Fandom & Identity: Reflections In A Cloudy Stadium Bathroom Mirror

There is a video making its way around the internet of some American Jewish kids on vacation in Jerusalem spewing a bunch of racist garbage, mostly about Barack Obama. . The kids are drunk, probably from some wealthy yeshiva in the Northeast, and shamefully ignorant of just about everything:

It’s an appalling representation of Jews, Americans, and Young People – three subgroups to which I proudly belong. By posting and talking about it here, I’m probably not doing myself any favors as such, but the clip merits discussion.

The fact that there are racist Jewish kids shouldn’t be a surprise. There are racists and idiots of every race, religion, and nationality. We’re all human and the human condition is fragile, flawed, and fickle. Despite understanding all that intellectually, I can’t help but find the video really revolting on a gut level. I barely made it through the whole thing.

To be honest, if this were a clip of some white kid in Georgia making the same bigoted comments, I wouldn’t be writing about it. I would have watched it, shook my head, and moved on. However, with identity come pride and shame all the emotions in between. Maybe this is a personality flaw, but while I can understand that underneath labels and colors and languages we are all the same, I still expect more of the groups I’m a part of. Not to be better – nobody is better – but to at least try harder at it.

This feeling manifests itself in all sorts of places. When I see some drunken, American tourist making a mess of things in a foreign city, I can’t help but roll my eyes and think he’s not doing much to help our image in the world. When Eliot Spitzer got caught banging a high-priced hooker, the first thing I thought – and I’m not especially proud of this – was “bad for the Jews.” When Manny Ramirez was suspended last month, I had to wonder why, why must it be a Dodger?

After all, fandom is just another level on which we identify. A friend of mine here in New York is a big Kansas City Royals fan. On the once-in-a-blue-hat occasion that he sees somebody sporting some Royals gear, he approaches them about it. It’s exciting for him to find someone who shares his relatively obscure identity.

And with identity comes identity politics. We work to advance our own particular fandoms – Yankee fans want to be better, more dedicated, more educated, stand on higher moral ground, than Red Sox fans, and vice versa. Same goes for any rivalry in any sport, or in politics, or in global affairs. In a very dramatic essay called The Sporting Spirit, George Orwell assesses the rise of gung-ho fandom in grim terms:

There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.

Well, yeah.

Without getting into too much detail about the relataive sanity of fandom – or whether the habit of identifying oneself with large power units is truly lunatic – I think Orwell’s point is generally correct. There is an innate urge to identify ones self with a larger unit, whether familiar, religious, national, or athletic. Often society does the work for us. We can’t help where we are born or who our family is. Even the things we are supposedly free to choose like political affiliation, religion, taste in music, or favorite sports teams, are often inherited from our parents or subconsciously absorbed from the people we grew up around.

Sports fandom isn’t just bound up with the rise of nationalism, it is nationalism. There is no intellectual or moral reasoning involved in the way we pick our favorite teams — it’s geography and family and a number of other subliminal factors. I grew up in Los Angeles, thus I am a Dodger fan. My mother’s family is from Miami and brainwashed me from a young age, thus I am a Dolphins fan. Is it random and illogical? Yes, but no more random and illogical than patriotism – and like patriotism not necessarily (sorry Mr. Orwell) such a bad thing. Teams are homelands. We all need those. That’s why a group of bat-shit crazy costumed criminals can get together, start a support group, and call it the Raider Nation.

Then again, these are artificial nations. Membership in the Raider Nation is just a luxury afforded by the institutions and protections of the American Nation. And words exchanged between fans during heated competition bear much less historical weight than words like the ones uttered by the kids in that video. Fan violence is real and tragic, but it pales in comparison to religious or nationalist violence. The personal and historic significance of our identities varies over time. In the end some have to mean more than others. If one of the kids in those videos was wearing a Dodger cap, I would have certainly noticed. But “bad for the Dodger fans” is the last thing I would have thought about.

8 Responses to “Fandom & Identity: Reflections In A Cloudy Stadium Bathroom Mirror”


  • I have, perhaps, and entire dissertation on why we identify at all, the gist of which is that we all just want to connect with someone so as not to feel alone and so, like Jodie Foster in Contact, we are constantly listening (or watching) for anything that we can connect to, but that’s sort of tangential to this so…

    Don’t you think that the only reason that fan violence pales in comparison to religious or nationalist violence is because there’s less of it. I mean, people don’t go around trying to rid then entire planet of all Yankee fans but if they did wouldn’t that be just as bad as if they wanted to rid the planet of all members of a particular race, religion or nationality?

