Kleefeld’s Fanthropology #25: Of Sports & Superheroes

When I was growing up, I could not for the life of me understand sports fandom. I wasn’t terribly athletic, so despite some bouts with Little League and intermural basketball and the like, I didn’t have a lot of interest in sports in the first place. But having played a number of them, both in local leagues and in gym class, I understood the basic rules and techniques in the games, so my lack of understanding sports fandom didn’t come from a lack of understanding the games themselves.

What I didn’t understand was why anyone would be a fan of an entire team, year after year for decades on end. I could see being a fan of an individual player; not having much ability myself, it was easy to look at and appreciate the ease with which professional athletes could accomplish what I could not. I could understand seeing how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky-hook was impressive and worth garnering a fans’ attention. The Olympics made a lot more sense to me by that standard than professional sports; I can see why people are just as happy to cheer on Usain Bolt as Gabby Douglas.

By contrast, following an entire sports team failed to resonate for me. While some of the individual players might be worth sustained interest, or even some coaches, the members of any given sports team change on an almost ongoing basis. Why would I support the Cleveland Indians for a decade, when the entire roster would change over several times? It would be an entirely different team, consisting of entirely different players from when I first started watching.

I tried likening the idea to comic books. After all, I was following comic book titles that were being created by an entirely different group of people than those who first started working on the book. Writers and artists get swapped out all the time, not to mention the changes in inkers, letterers and colorists. Surely, that can’t be that different than following a sports team that changes players? In fact, weren’t the star players of any given team like the comic book writer and artist; the big headliners that would draw the most people? Weren’t the coaches like comic book editors, calling the shots at a high level and making sure things run as smoothly as possible? How could these feel so different?

I argued with myself for many years that comics maintained at least some consistency in character. If you were reading about Superman and Spider-Man, the basic character traits that made up that character were in place regardless of who was writing or drawing the book. Superman was Superman. Even if the creators got swapped out, they all worked toward the same basic model.

Of course, that arguement doesn’t really hold up. Even just looking through Batman’s appearances on film, we’ve got everyone from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer to Christian Bale providing pretty varied takes on the character. I think it’s hard to find someone who’s as much a fan of West’s Batman as of Bale’s, and vice-versa.

The confusion kept me from understanding college allegiance too. I appreciate that someone went to a specific university, and has a diploma with that school’s name on it, but if that was 20 or 30 years ago, why is that still significant to you? Aren’t most, if not all, the professors from back then gone? Certainly all the students who attended at the same time are! Heck, these days, even the campus buildings themselves change often enough that you can’t recognize the place you graduate from as the same place you enrolled!

But, ultimately, it turns out, that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter that the place you have a degree from doesn’t still have the campus quad that you crossed on your way to English class. It doesn’t matter that Ben Affleck has been tapped to wear the same cape and cowl that Lewis Wilson wore back in 1943. And it doesn’t matter that the famous “Showtime” Lakers have been gone for over two decades. what does matter is that you’ve joined a tribe.

The tribe used to be a relatively small collection of individuals who all lived in close proximity, and used that proximity as a form of protection. Your tribe could circle the wagons (sometimes literally) and help keep out attacks from outsiders. Everyone shared in part of the defense and, as a result, had a greater degree of safety. That notion is almost hard-wired into our brains still and, while we don’t have to circle the wagons so much and are too geographically diverse to really do so anyway, we still use the idea of a tribe to establish a form of support. It’s more emotional and than physical, but we reach out to our tribes — the people with whom we’ve established some connection — for encouragement when we get a new job or buy a new house. For a shoulder to cry on when we’ve lost a loved one or have experienced a personal trauma. For help in fixing your computer when everything freezes up on you.

Those tribes are still there; they’re just not built as much around phyiscal location anymore, but rather a shared experience. A ball game that we all enjoyed. A general character premise that we appreciate. An education using some of the same facilities. We can use anything to form that bond with others. Superheroes and science fiction figures certainly come up a lot with the people I tend to call friends, but there’s no reason that can’t be athletes or college professors either!