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Death of a Sports Fan

A lapsed sports believer spends a day watching ESPN classics in an attempt to get that lovin' feeling again.

Journalist Jimmy Cannon once said, “A sports fan is one that boos a TV set.”

For years, I not only booed the tube, I flipped it the bird. I brought “fan” back to the Latin fanaticus; the sort of extremist Tim Parks called a “weekend Taliban,” a fundamentalist in “an undying community” of like-minded couch potatoes, masochists, and lunatics.

But sometime in the last few years, I went from that hardcore fandom to something other TV booers would derisively call a “spectator”. The difference, according to J.C. Pooley, is that the spectator “will observe a spectacle and forget it”, while the fan persists, until “parts of every day are devoted to either his team or…to the broad realm of the sport.”

I was in Florida, visiting family, when I realized the latter could no longer describe me. “Do you think the Dolphins can turn things around?“ My uncle asked. Ten years ago, I would have answered with a breakdown of defensive formations and play-calling in the red zone. “Hard to say,” I replied instead.

Somehow, I’d stopped caring, and no longer knew enough to participate. This is troubling, not only because I now have nothing to talk about with my Fox News-loving uncle, but because it puts me at odds with pretty much everyone. In the US, the number of people who consider themselves sports fans has risen to over 70%, with an ESPN survey in 2000 finding an increase in the fan base of all major sports.

So, why did I tune out? And am I better or worse off without the “real” fan’s sleepless nights and irrational hatred of strangers? The only way to understand was to do what I used to do: watch. More specifically, I spent a day watching ESPN Classic, the home of some of the greatest moments in sports. If that couldn’t make me boo a TV again, nothing could.

8:00 AM OKLAHOMA VS USC (SEPT 26 1981)

Writing about old newspapers, Bob Dylan was “intrigued by the language and the rhetoric of the times,” and mystified that, “the age that I was living in didn't resemble this age, but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way." This is how I feel watching this game. It’s exactly as you’d expect, but it might as well be another world.

For one thing, everything looks and sounds awesome: the spartan uniforms and oversized shoulder pads; the grainy, filmic quality of the visuals; the dramatically overstuffed Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; and a commentator with the thickest Texan accent I’ve ever heard.

Roaming cameras pan the sidelines for close-ups of startled, nervous cheerleaders, including one male cheerleader wearing bell-bottoms and leather shoes. He’s energetically jumping up and down and wants people to cheer so badly that he scares the living hell out of me.

All in all, the amount of youthful optimism and enthusiasm is palpable. Was I ever that energetic and excited about anything? The only thing that keeps me going is a penalty call, and the chant that follows: “Bull-shit, Bull-shit, Bull-shit” the crowd bellows, clear as a sunny day.

The game is a battle between traditional and modern football: USC’s offence is centered on a quarterback who sits in the pocket and throws, while Oklahoma uses a quick quarterback who can’t throw worth a shit. Literally, every time they have to throw the ball, they remove him and bring someone else in.

Oklahoma’s coach is Barry Switzer, who would eventually coach the Dallas Cowboys, a team I hated more than cancer. Switzer isn’t as easy to hate here: his team is full of tricks and creative plays, and he’s ridiculously young and vibrant, with a helmet of hair so immaculately sculpted it should be behind a museum’s bulletproof glass.
Best of all, he and his coaching staff are not using headsets and clipboards. They’re just paranoid looking dudes with large collared shirts and bad haircuts. In fact, both sets of coaches kind of look like drug enforcement agents. I’m not sure if this is better than the quasi-militarized look coaches sport today.

One of the USC players is Marcus Allen, who I knew as the elder statesmen of the NFL, a geriatric figure commentators fawned over, as if he was a charity case for still playing. To see him in his prime, making college players look like disabled fat kids is really something else.

The only other notable player for me is Oklahoma running back George “Buster” Rhymes, and not because of his nickname. Somehow, I remember that he played in the NFL and CFL. Wikipedia tells me he’s also been convicted of carjacking and possession of crack cocaine. After that, every time he touches the ball it’s depressing. I make it a point not to look up any other players.

