Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Modern Sports Dilemma and the Boo-Birds Who Helped Inspire It

Everyone knows exactly what it feels like to want to laugh, cry, and rage at the same time. That's because it is the only way to deal with the world on a daily basis.

For instance, look at the American voting process. Less than 50% of the country votes. Who makes up a disproportionate percentage of the non-voting public? Minorities, the poor, the middle-class, the disillusioned. Who gets routinely screwed? Minorities, the poor, the middle-class, the disillusioned.

And why don't these people vote?

Often it is because they feel powerless to change the system. To borrow from MLK, they believe they have nothing for which to vote. This is not a criticism of them. The establishment has been masterful in convincing them that it has the power to control the system and will always have it. But this is obviously untrue. It is the establishment's most powerful weapon and it is total nonsense.

If Kevin Spacey is right and the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist, then this is a close second.

The establishment has power because it is in power and has structured the system to benefit itself (it's also got everyone distracted by in-fighting; that's a different story). But the power to put and keep it in control rests - and always rests - with the people. Campaign contributions and special interest groups are incredibly effective, but they aren't votes. Only the people control their votes.

And who has the numbers? Minorities, the poor, the middle-class, the disillusioned.

If you believe the majority of 21st Century America is white and upper-class, you probably haven't left your gated community for quite some time.

The easiest way to change the system for the average American is to vote together. We have the numbers to do it. But enough of us have been convinced not to wield this power that nothing of substance every really changes. In our favor anyway.

The vast majority of the last superpower on the planet is closer to the 9th Ward (and apparently getting closer) than it is to 10 houses and an Ivy League education. And yet we continue to elect stiffs like Bush/Quayle, Clinton/Gore, and Bush Lite/Chaney. If you think about it without forcing yourself to laugh, you better not have a gun in the house.

How is this relevant to sports? Because the situation is the exact same.

The fans continue to get screwed by increasingly spoiled/selfish athletes, rising ticket/condiment prices, and greedy/disloyal owners. Meanwhile, the owners and players (the establishment) get fatter, richer, and increase their stables of luxury SUVs. Our response is to throw up our hands and say, "oh well, what can we do? Here's $10 for a light beer and another $50 for my upper deck seat."

Yet, we have the most control over the situation. Just like the political establishment needs vote to stay in control, the sports establishment needs fans to exist. If we ignore it, it disappears so we control it. Unfortunately, this means that, just as we have helped create our regrettable political reality, so have we fans helped create the current sports monster.

Take booing for example.

I'm sure it happens in all sports, but baseball is my expertise so it is where I can speak with the most authority. Everyone knows the infamous reputations of Philly, New York, and Boston to a lesser degree. But you're starting to see it spread to every stadium. Even my heretofore mellow compatriots in SF have been guilty of it with Barry Zito.

A guy gets an insane contract, struggles under the weight of expectation, and the "loyal" fans turn on him. It doesn't matter if he is sick to death over the slump. It doesn't matter that the slump is often the product of pressure created by desperately wanting to meet expectations. It doesn't matter that booing usually makes the situation worse by increasing that pressure, thus prolonging the slump, thus further hurting the fans' team.

Look, I agree that these guys are insanely paid. I also agree that we fans have a right to expect a certain level of production for that money. And I heartily support booing bums who don't give a flip (that's you JD) or guys who get millions then dog it (give Manny time LA - once a dog, always a dog). I even agree that the huge contract is fair warning of the potential for harsh criticism.

But what purpose is served by booing a guy whose only sin is trying but not performing under a big contract and who is sincerely upset by the situation? What's the justification?

Are these players supposed to turn down the money thrown at them? Are they supposed to give the money back if they fail to deliver? Are they supposed to point out flaws in a system that greatly favors them? Would any of the lusty boo-birds do this?

Even worse, it sends the message that their behavior doesn't matter as long as they put up good numbers. One way to send this message is to cheer a good player no matter what else he does. Many fans are guilty of this to a degree (my stance on Barry Bonds is an admission of my own such guilt). But this is what we're supposed to do - support your team and players within the generous bounds of reason.

An equally effective way to send the message is to boo a slumping player no matter what else he does. Sadly, many fans are guilty of this as well. But it is short-sighted and counterproductive. It embitters the players, hurts the fans' team, and creates an environment where players justifiably believe that performance entitles them to any outrageous behavior.

We as fans have the real power. It is time we started using it intelligently to our advantage. So boo the superstar who doesn't play hard. Boo the guy who slumps and doesn't particularly care. Boo the guy who chucks his girlfriend down a flight of stairs regardless of what he does on the field.

But don't boo the guys who really care about doing well and are trying to do so. Yes, it's frustrating to have a $17 million pitcher lose almost 20 games. But what more can the man do when he is trying everything?

Yes, it will take a little discretion, restraint, and maturity on our part.

But then we have all the more reason to demand it from them.

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