Register Wednesday | June 20 | 2018

The Crowd Goes Wild

The shrinking online distance between sports fans and their heroes.

A CBC video clip of the 1996 Canadian Olympic Track and Field Trials recently surfaced online. You can watch, in grainy low definition, the twelve finalists in the men's 1,500 metres step to the line under starter's orders. A momentary pause, as the runners crouch in anticipation—then the gun fires. Eleven runners explode down the track. The twelfth, inexplicably, stays frozen on the starting line for a brief instant, then snaps out of it and takes off after his competitors. He never quite catches up, and finishes last.

A surprising number of people have stumbled on this clip and emailed it to me, along with some variation of the question, "What the hell happened there?" I was twenty years old at the time, and had made a surprising leap from total obscurity to emerge as one of the top dozen milers in Canada. At the Trials in Montreal, I lined up for the first time against the very people I had idolized since taking up the sport six years earlier. Next to me on the starting line was Graham Hood, the national record holder and a finalist at the previous Olympics. As we stood side by side, jiggling our legs nervously to stay loose, Hood windmilled his arms a few times. He accidentally whacked me on the shoulder, turned and said, "Sorry, Alex."

"Graham Hood knows my name!" That thought, echoing over and over in my head, is what I remember from my first Olympic Trials. They called us to our marks—"Graham Hood knows my name!"—the gun fired—"Graham Hood knows my name!"—and suddenly I was in last place, watching Graham Hood and ten other guys telescope away from me down the track.

The bond between sports fans and their athletic heroes is a strange one. It's strong enough that emergency room visits dip during major sporting events and spike just after, as fans put off the business of dying until the game is over. But it's basically an imaginary relationship, a one-way link that in no way prepares the fan for a real-life encounter. This gulf separating athletes from fans has been widening since the 1960s, when sports became a television staple and salaries began to spiral upward. In today's celebrity-driven culture, the relation between, say, a kid in Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby has more in common with the mythic—a Greek shepherd worshipping Zeus—than with any flesh-and-blood interaction.

The same is true for fans who worship musicians, actors or even socialites. Television, in part, created that remoteness, inflating our heroes by carrying their images to living rooms around the world, but deflating our relationship with them. Now, television is no longer ascendant, and the internet carries a different set of expectations. On blogs, message boards and athlete websites, fans are interacting with each other—and, sometimes, with their heroes. It's a volatile mix—information and opinion, fan and athlete—and it's not yet clear what the new world of sports fandom will look like. But had I been born ten years later, I'm pretty sure I would have done a lot better in my first Olympic Trials.

I was probably the only kid in my high school who could have picked Graham Hood out of a police lineup. To an aspiring fifteen-year-old runner, though, Hood was Grade-A hero material. A classic miler, he had the speed of a sprinter, the endurance of a marathoner and a devastating finishing kick. Watching him race on TV was an exercise in delayed gratification—the tension building as he lagged behind the leaders for the first few laps, the doubts forming in my mind as I wondered whether he would ever catch up. Then, finally, a shot of adrenaline as he suddenly accelerated, blew past his competitors around the final bend and strode majestically to the finish line. I would record the races, rewind and watch them over and over. Each time he launched into his finishing kick, my spine tingled.

Hood was from Burlington, Ontario, about forty-five minutes away from where I grew up, making him virtually a neighbour and a plausible proxy for my dreams. He had a chiselled jaw, a cleft chin and hair that always managed to fall into place just so, as if sprinting a mile in under four minutes simply served as a salon-grade blow-dry. Best of all, he knew how to rise to the occasion. As an unheralded twenty-year-old freshman at the University of Arkansas, Hood surprised everyone first by qualifying for the 1992 Olympics, then by making it through two rounds to become the youngest runner in the final.