Oklahoma turns over the ball ten times. Ten. This is the sort of wacky thing that gets people watching, a sense that anything can happen. Fittingly, the audience is reminded that Nolan Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter that day, and that he’s the only man to do it that many times. Right on.

USC is down by 10 with 8 minutes to go. They cut the lead to 3, and get the ball back with time running out. What follows is a series of plays near the Oklahoma goal line that ends in a dramatic touchdown throw, and shots of Switzer bent over in agony, and staring into the distance. I almost feel for him, the bastard.

The rest is a scene I’ve watched a hundred times: the coaches meet at midfield, surrounded by press, and shake hands; winning players and fans go ape shit in the background.

The spectator in me is ready for the next game. The inner fan just wet himself. This is the best start to a day I’ve had in years. Pathetic but true.


I’d be hard pressed to name many players playing today, but watching this is like sliding into the groove of a favorite couch. The early 90’s were my era of hockey, the period I grew up in and loved. Fittingly, the story lines come back to me quickly, and I might as well be 15 again.

But why is this on? What makes something classic? Is it just the passage of time? For classic rock radio stations, it’s anything that can help them advertise to baby boomers. What does it mean then when something from my lifetime makes the cut? We’re the target demographic? The thought scares me, since commercials are partly what drove me off. The average NFL game, according to the Wall Street Journal, features less than 11 minutes of action, and over 60 minutes of commercials.

Fittingly, ESPN Classic subtly tries to push you back to more profitable channels, scrolling scores from the present day at the bottom of the screen, as if to remind you how retarded you are for watching a hockey game from 15 years ago. Wouldn’t you be more happy living for the now?

The game features players like Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Adam Graves, Bernie Nichols, Essa Tikkanen, and Craig Mctavish, as well as a coaching battle between Mike Keenan and Jacques Lemaire, which in itself is like some sort of summit meeting for hair loss.

Messier, who has a broken rib and has guaranteed victory, looks like a jackass early in the first, with the Devils taking a 2-0 lead. Kovalev then provides some hope for the Rangers, making it 2-1.

Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, two commentators I’ve never heard of, are joined intermittently by Al Morganti, who says things like, “The entire temperament of the Rangers team changed following the goal”. He’s the saddest man I’ve seen in a long time.

Ken Daneyko, who looks like a cow carcass re-animated to terrify Europeans and superstar captains, sticks his glove in Messier’s face and pulls down. It’s a classic face scrub, and I love every second of it, until my girlfriend brings something to my attention.
“Wasn’t that guy in Battle of the Blades?” She asks.

Suddenly, Daneyko doesn’t look so tough, and neither does his teammate Claude Lemieux, who was also on the CBC show that paired former hockey players with figure skaters and emasculated them on TV. Unbelievably, there are also two other contestants from that show in this game. “He was there too!” She says of poor Glenn Anderson.

“And him too!” She says, outing Stephane Richer. As a kid I heard rumors that Richer and Roch Voisine were lovers. I remember that it was ok for Roch to be into dudes, but not Stephane.

As if on cue, Richer gets taken out with a knee on knee hit from Esa Tikkanen, who I used to like, but now I see is kind of a prick. Richer writhes in pain and slams his fist against the bench. Tikkanen is ejected, and casually walks to the dressing room. He might as well be whistling, the fucker.

Messier ties the game, and throws his hands in the air like a prizefighter. ESPN shows the cover of the New York Sun: “Captain Courageous says,‘We’ll win.’” Gary Thorne adds,  “Just throw the clicker away, you got all you need here”.

Right around now, Messier’s promise takes over the game, with his shifts getting extra attention. Part of what feeds this is that he’s playing against the New Jersey Devils, rivals from across the bridge.

Idiots like to drone on about sports being a unifier, something that brings people together. It’s nothing of the sort. It separates people into clear us vs them groups. Bill Simmons wrote that as a fan, “You cannot hedge your bets. You cannot unconditionally love two teams at the same time.” The idea of “unity” is also bad for business. Studies have shown that when announcers emphasize heated rivalry between opponents, viewers find it more entertaining. They’re also willing to accept physical contact when there’s a “conflict”. Messier’s comments then are a broadcaster’s dream. Not only does it heighten the drama, it also makes it clear that if he succeeds, he’ll show up the Devils in their own arena.

