Network drama series peddling love of the love of the game

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A group of fans of England’s Millwall Football Club used to leave business cards in the pockets of the unconscious fans of opposing teams who they beat up after the game.

The card, which read, “Your beating came compliments of the Millwall Lions,” was often printed on premium stock with eight-color seams and rounded corners because many of those doing the punching and stomping were well-heeled professionals.

As demonstrated across the panorama of sports venues, a fan’s level of interest can range anywhere from casual observer to face-painted lunatic, and as the population continues to grow, so does the legion of dedicated sports fans. With each passing season the impact of athletics on society ratchets up another turn.

The emergence of sportscasters and pundits as “stars” is a done deal, and now the next layer of the Russian nesting doll has been lifted, this time to celebrate Joe 12-Pack watching from the stands.

Last week began the first episode of ESPN’s documentary series called “We The Fans,” a story about a group of Chicago Bears season ticket holders from a particular section of the stadium, suffering through another year of failure from their team.

One of the network’s vice presidents touting the show said that it “explores what it means to build faith and a family in the fans around you.”

How touching. I think I’ll pass.

Leaving aside the fact that last year’s Bears were about as thrilling as jury duty, the list of reasons to live your everyday life rather than watch eight half-hour segments of someone else’s is a long one. For one thing, the fans they showcased were no more interesting than the team that went 3-13.

One of the couples in “We The Fans” is preparing for their wedding, with the bride unhappy about the chance that the groom may spend their wedding day glued to the Cubs-Indians World Series game on TV.

The groom hopes that the Cubs will end the Series in four or five games to avoid the conflict. Someone needs to tell him about that newfangled DVR thingy that’s out now. Either that or help him understand that short-selling their big day means forfeiting every disagreement he will ever have with his betrothed, from now till death or divorce do they part. Reality show creators like to believe that everyone being filmed can appear compelling, which isn’t true.

There is no argument about the merit of athletics, how staying physically fit is connected to self-esteem and happiness, or that the shared experiences at sports events can be among the most cherished memories of a lifetime. But there is a question of where the line is crossed when sports become larger than life.

You could ask the hockey father who fought with an opposing father at their 10-year-olds’ practice game, or the Anaheim Angels fan who beefed with some Oakland fans after the 2004 season opener, or the Chicago White Sox fan who battled a Cubs fan after a game in 2009. But all of them are unavailable, either beaten or shot to death for supporting the wrong team. The assailants, all of them no doubt passionate fans with unique life stories, are not scheduled to appear in any “We The Fans” episodes.

The irony in that sort of tribal hysteria is that the combatants would be brothers in arms against any larger, external opponent. Players at Shawano and Bonduel might be archrivals in high school, but the next year teammates at Marquette, when the University of Wisconsin might be the new enemy, until they’re all on the U.S. Olympic team trying to beat China, etc. In a hypercompetitive rat race of a world, we are one extraterrestrial invasion away from all getting along.

More proof of sports’ role in the bread-and-circus paradigm can be found in our everyday language, where terms like “game-changer” and “slam dunk” are commonly referenced in offices, bars and board meetings. In that vein, with their effort to make sports-watching something worth watching, ESPN drops the ball.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. To contact him, send an email to sports@wolfrivermedia.com.