Thrill of Victory

When sports fandom goes too far

I opened the e-mail from ESPN last week, and when I saw the phrase, “It’s not crazy, it’s sports,” I decided I had to watch the video embedded within the e-mail. ESPN has made a series of humorous commercials around that tagline for years, so I figured that whatever the contents of the video were, they’d be good for a laugh.

This one, though, never brought the smile to my face that I was expecting.

The eight-minute video was about sports fans that had died and wanted to commemorate their dedication to their favorite teams at their funerals. One by one, funeral directors (and the occasional friend or family member) discussed the arrangements they made for the deceased, which usually included burying the person in his or her favorite team’s jersey in a coffin with the favorite team’s logo. At one funeral home, one of the dearly departed was even put on display in a recliner under a Pittsburgh Steelers blanket and turned towards a TV where Steelers game footage was being played, as if he’d just “fallen asleep” watching his beloved team.

Instead of finding it all funny or cute, it seemed rather sad — perhaps even tragic — instead.

Look, I love sports as much as most people. I have ever since I was a little kid. I confess that love has spilled over into my adult life more than it should at times. (If you’ve been guilty of checking your phone for sports scores when you should have been paying attention to other things, you know what I mean.) I’m fortunate enough that I get paid to write about it for a living – and there’s probably nothing in life I’d rather do than just that. So, let me confess perhaps some level of hypocrisy on the front end.

ESPN’s latest snippet is extreme, but it also illustrates how much fandom of our favorite teams can become our identity. When I’m six feet under one day, I sure hope that people remember me with phrases like “loving husband,” “wonderful father,” “loyal friend,” or better yet, “someone who truly loved Jesus” instead of “Titans super fan.” Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that people in the film weren’t remembered as those things, too. But when team loyalty is front-and-center at a person’s death, you have to wonder.

The more I think about it, what bothers me is not that people die that way as much as they live that way. We’ve all heard horror stories about Team A’s fans going to Team B’s stadium where x, y and z happened, and the same happening to Team B’s fans on their trip to Team A’s city. At best, “x,” “y” and “z” are unpleasant or crude occurrences, and at worst, those things can be criminal acts.

Then, there are the stories of what our obsessions do to those on our own “team” – you know, our families. I once heard a story of a mother and father telling their child that it was okay to get married, but to not count on them being at the wedding if it conflicted with a football game involving the University of (X).

This has not been a good last year-and-a-half for sports. We’ve had the football scandals at Ohio State and Miami, and in the NFL, the Saints bounty controversy. Those were bad enough, but they sadly looked like child’s play once we learned about Penn State.

We can almost all admit that what happened in each of those cases gravely offended our moral sensibilities. But none of those things happened in a vacuum. They happened when people like us allowed their obsessions for a kid’s game to go out of control. That’s what should scare us. The slippery slope is sometimes much closer to home than we care to consider.

This is not to suggest that we stop playing sports or becoming fans. There are so many life lessons we can teach our kids through sports. There are so many ways we can bond with friends and families through watching games together. And in our tough economic times, we should appreciate that our passion for sports creates jobs where they might not otherwise exists, not to mention a major source of funding for universities.

But when our fandom comes to the point that we realize we’re treating people poorly just for wearing the other team’s colors, or we find ourselves excusing behavior by the coaches or administrators of our favorite team that we’d condemn under any other circumstance, or breaking our kids’ hearts… well, maybe that’s a reality check. It’s probably also a good clue as to how we’ll be remembered by our friends and families when we’re gone.