Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review - God Save the Fan

There is a dilemma inherent in being a fan of anything, but sports in particular. When you are a fan of an author, you're impressed by the quality of the work, by the vividness of the characters, by the exciting plots - by something inherent in the product. If you're a fan of a politician, you likely feel that their beliefs mirror your own, or you trust their judgment.

But, when you're a fan of a sports team, you are committing yourself to a corporate entity, one that usually makes decisions based on statistics and dollars, that will try to extract every last dollar out of you. As Jerry Seinfeld has said, a sports fan is essentially rooting for laundry. Chicago Cubs fans were confronted with this reality last week, when the team acquired Jim Edmonds, a player who had been roundly hated when he played for arch-rival St. Louis; now that he was wearing the blue pinstripes, the fans were expected to cheer as loudly as they previously booed. And of course they will.

The larger part of that dilemma is that, for many people, sports is remarkably compelling, yet, most people realize how trivial they really are. The contrast between the time and money people spend on fun and games and the utter unimportance of them is huge, and many of the biggest fans understand this. Being a fan, a spectator, represents a major part of people's lives, far greater than the more actually important world of, say, public policy.

Will Leitch's new book, God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (and How We Can Get It Back) (2008), founders on this very point. Leitch, the creator of the popular web site deadspin.com, clearly wants to eat his cake and have it too.

Deadspin is a site that can't make up its mind if it's humor, journalism, linking, or something else entirely. And God Save the Fan suffers from the same split personality - what is it? Leitch recognizes the irrationality of the average fan (and himself), urging the reader (and, perhaps, himself) not to take the games so seriously, while, ahem, taking them seriously.
Sports are what we fans invest ourselves in to get away from life...It's vital for sports fans to realize that we don't need them, that we can choose what we want now. We just have to take charge and realize our power...Hopefully [this book] will at least be funny.
And then we're off on 295 pages of essays that present an indefinable mix of memoir, debunking, and, above all and running throughout, a loathing of ESPN and its broadcasters. Much of this is tiresome, and there are few humorous moments in a book that so desperately wishes to be funny. But is it really clever for Will Leitch to reveal that his first auto-erotic experience occurred in conjunction with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?

Look, Deadspin is an incredibly popular site, and that's fine. It's made Leitch into a player in the sports media world he is so quick to castigate, to the point where he's become the go-to guy representing all sports bloggers in other media outlets.

But let's not get carried away. Popularity does not equal self-awareness, and Leitch doesn't really bring any insight into the relationship between fans and the sports to which they're devoted. He seems to understand that there is something trivial about fandom, passes it off as simply an escape, but the book takes sports incredibly seriously. You just can't have it both ways.

As for his message of empowerment, Leitch simply doesn't provide any of that. He obviously cares a great deal about sports, but argues in favor of fantasy sports as the ultimate fan experience, treating athletes as "robotic producers of statistics." Yes, that is his answer as to how the fan can take control, by treating athletes with the same contempt that he feels they have for him (you need only read his essay on playing flag football with two ex-NFLers, or his evening "with" a University of Illinois basketball player, or several others, to understand how frustrated he is with being an outsider).

And that, in the end, is the message here: Since these athletic gods (including, bizarrely, ESPN) will never let you into their world, one you so desperately wish to join, the answer is to create your own snarky, pseudo-hipster world of ironic commentary. There might be some entertainment value here if the book were funnier; it's not, particularly, and that just makes it kind of sad.

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