The High Price of Loyalty

In burnt orange they come. The hordes.

Ninety-four-thousand, one-hundred and thirteen of them. All dressed in burnt-orange shirts with burnt-orange hats, grasping giant burnt-orange foam “No. 1” hands and burnt-orange beer holders to hold their burnt-orange beer.

There you are in your car, dressed in black or white or blue or red—anything but burnt orange—headed to a quiet spot to eat a plate of eggs and bacon and to agonize over The New York Times crossword puzzle or parse Obama’s poll numbers. You’re stuck in traffic. It’s hot. Too hot for a month calling itself September. And everywhere you look, those burnt-orange hordes are descending on your car, clogging up the roadways and intersections, totally indifferent to your needs or desires, seas of them washing down Austin streets toward Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium.

And suddenly it dawns on you—you the sucker, the northern interloper, the ignorant carpetbagger—today is the first day of football season. You feel like an idiot because you are an idiot. What kind of schmuck drives his car around campus on game days? Only a sucker, only a northern interloper, only a carpetbagger who is still—after six years—unaccustomed to the idea that football season can and does start while it’s still 100 degrees outside. That’s insanity, you protest: Football is played in the fall. Fall should be cool. Football should be played when it’s cool! A syllogism born out of regional ignorance, worth absolutely nothing when you’re trapped in a hot car on game day in Austin.

So you sit there, and you stew, and you fume, and you dream of slamming on the horn.

Hungry Yankee coming through! Make way!

Then something strange happens. Beneath all those layers of anger and self-pity and pre-breakfast loathing for the human race, concern wells up in you, concern for your fellow man, concern and worry for those poor UT fans slogging their way to the game, blissfully unaware of the danger they’re walking into. You look out at them and, in a sudden flood of empathy and transcendental interconnectedness, you want to yell out and save them:

Turn around! Go back! I’ve been where you are! Yours is the path of despair, the path of impotence, the path of undying shame!

Team loyalty is the road to misery!

Turn back!

But no one’s listening.

January 22, 1984. Tampa, Fla. Super Bowl XVIII. The Washington Redskins vs. the Los Angeles Raiders.

I was 8, a good American boy loyal to a good American team that was known for playing the good American way. The Redskins didn’t play dirty or complain about missed calls or rub their victories in opponents’ faces; they just played hard and decent football. Everything about them was good. What did I know then about a team name that hinted at the darkest places in the collective American memory? What did I know about free agency or manipulative sports marketing or non-guaranteed contracts or covetous team owners? Nothing. All I knew, all I needed to know, was that boys who grew up in suburban Maryland loved the Washington Redskins with undying passion. So I did.

One year earlier, led by the great John Riggins and the great but brittle Joe Theisman, the ‘Skins had won the Super Bowl—their first—beating the Miami Dolphins 27-17. My love affair was born. The next season they swarmed the NFL like locusts, consuming everything they saw on their way to a 14-win season. My love grew. Now all they had to do was beat the Raiders—who were dreaded and terrifying, but surely no match for the juggernaut I had pinned my hopes to—and the repeat would be theirs. Or rather ours. I believed—no, I was sure—we were destined to win.

Of course, we lost. Actually, we got crushed, 38-9. “Black Sunday” the newspapers called it, after the color of the Raiders’ jerseys and the color of their nasty, brutish little hearts. I was miserable for weeks. I moped and cried and felt sorry for myself, and I wondered how God could be so cruel as to crush my hopes like that. Like Job without the patience, I felt singled out for pain and degradation. So I rebelled. In a fit of childish pique, I decided that I would never allow another team to hurt me that way again.

Team loyalty makes you miserable. It has to. Misery is built into the system. In our world of constant struggle, depending on victory from outside sources for your happiness is a fool’s game.

Say what you will about fans sharing the joy when their team wins a big game; nothing resulting from that kind of vicarious triumph could offset the shame you feel when your week or your month or your year is ruined because of a group of people you don’t know and who don’t know you and who get paid whether they win or lose. Better, I say, to live a life of constant misery and defeat by your own hand than to spend a life basking in the reflected glow of other people’s achievements.

And yet, everywhere you turn, you see it: full-grown adults voluntarily putting their emotional well-being in the hands of a bunch of guys they’ve never met.

This was the source of my concern as I sat there in my car on that hot September afternoon, lost in that burnt-orange crowd. Texas football fans are died-in-the-wool loyal, from cradle to grave. It’s a virtue passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter, through the generations like religious devotion. For so many fans, the Texas Longhorns aren’t merely a football team; they’re a depository for all their hopes and a symbol of their greatest religious longing. Fans call themselves “the faithful,” the team their “spiritual anchor.” That faith, like the faith some have in God, isn’t merely tested in the crucible of defeat, but actually acquires its value from the suffering incurred there. As long as your loyalty remains strong, the belief goes, the insignificant ups and downs of all those victories and losses—glories and tragedies—are mere blips on an otherwise perfectly upward-shooting trajectory of virtue.

