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Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred embodies the soullessness infecting sports

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What’s wrong with sports

Reviewing Craig Calcaterra’s Rethinking Fandom

(The first of a two-part review; Part 2 will deal directly with the White Sox)

In some ways, it’s easier to be a sports fan here in 2022 than ever before. For a fistful of dollars, you can watch virtually any sport, anywhere in the world. You can more or less instantly call up the spin rate of every pitcher in the world. You have unlimited information at your fingertips, and can find the exact community of fans (say, for example, extremely liberal White Sox fans) without even trying.

In many ways, though, being a sports fan in 2022 is a weird, disassociating experience. If you let it, the drag of social media turns every game and every play and every player into some kind of mediated meta-experience. A Yoán Moncada strikeout isn’t a bummer, but a call to brace yourself against barely-coded councils of concerned citizens. More and more people root for GMs to screw over the workers than for the workers to succeed. It’s pretty frustrating.

That’s fitting, too, when it comes to the worst aspect of sports in 2022. Ownership has, with rare exceptions, always been rapacious vultures preening over their little fiefdoms. But over the last generation-plus, it have been replaced with something worse: The bloodless ghouls of high capital, for whom the teams are at best a loss-leader as part of a wider Total Entertainment and Real Estate Portfolio.

White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf
In a weird way, our little distant tyrant is a pleasant throwback
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

These ills, and a few others, are well-described by Craig Calcaterra in this year’s Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat The Sports-Industrial Complex At Its Own Game. (Belt Publishing, which is my absolute favorite small press, is so good! If you order this book from Amazon I will be very, very disappointed in you.)

Craig Calcaterra’s book “Rethinking Fandom”
Seriously order this directly from Belt, come on.

Calcaterra is long-time baseball writer whose Hardball Talk blog at NBC helped steer baseball blogging from snarky frat to thoughtful and interesting. A former lawyer, he didn’t come from the heart of the sports-industrial complex — marketing, b-school, television, college boosters, buzz-cutted coaches steeped in platitudinous redassery, social media, and I guess athletics — and that gives him a unique perspective.

In typical Calcaterra fashion, he goes over a wide range of topics while showing wit and erudition. The book is split into two sections: diagnosis of the ills of modern fandom, and how to combat it.

The first section hits the high notes, the ones you’d expect — massive extortion scams for new stadiums, hypocritical college sports doyens tut-tutting about the purity of competition, the encouragement to tank, the relentless explosion of gambling, and the weirdness of rooting for laundry. All of this comes down to money, the big money that drives sports. None of this is unexpected, but between his personal stories, fun references (Ship of Theseus, anyone?) and barely-contained anger, it’s a sharp breezy read.

The most interesting part of the first half, to me, is the chapter titled “Winning Isn’t Everything”. In it, Calcaterra looks at our longing to say that a good run or even just an inspiring win by a sports team can erase human misery and save a town from the doldrums. Whether we’re talking about a natural disaster (Katrina and the Saints), a burst of violence (The ’68 Tigers in a seething Detroit) or a city-wide downturn (the ’69 Mets in a spiraling New York), sports uplift a city.

Detroit Tigers
Mickey Lolich, the man who healed Detroit forever.

There’s something to this, of course. Sports can make people happy! We all know why that’s limiting, of course, but Calcaterra highlights an unexpected aspect of this narrative which is especially pernicious:

People only tangentially connected to the strife in question may also decide that a sporting event “healed” a city. For example, if something bad happened in your city but it didn’t affect you directly, you may believe that the trophy-hoisting put a nice bookend on the trauma that was more directly felt by others … That’s not the same thing as healing, though. Because while you and I can close that chapter on it all when the game is over, survivors of traumatic events and victims or chronic strife cannot and do not do so that easily.

There are a couple of things that Calcaterra does here. For one thing, it’s crackerjack writing, the kind found throughout the short book — insightful, interesting, easy-to-read while avoiding any moral simplicity.

But there’s something more. When talking about the “nice bookend” Calcaterra manages to sum up so much of what’s wrong with sports fandom today. Sports have always been a narrative; stories are how we understand the games. As a writer, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sports are dramatic; they are human possibility at its highest and most fragile, a universe of potentialities with every spin. It’s fun and beautiful and unpredictable, and that’s great!

But the confluence of big media conglomerates, social media mutations, and the ability of the rich and powerful to buy coverage, or just get fawning coverage from post-human Rovellian lickspittles simply from the virtue of being rich, the idea of narrative has changed:

  • “What does this mean for the salary cap?”
  • “How will this help the owners in their quest for a new practice facility?”
  • “What will this mean for fantasy players?”
  • “What are people on Twitter saying about that dunk?”
  • and etcetera.

By themselves, none of this is a real problem. Taken together, it makes fandom a never-ending quest to find meaning, to create a narrative of winners and losers outside the W/L column. It drives partisanship in a way that mirrors politics, and that sucks the fun out of it. Even more pernicious, the constant firehose of nonsense makes it easier for bad actors to wrap a bow around a story — we solved racism with this ribbon! — because we’re already onto the next story.

Sports have always been a mirror to society, and the idea of them being removed from it has always been pernicious nonsense. But as the worst parts of society have leeched into sports, as it’s been overrun by burbling failsons, third-generation accountants, and divorce-collecting finance billionaires who treat the team as a prize to wheel out to sunburnt country club suckups, the idea of sports as something to purely enjoy keeps ebbing away.

I’m no less a sports fan than ever, but it feels different. Calcaterra’s book helped me articulate why.

In the next part of this review, we’ll look at his five solutions through the lens of being a White Sox fan, especially in light of this frustrating, hope-tinged and frustration-drenched season.

  1. Be a Fair-Weather Fan
  2. Root for the Players
  3. Be a Casual Fan
  4. Support Activism
  5. Embrace Metafandom

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