In part one of our review of Craig Calcaterra’s Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports Industrial Complex at its Own Game, we looked at his dissection of everything wrong with modern sports. Namely, money and greed: The rapacious greed of bloodless venture capitalist owners, the greed of the media complex to reduce everything to shouting conflict narrative, and the greed of leagues that value protecting their own institution over what they owe fans and cities.
In Part II, we’re going to look at Calcaterra’s proscriptions for fandom, through the lens of being a White Sox fan. We’re going to ask the question: Can you, reader, who is clearly a Sox fan, and has stuck with this maddening team long enough to read this piece, change the nature of your fandom?
It’s a question that seems like it should have an obvious answer, but it really doesn’t. At least not for me, and maybe not for you. It seems like asking if you could pluck out your own eye. Sports fandom, specifically White Sox fandom, is part of who we are.
But does it have to be? And if not, what can we do about it? Calcaterra has five recommendations. This is long, so if you want, skip to the last section, it’s an emotional humdinger!
(If you want to buy the book, buy it directly from Belt Publishing. Read your region, you clod!)
How To Be a Different Kind of Fan
Calcaterra offers five different (but not distinct) ways to be a fan. We’re going to go in reverse order because the first one is the meatiest, weirdest, and most difficult.
5/4 Embrace Metafandom/Root for Players
I think almost all serious sports fans are, to some extent or the other, metafans. People who came to sports — or at least came to love and obsess about sports — via something in addition to, or perhaps something completely other than, actually sitting down and watching them.
(By the way, if you hate the lovely-lit path of long and winding sentences, you won’t dig all of Calcaterra’s prose. You probably won’t like this article either, I suppose.)
Fantasy sports. Gambling. Message boards. Watching the waiver wires. Heating up the Hot Stove. There is so much of sports that doesn’t really come down to the wins and losses of your team. And that’s not bad. Most of us are connected to each other through White Sox Twitter, where the discussion of the games is important, but still somehow suborned to the discussion of the discussion. The medium is the message.
Metafandom, to Calcaterra, can serve as a substitute for pouring your mental health and well-being into the fortune of one specific team and one group of fallible human beings. You can invest yourself in something beside the White Sox, or in addition to it. That way you can still be connected to the thrill of sports without having to care as much about how one particular team treats you.
To me, this is an interesting concept, but as Calcaterra himself points out, it isn’t antithetical to our notion of being a sports fan. It exists in addition to it. It isn’t as much a substitute for White Sox fandom — to me, it augments it. I suppose in theory embracing metafandom makes it easy for the actual W/L obsession to fall off, a vestigial appendix to your personal scorebook. I don’t 100% think it could be a substitute, but regardless, it’s a fun concept to think about.
Rooting for players instead of teams, a different chapter, is tied to this. You don’t need to root for a team. If you like Juan Soto, you can shift allegiances from the Nats to the Padres lickety-damn-split. You don’t need to keep rooting for a terrible franchise.
This is easier, I think, in the age of fantasy and gambling, or instant highlights from everywhere around the world. It’s compelling to me. If you love sports, but hate the idea of cheering for a team, root for the people who actually play.
As a thought experiment, if the entirety of this core was traded to the Twins, would you suddenly hate them? And should you?
4. Support Activism
We should be keenly aware of the fact that some of the highest profile instances of political activism in recent years, from Colin Kaepernick to Megan Rapinoe, took place in stadiums — spaces that serve as the closest thing to public gathering spots outside of literal town squares and thus help shape and reflect the pressing issues of this historical moment — which have necessarily become sites of social and political struggles.
Supporting activism seems like a weird way to give a middle finger to the sports-industrial complex, but it makes sense. Activism, whether for racial justice, equality for women in sports, transgender rights, a great embrace of LGBTQ athletes, is always, always a giant fuck-you to the status quo. Even a finger-to-the-wind ownership class who clears their throats with protestations of solidarity do so only to protect their investments.
