Thursday, April 16, 2009

Vicarious victory:
Expectations of the sports fan

Tonight, the National Hockey League's 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs begin in Detroit* - and the Red Wings will resume their quest for back-to-back championships. It is a time and place fraught with expectations higher than many of us have ever experienced. Imagine going to work in front of (literally) tens of thousands of people each night - and potentially hundreds of thousands more watching or listening around the country (or the world) - many of whom have piled their own expectations for vicarious victory on top of your own. There are no neutral observers - these people have paid serious money to come and watch you perform. They will cheer your successes - and be quick to jeer your mistakes and misfortunes.

I'm not asking you to feel sorry for a professional athlete paid millions of dollars to play a game. It's a job we'd all love to have - we say. But would we really find that the financial benefits compensated for the extraordinary pressure, the physical demands, the unrelenting second-guessing of the press and every know-it-all sports talk radio junkie in the city? We might like the paycheck - but I think few of us (and I do not include myself in the number) would thrive under those conditions.

Anyway, I'm not really that interested in talking about what athletes go through during "crunch time". I think it's way more interesting to think about what fans go through - or put themselves through (to be more precise) in observation and support of their favorite teams. Because - think about it - we have nothing invested in the outcome of these contests; except what we ourselves bring to the proverbial table and freely ante up based on our own unique motivations.

Those may be: civic pride, fidelity to a particular team or player, a wager, love of the sport, or (simply) habit. But whatever the reason, we offer up our support, our hopes, our expectations freely - with no external motivating factor, other than (maybe) a little peer pressure.**

I think some of us also use sports as a way to off-load our own hopes and dreams onto someone or something that (we unconsciously hope) will have more success with them than we have. Or at least can bear the burden of those expectations for awhile, so we can have a break. I grew more than a little uncomfortable at the overt display of this phenomena during the waning days of the NCAA tournament - when the Michigan State Spartans were converted by the media (and, of course, by some fans as well) from a basketball team into Detroit's and Michigan's one ray of hope and chance for salvation amongst the despair and poverty of America's economic downturn, blah blah blah blah blah...!

Hello - McFly?! These are KIDS! Very young men - playing a game. It was nice to watch them play so well - and to see that team reach its full potential. In fact, I think they performed some magic for a few nights and played beyond what most people expected (even their supporters - including me). It's a beautiful thing to see athletes rise to a new level - to go where you didn't expect they could go.***

Which brings us back to the Red Wings. They don't have that problem. Everybody (around here anyway) expects them to win the Stanley Cup. The guys on the team expect it too. And when your expectation is to be the best in the world, you're in a tight spot. There's little room for failure. It's all or nothing - all the time. The Wings have sustained an extremely high level of performance with that approach. And they have attracted great players who are willing to make LESS MONEY in order to, they hope, have a better shot at ultimate success.

I guess it all depends on what you want. As yesterday's post tried to illustrate: If happiness is your ultimate goal, be careful what you hope for. But if you want to be the best...

High expectations could really come in handy.

Take care.

*Anyone who wishes to point out that the playoffs actually began last night in Newark, Pittsburgh and Washington DC will be summarily ignored.
** This is especially true if you are male and live in a "sports town". I am and this is - but, thankfully, I'm nearly immune to peer pressure. (Years of practice.)
*** The Spartans overachieved - and got steamrolled by a better team. That's no shame - that's sports. But if you're looking for salvation and rays of hope - get to a church or some other place of worship quick; read a book on Mother Theresa or MLK or Gandhi; take a quiet walk in the forest and meditate. I don't suggest watching basketball.


Middle Aged Woman said...

I don't think too many (other than the media) were looking to the Spartans for salvation. A bright spot in a dark time, maybe. Yesterday on NPR they said that if you count all the people who have given up looking for jobs, as well as those working at Burger McSlider's while they wait for real jobs, then Michigan is at 21% unemployment. And it's expected to get worse.

Jim Styro said...

I think some people (maybe everyone) "need Alan Swanns as big as (they) can get them". Whether you call that "looking for salvation" or "a bright spot in a dark time". If the economy continues to worsen, I expect that desire will increase. I heard that same story on NPR - and am glad I have some place to go in the mornings where they will compensate me handsomely.

Cathy said...

I too was slightly annoyed by the media saying that MSU was the only good thing left in Michigan and I love that people will play for the red wings to win championships rather than for someone else for a big fat paycheck. Mike Ilitch is my hero, I heard that GM couldn't afford to pay for some $500,000 sign at comerica park, so Ilitch said "don't worry about it" and proceeded to put up free advertisements for ford and chrylser as well.

Jim Styro said...

Cathy: Thanks for your comment. But, be honest: Were you annoyed 'cause you're a U-M grad? (Actually, I heard that there was more good-feeling between U-M & MSU supporters during this year's NCAA than any other time within memory.)
I had not heard about the Mike Ilitch thing - but I agree that he truly appears to have the community's best interests at heart. GO WINGS!

Cathy said...

I was rooting for state all the way, being raised in a divided household, I usually root for them when they aren't playing UM, but I'm just tired of everyone making Michigan out to be the most dismal place on Earth.

Jim Styro said...

Cathy: I believe I understand. Some of the media coverage during the tournament was like being at your own funeral listening to the eulogy. "Hey, I'm not DEAD yet!"

In this case, it was more like: "Poor Michigan - it's such a sh*thole there. Maybe their basketball team can win and make everybody feel better." It's an exaggeration of the coverage perhaps - but not without some foundation in fact.