I can’t think about this too much though, as “We’ve moved ahead in the game,” flashes on the screen, and depresses me to no end. If parts of “classics” can be cut, what does that say about what we’re watching?

Messier scores the third goal, and two fans in the crowd are shown trying to high five each other. They miss. Gary Thorne sounds like a man having an orgasm. “There is no greater theater than sports, and Messier is writing the stuff of legend,” he shouts, the filthy pervert.

Messier completes the hat trick by scoring into an empty net, and the Ranger bench pretty much gang rapes him. It’s a man on man love fest.

Then, the fun starts. John Maclean slashes Glenn Anderson. Is there a Battle of the Blades curse? Maybe, but it probably has more to do with the extra N in his surname. People don’t like showoffs. A few minutes later, Bernie Nichols, who I realize now looks a lot like Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona, intentionally shoots the puck at Glenn. They fight and hug each other, and I can’t stop thinking that most of these guys are in their late 40s now.

The Rangers win, with Thorne adding dramatically, “the Rangers get to play one more game!” Actually, they would get to play approximately 80 to 100 games for the next fifteen years. But who’s counting?


This is a Hawaii-based workout show led by, what looks like, a porn star and her entourage of latex-clad, backward-hat wearing hard bodies. Watching this, I can say without hesitation that I’ve never been more confused. Are people really looking to ESPN Classic for 15-year-old workout routines?
It’s borderline offensive watching people exercise by the ocean when your window is covered in snow. The only redeeming quality is the gratuitous breast shots of Kiana’s workout mate, which are so unnecessary it’s almost funny.

“What the hell are you watching?” My girlfriend asks.

“It’s a classic,” I say.

“Those are so fake,” she replies.

The only thing I can think of is that this is aired for dirty men without Internet access. That, or ESPN thinks men are incredibly stupid.


Evidently, we are incredibly stupid.

Denise Austin is an attractive blonde, and also one of the perkiest, most annoying women alive. Plus, she’s in Mexico, again standing in front of the ocean.

“Now what are you watching?” My girlfriend asks, “It looks like soft porn.”

I’ve now watched four and a half hours of people exerting themselves and working out, and yet, only watching this relentlessly chirpy blonde jazzercise to horrible keyboard music confirms it: I feel disgusting.

“I work out five times a week,” Austin says, rubbing in the fact I’ve been lying on my ass all day. Then again, watching her bounce around with a crazed grin, it’s hard to figure out who’s healthier.

1:00 PM AWA WRESTLING (DEC 25 1985)

“The following program contains material that may offend some viewers,” I’m told. It’s AWA Wrestling.

Marty Janetty faces Big Thunder Kasinsky in the first match. He wears a sweater that says “CANADA” across the chest. I’m convinced this is why it’s on. Janetty wins, and I am literally bored to death. Are Canadian broadcasters so desperate for something that involves Canada they have to resort to this?

Much worse is the next bout: a tag team match involving four midgets. One of them is a man named “Little Mister T,” who, dressed in military gear and a Mohawk, is made to resemble Mr. T in the A-team. I’m both horrified and riveted, and the thought crosses my mind that this probably says something about the audience and the athletes. What that is, I don’t know, but it can’t be good.

Then again, there are people all over the world who watch wife-carrying and cheese-rolling competitions. Not to mention Buzkashi, a sport where men on horseback throw goat carcasses.

Sports, or games played for an audience, can be pretty random when you think about it. Who’s to say watching guys with sticks on ice is better or more acceptable?

The midgets pile on top of each. The crowd laughs.   

I’m ready for something else.


This is hockey before I knew it, and it doesn’t take me long to realize these may be the two coolest teams in history. Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach, Butch Goring, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, John Tonnelli!

Best of all is Bryan Trottier, who looks like he’s been on a ten-day drug-fueled bender, and was just woken up and put on skates. He has a shiner, and I think I love him.

Bob Quinn is the Flyers coach, and he looks psychotic, in the way that almost every large, imposing man did in the seventies (meaning he had a bad suit and intimidating side burns).