Activism, and fan support of it, is a way of saying that things can change. And if we can change the big things, the things that make society an unjust and cruel place for so many while a site of unreflecting luxury for a few, well then what ails sports can change as well.
Unionization. Worker rights. Concern for a team’s central spot in the life of a city, and not just as an item in some rich man’s ledger. Supporting activism doesn’t mean rooting against the White Sox, but it does mean separating your fandom entirely from the interest of the owners.
3. Be a Casual Fan
When you drop intense fandom, you lose that part of your identity that is necessarily intertwined with the teams or the sports you love, and you thus lose that impulse to reflexively defend them against criticism, which you may have previously perceived as an attack.
Fans of all teams have a chip on their shoulder, an idea of disrespect. Even Yankees fans pull off the disrespect card. White Sox fans are no different. No one respects us, we’re the second team, we’re forgotten, we hold grudges against graphics from two administrations ago. That curdles into intense parochialism, a seismic sensitivity to the perceived slights of media local and national, traditional and social. Dammit, we’re angry.
Calcaterra argues that, well, you don’t have to be. You can pay some attention. You can drop it when it doesn’t suit you, and have fun with being a fan when it does. Watch some games, check some scores, but don’t let it consume your life. You’re happier, and you avoid that instinct to be on defense, to perceive everything as an attack, and to respond with blood-boiling anger. To defend even the indefensible.
There’s something here. When the Blackhawks horrors came out, I had a few moments of trying to rationalize it; after all, that team made me so happy. That’s a gross instinct; it is used to protect everything from rinky-dink hockey teams to political parties to, oh, say, 2,000-year-old churches.
To become a casual fan, Calcaterra argues, is to help yourself drop that troubling instinct. To me, this is a far greater ask than anything else. It’s not a matter of changing your rooting interest. It’s a matter of altering your identity.
More on that below.
Be a Fair-Weather Fan
It’s OK to be a fair-weather fan. It’s OK to stop rooting for a team because they piss you off or because they stand for things you don’t stand for. It’s even OK to stop rooting for them because they lose too much, and it’s OK to start rooting for another team because they win more.
This one seems both obvious, and obviously obscene. After all, this is a White Sox year marked by terrible managing, indifferent front office-ing, and players who, for reasons justified or not, seemed checked out. Injuries ravaged the promise of a great year and ennui sucked out the joy. But — how is going fair-weather possible? How is it possible to just say “I am no longer a White Sox fan?”
Calcaterra is right that loyalty to an entity — teams owned by accountants and leagues run by errand boys for wealth — is silly. It makes you weird and angry, it ruins your day, and can leave you broken apart. The team doesn’t care about you.
But you care about the team. And in doing so, you care about something other than White Sox, LLC. You care about what it means.
My identity as a Sox fan is my South Side family, tailgating in the parking lot, sardonically cheering for bad teams that I still somehow loved. It’s rising as one when a ball arcs through the sky, carrying with it the anticipation of exploding pinwheels.
It’s hoping for something better. It’s delirium when it is good. It’s walking down the ramp chanting with other fans, high-fiving random drunks with considerably more exuberance than visible neck.
My Sox fandom is watching games with my brothers and sister. It’s drinking beers with the extended group that always went to games. It’s new people I’ve met over the years and decades, from the coincidence of Section neighbors to long-time vendors to you weirdos on Twitter.
My Sox fandom is watching games with my dad, the memory of what he taught me, about baseball and family and life and how to be the person I want to be, of his joy when we finally won the World Series, of all of us together. My Sox fandom is, ultimately, the memory of him. How do you let that go?
You aren’t better for loyalty. You aren’t a better fan for your suffering. You haven’t done anything noble. But you are you through the things you love. We are, all of us, just a collection of memories holding together the patched quilt of identity. To just stop being a fan can be rational, but as humans are we really supposed to be?
Calcaterra’s excellent book is right about the diagnosis. He’s even right about some of the cures. I just generally think I would rather be sick. I can do no other.