to work after school, or didn’t get a scholarship, or maybe “girls don’t play football, Steph.” But anybody can be a fan. And when you are a fan, you are a part of the team. It feels important. It feels special. It feels like you are united with a huge network of buddies seeking a common goal together.

My favorite thing about being a sports fan is the enormous range of people I can talk to. Sports are a common ground, a peek through the keyhole that might lead that guy sitting next to you on the bus to open the door to his story, his life. And isn’t that interesting? What else could give you that lucky chance?

Gas truck drivers and garbage men, accountants and CEOs, grocery clerks, elementary school teachers, geologists, PhD’s, high school dropouts, old guys with keg-sized bellies, untouchably beautiful co-eds, smart-mouthed snot-nosed brats, elfin old professors, sturdy family men, moms and their moms, Joe the plumber, the girl at the laundry mat folding a Hawkeye sweatshirt, the most dapper and elegant, the tattiest roughs, we have this thing in common, this smile of recognition we give one another.

I have heard sports blamed for a lot of really wicked stuff. And it’s true that this existential angst could be put into a cause more productive, but it could also be spent far more destructively. I think sports are good for people. I think playing a sport builds self-confidence, teaches people how to trust each other, fosters empathy and helps maintain the machine that is our body. Being a fan encourages loyalty, connects all shapes, sizes, colors and classes and meanwhile triggers some little Neanderthal love/hate mechanism in our brain, which allows us to harmlessly and temporarily access a part of our essential human-ness, engage with the base thrill of epic battle and then move on.

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But what of the actual battles we might be fighting if we weren’t so busy cheering on our boys? I say you fight yours and I’ll fight mine. One at a time. And in between I’m going to keep pulling for my Hawkeyes, losses be damned, right up to the final whistle of the final gut-wrenching game. Because I’m a fan and I like it. So there.