There are no ads on the boards, which takes me an uncomfortably long time to get used to. There’s also no recorded music between play, just a Felliniesque organ. Half of the players don’t have helmets, while the rest wear something that makes them look like starship troopers. Either way, they look about five times too cool to be current NHL players.

Sports fans talk up the greatness of past heroes, romanticising a time when players held second jobs in meat lockers, but it’s obvious that these guys would get murdered playing today. The action moves at about half the speed of today’s game, and there’s so much room that forwards can practically stop for a chat while carrying the puck. These days, players have a team of professionals dedicated to turning them into fast missiles, into projectile weapons. Somehow though, they’re less interesting because of it. This game is genuinely exciting.

There’s a fight ten minutes in between Red Kelly and Bob “Knuckles” Nydstrom. Fighting is often frowned on now (partly, I think, because of the aforementioned training and condition of the players), but with these guys, it feels absolutely necessary. They look more like plumbers and welders than athletes, and I’m not sure they’re even sober. Kick his ass Nydstrom!

Reggie Leach scores, and his teammates go crazy. The Islanders then score two controversial goals to take a lead.

Bryan Propp moves like a mentally unstable farmhand created by Steinbeck. Thankfully he has soft hands, and he ties the game. The play is frenetic, and incredible.

The score is tied at the end of regulation, which means overtime, or SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME, as the commentators and on-screen graphics call it.

Nysdtrom scores the winning goal and the arena explodes, like New Year’s Eve mixed with the Fourth of July. The joy of players and fans is unbelievable, mostly because no one knows what to do. These aren’t people used to winning, and they’re overwhelmed. 

This would be the first of four consecutive championships for the Islanders. It’s beautiful then to see a dynasty take its first steps, but also a bit sad. These days, I understand that the team is a joke, their name often associated with relocation and bankruptcy.

Nothing lasts, even when you have Brian Trottier.


Either there are not a lot of classics, or not a lot of people watching. The second time it’s definitely pathetic: I’ve already seen this game, today.

You do notice a few more things the second time around, like the fact that the refs aren’t wearing helmets, or that Messier never seems to stop spitting. It’s mind-boggling. How can one man have so much saliva?
After what I’ve just watched, the game feels very stale suddenly. The ads on the boards look really garish, and it’s kind of stupid hearing a rock song at every stoppage of play. Overall, it just doesn’t seem as reckless or fun, and there’s a thick corporate vibe hanging over everything. Even Messier’s guaranteed win feels kind of hollow now. Basically, it all feels very contrived, and it’s startling how quickly my perception of this game changed.
A 1991 study claimed that with traditional institutions like religion and family breaking down, sports were filling the void. Trouble is, watching Daneyko’s face scrub now, or Nic Cage shooting the puck at Anderson, I tend to agree with Orwell, who thought sports were “bound with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness”. Maybe, like he said, we don’t need to add to the real problems in the world by “encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators”.

Or maybe not. After all, how different is it than following a TV series? Both are essentially meaningless and forgettable when it comes down to it, but they do tie you to a time and place, and fulfill some primordial need to belong to a family, friends, a tribe.

So why did I stop booing the TV? I suspect over the years that the combination of overt commercialization, violence, and stupidity helped erode my interest, but there’s more.

Throughout the day I’ve been thinking of my grandfather, who passed away last year. As an immigrant to Canada, he took to hockey quickly, but never cared enough to learn names of players or teams, a remarkable thing considering he watched every televised game.

He was a spectator, and I thought he was crazy for it. Looking back now, he probably thought the same about the grandson who knew the number, height, and weight of every player on the Oilers. Over the years, we watched hundreds of games together, until I started to hang around friends and “real fans”, people who knew as much as me, and who could talk as much bullshit. Funny thing is, those nights are completely lost to me. I don’t remember a thing about them.

If anything then, that’s why I stopped booing the TV, why I stopped being a fan. Much like watching this game a second time, after awhile, everything about that level of extremism sort of blends together, until you only see the negative; a series of empty experiences that can’t replace even one meaningful night with a spectator like him.

The Rangers win again, suspended in collective memory. Thorne goes crazy, and I don’t really care.

“Are you finished watching this? I want to go out,” My girlfriend says.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I am.”