In other words, best to give yourself over to the tide of shouting, teeming, cheering humanity threatening to shake down the walls of Memorial Stadium and lose yourself in that communal fury rather than risk the possibility of suffering outside alone, in the heat, dependent only on your measly self for a sense of meaning.

Call me crazy, but that kind of thinking sounds like the height of willful delusion and misapprehension. In a vast and uncaring universe, surely the best chance we have—the only chance we have—to create a little meaning in our lives is seizing control of our fates and claiming responsibility for our own joy and suffering.

True fans will protest: The joy in sports comes from loyalty, they’ll argue. It comes from living and dying with a team, from sharing in their joys and despairs. It comes from riding their highs and drowning in their lows, from claiming their victories as our own. Believing that, just as they lead us to those higher places, so too do they ride our enthusiasm and dedication. They are the fount of our happiness, and we are the source of their energy.

They’ll say this because they’ve been hoodwinked. Because long ago they bought into that most ancient of sporting delusions, the one that says “they” is actually “we” and the team will always be as loyal to us as we are to it. Which is nonsense, of course. In Seattle, for example, basketball fans stuck by the SuperSonics for 40 years, through championship seasons and dead-last finishes. Loyal fans all the way. What happens? One day their team is bought up by an investment group led by an Oklahoma businessman. After the new owner and the city fail to reach an agreement on a new arena, the Sonics are unceremoniously packed up and relocated to Oklahoma City. Just like that. No goodbyes, no apologies. Just a few rounds of arbitration, a lease-payment settlement, and—poof!—gone. Forty years of undying loyalty down the drain. And for what? A slightly larger market share? New corporate sponsorship and cross-marketing opportunities? A theory about changing regional demographics as they apply to T-shirt sales? A rich man’s vanity?

Yep.

So it’s goodbye SuperSonics.

Of course, teams don’t have to move or dissolve or go bankrupt to suck the air out of their fans’ lungs. There are 1,001 ways for your favorite team to grind your miserable little heart into dust, from filling the roster with steroid users to coming in dead last year after year after year. Or take the Italian soccer team Lazio, whose one-time star player, Paolo Di Canio, was caught on tape throwing up fascist hand salutes after scoring a goal. I’m sorry, fascist hand salutes? Are you telling me that if I just happen to have been born in the Lazio region of Italy, just happen to have been raised by a soccer-loving father and mother, just happen to have fallen in love with the game and the shape of the ball and the local team and their colors and their history, that I am required—according to the unwritten laws of sports-fan loyalty—to stick by that team even after finding out that their star player is a fascist? I don’t care if you can dribble the length of a soccer field with your eyes closed and score a goal while lying on the ground eating a bowl of sour cream and reciting the Gettysburg Address backwards: If you admire Mussolini, I’m not going to cheer your name or put your poster on my wall, and I’m definitely not going to let your successes and failures determine whether I’m having a good week.

Or take Boston Red Sox fans, those fleece-vested romantics. I went to school in Connecticut, so every fall I saw firsthand the consequences of the maniacal devotion that defined Red Sox Nation. Every year I saw good friends get their hearts broken because they were silly enough not just to believe the Red Sox might win the World Series, but to care if they won the World Series. Sure enough, every year (just like the 80 or so years before) they’d get their souls ripped out, and for days after I’d see nothing but discarded team jackets thrown despondently into corners, and the bitter, dejected looks of lifelong fans dumb enough to have been hoodwinked again.

Then, in 2004, the strangest thing happened. The curse broke, the Sox won the series, and all that loyalty was paid back a million-fold. Sweet vindication arrived for all those children of 1918, who had waited, and waited, and waited for that glorious day with such devotion. Dedicated Sox fans were proven right; a cynical world, with its twisted priorities, was proven wrong.

Even in those early, happy days after game four, though, you could sense a faint dark lining around those blue skies. “Now what?” the baseball gods seemed to ask Sox fans. “Who are you if you aren’t the tragic figures you’ve always prided yourselves on being? What is the point of being a Red Sox fan if you’re don’t exist in a constant state of mythical commiseration? Who are you now that you won?”

Answer: No one.

Red Sox fans will say this isn’t true, but I’ve seen that look in my friends’ eyes. The fire has been snuffed out; the love and devotion are gone. They traded the singular, soulful joy of tragic, even divine, victimhood for the empty blandness of victory. They traded poetry for prose. Correction: Their team traded poetry for prose. And, as a consequence, their fans’ lives are a little bit darker, a little drearier, a little less meaningful. And they’ll continue to be that way—no matter how many rings they win.

Teams, you see, will find the cleverest ways to screw you.

Just a friendly word of warning to my neighbors in orange.

Josh Rosenblatt is a freelance arts writer and critic living in Austin.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.

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