  • “I mean, people don’t go around trying to rid then entire planet of all Yankee fans”

    I think Beth hits on an important point: in sports, the existence of the opposition is integral to the sort of “sporting nationalism.” Yanks fans may be antagonistic towards Red Sox fans, but it’d be absurd to suggest that one should be abolished, that the Sox have no right to exist. A kind of ironic-antagonistic cooexistence is inherent, and the same spirit in world government would probably serve us all better.

    Also, sporting nationalists accept an inherent level of fairness (team payrolls notwithstanding). Ten teams cannot form an alliance based on faith or skin color or religion to stamp out a minority holding.

    So I guess I’m suggesting that sporting nationalism takes the fun parts of nationalism and tempers the worser angels of our nature.

  • The reason for their comments is obviously because they are on steroids.

  • Great piece overall, but I have two beefs:

    1) “…I still expect more of the groups I’m a part of. Not to be better – nobody is better – but to at least try harder at it.” I want my groups to be better — all of them. And I’m not shy about it. You should want your groups to better, to be looked up to and not have to try and clarify that everyone is equal. We’re not equal thanks to our own myriad -isms and phobias.

    2)The scope of this discussion is a bit small; it leaves out the sport with the most fans and participants: football (or soccer). Hooliganism was and, in many places, still is a great problem. Members of football fan clubs regularly would bloodily fight each other in the streets pre- and post-match. Whereas, in the US, we watch teams comprised of players of many nationalities and backgrounds, until recently many football teams were comprised of largely homegrown talent and they would play with a team their entire career. Your team, as was stated, was most definitely a representative of your home.

    In some cases, though, sport isn’t a form of nationalism, but a vehicle for nationalism or other such -isms. Glasgow, Scotland is home to two teams, Celtic and Rangers, whose respective fanbases are Catholic and Protestant. You can see where this is going.

  • Speaking on the soccer hooligans, I recently read an article where Italians stab Brits in the ass with knives. It is seen as a shaming of sorts since the chance of death is small, but serious injury can still occur like paralysis due to damaged nerves. If I find the story again I will post.

  • Beth: I do think fan violence pales because there’s less of it. You are absolutely right. Part of this is because sports are just inherently smaller than politics — they impact less people, and part of it is because of what Ted eloquently says to end his comment. Organized Sports are inherently contrived.

    Ted: I agree. Though when you get to international competition like the Olympics or WorldCup, I think it might be optimistic to say that sporting nationalism is always effective at tempering the worser angels of our nature. I think that’s more broadly true for the Leagues and Associations and such.

    Harry: As to the first point, I’m not sure what you mean by myriad-isms and phobias. I guess it also depends how we define ‘better.’

    But as to the second, yes. I completely ignored football/soccer and the place sports becomes a vehicle for nationalism. In defense of that omission, I thought the essay would have gone off the rails had I gone in that direction. Your point about sport as a vehicle for nationalism is completely accurate. All one has to do is see a few minutes of an NBC Olympic broadcast or watch a boxer descend toward the ring wrapped in his nation’s flag.

    Perhaps this is a cynical viewpoint, but I tend to think that identity based violence will always exist, no matter what the dividing lines are. If it isn’t politics it’s religion, if it isn’t religion it’s ethnicity, if it isn’t ethnicity it’s sports. And when, like in the case of Celtic and Rangers, the situation only becomes more volatile.

    Is sporting violence like hooliganism the sport’s fault, or is the sport just a channel for rage that would manifest elsewhere in sport’s absence?

  • I was trying to say that it came off as if you were afraid of offending anyone by saying that you want your groups to be better and that I don’t think you (or anyone) should be afraid; it seemed like a politically protective statement. Also, although we should be inherently equal, we are not due to many factors like racism (-isms) and phobias (homo). While our inherent equality is not apparent, we can blame that on our inherent bias and evolutionarily developed traits.

    With regards to your final statement: I don’t think that’s cynical at all, it’s pragmatic. If it wasn’t sports it’d be something else.

  • I have been telling people for many years that even had I been born in New York, I would have nonetheless seen the light and been a Red Sox fan. That I was born in Boston only made it happen sooner…

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