If Hood was my Zeus, then sports journalists were the priests who mediated our relationship. Everything I knew about him I gleaned from newspapers, from Athletics Magazine and from television. A few months after our brief encounter at the 1996 Olympic Trials, I remember sneaking down to a storeroom in the basement of the University of Toronto physics department, where I was working for the summer, to listen to a live radio broadcast of Hood's first-round heat at the Atlanta Olympics. He hobbled off the track after just one lap, his Olympic dreams ended by a stress fracture in his leg. In a brief post-race interview, he broke down in tears. Sitting in the storeroom, surrounded by buckets of hissing liquid nitrogen, I cried too.

Not all of Hood's races earned TV time or newspaper headlines, so I sometimes had to wait until the results trickled into my mailbox several months later. When he broke the Canadian 1,500-metre record at a race in Zagreb, I didn't find out until a month later, during CBC's broadcast of the national championships. Not only was my hero-worship remote—it couldn't even take place in real time.

But technology was opening new windows. In 1994, I joined a fledgling email list for the Canadian track and field community. The "Track-Canada" list, which still exists today, was administered by a medical student at the University of Manitoba and hosted on the university's computer servers. Its members were, initially, the fairly small subset of track aficionados who were also early adopters of new technology: a motley group of athletes, coaches and fans spread out across the country. I would get a few messages a day with results from a meet in Saskatoon, or people looking for training partners in Halifax, or a debate about the selection process for the next World Championships team.

I still remember the message from the Track-Canada server that showed up in my inbox the next winter, a model of brevity. "Jason Bunston and myself ran a 3000m here in Fayetteville last night." The results followed: both Hood and Bunston had dipped under the eight-minute barrier, and Hood's 7:56 had met the qualifying standard for that year's World Indoor Championships in Barcelona. But it wasn't the fast times that grabbed me—it was the fact that I had received an email from Graham Hood. This, in turn, meant that the brief, rare messages I sent to the list would appear in Hood's inbox. It was a palpable connection—and if anything, I posted less frequently after that. When I measured the content of my little updates against what I imagined a titan like Hood might be interested in reading, my messages inevitably came up short. I would press Delete rather than Send.

Things are different these days, and not just because sports fans are far less intimidated by the internet's capabilities than I was. They are also far less intimidated by their sport. The web has all but eliminated the distinction between authority and amateur. Track fans once visited authoritative sites like RunnersWorld.com and TrackandFieldNews.com to receive information from the experts. Today everyone's an expert. I can visit track and field discussion boards where competitors and enthusiasts of all levels gather to discuss anything from the revised specifications for junior hurdle heights to whether running barefoot makes you faster. The modern sports fan, in other words, is as comfortable publicly voicing his opinion as he is listening to pundits.

But the explosion of participatory fan sites across the internet still preserves traditional aspects of sports zealotry. After all, blogging your thoughts on Daniel Alfredsson's playoff collapse is not fundamentally different from raising your voice at the local sports bar so people at the next table can hear you (even the size of the audience is probably comparable). What is new is the likelihood that Daniel Alfredsson is listening at the end of the bar, and perhaps getting in a few good cracks of his own. Sharing the same email list as Graham Hood sixteen years ago was just a taste of the possibilities. Today a figure like Hood can have his own blog, with all the virtual proximity it offers. The rules of engagement have changed—but given the chance, do fans actually have anything to say to their heroes? Or is sports discourse still typified by the guy in the cheap seats yelling, "Alfie, you're a bum"?

Sports fans tap into a deeply rooted tribal instinct, seeking a sense of belonging that, for some, substitutes for the social ties of religion and family. Such tribalism has its downsides, as occasional outbursts of mob violence show. But psychologists have found that sports fans gain considerable benefits from their attachments, through the twin strategies of BIRGing and CORFing. They raise their self-esteem by Basking In Reflected Glory when their team is successful, and avoid depression by Cutting Off Reflected Failure. These strategies operate at a distance, but many fans also dream of connecting more directly with their heroes—a quixotic venture that often ends in disappointment.

Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey described the fans who forced their way into his dressing room to the Saturday Evening Post in 1931: "They want to pick up a word here or a gesture there which, later on, they can relay, magnified, to their own little public." Athletes today go to great lengths to avoid precisely that kind of situation. While you could once hang around the player's entrance at the old Maple Leaf Gardens after the game to corral an autograph from Darryl Sittler, Dion Phaneuf and his teammates now enter and exit from a restricted underground parking bay that leads directly to their private dressing room at the Air Canada Centre. No more running the gauntlet of fans.

Dempsey, on the other hand, didn't seem to mind. "I have always regarded these curious fans in a tolerant, even friendly way," he said. Dempsey's fans would have known few details about his personal life, thanks to the strict decorum observed by sports reporters of the time, but they nonetheless felt connected to him. "This combination of distance with closeness represents a paradoxical element in hero worship," wrote sociologist Orrin Klapp in a 1949 treatise on heroes and fandom in America:

Vertical distance is maintained through homage and admiration, and at the same time social closeness is expressed through familiarity and possessiveness. There is an effort to become familiar with the hero and at the same time to put him upon a pedestal.

The picture was different when I was growing up in the 1980s. As an avid Maple Leafs and Blue Jays fan, I tumbled downstairs at 6 a.m. each day to get the newspaper and pore over box scores for an hour until it was time to get ready for school. But I had no sense of "social closeness," no physical connection with the players I knew so well. On the rare occasions when I went to see a game, sitting high in the bleachers at Exhibition Stadium or Maple Leaf Gardens, the players in the flesh seemed far less vivid to me than they did on TV or even in the newspaper, where I could at least see them well enough to tell them apart.

As a high school student, I watched Game Six of the 1992 World Series from the upper deck at SkyDome. When Mike Timlin threw out Otis Nixon in the bottom of the eleventh inning to seal the Jays' victory, I charged the field with thousands of other fans, frantically seeking Dave Winfield to congratulate him for his slump-ending, Series-winning two-run double. Only after five minutes of fruitless searching did I remember that the game had been played in Atlanta, and I had been watching it on the JumboTron screen.

While this "horizontal" gap widened, the vertical distance—the lofty pedestal on which fans elevate their athletic heroes—was steadily shrinking, thanks to a self-perpetuating cycle of bad behaviour and keener scrutiny. By the time Charles Barkley launched his "I am not a role model" ad campaign for Nike in 1992, a lot of people wished he was right. Newspapers were filled with reports of steroid use, substance abuse, violence, misogyny and a litany of athletes' other anti-social behaviours—an epidemic that, according to psychologist Stanley Teitelbaum, author of Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols, can be traced back to the sense of entitlement instilled in modern sports stars.

The turning point occurred in the 1960s, as the twin forces of money and television reshaped the sports world. In 1961, Mickey Mantle earned a league-high $75,000 while chasing his teammate Roger Maris to a new home run record. Mantle was a fan favourite, and the press kept details of his boozing and womanizing private. Just three years later, the New York Jets drafted Joe Namath and gave him a starting salary of $400,000—and his antics in the nightclubs of Manhattan quickly became as big a story as his "guarantee" of an upset win in the 1969 Super Bowl. Television was beaming games into more homes than ever, and more importantly, the broadcast format was creating a thirst for compelling narratives that extended beyond the playing field. The same trends were transforming the nature of celebrity throughout society. "Before Brando, actors acted," recalls film director Michael Winner in a recent documentary about Marlon Brando, who pioneered the now-ubiquitous role of celebrity activist in the 1960s. "After Brando, they behaved."

The cult of pop personality was born. But the more fans wanted to know about their heroes, the more those heroes retreated from the glare of public scrutiny. And this elusiveness, in turn, made us value their rare moments of unguarded candour all the more.

The future of fan-athlete interactions in a wired world—or one possible version of it—is being beta-tested in the simmering cauldron of a track and field discussion site called LetsRun.com, where, a few years ago, the legendary Kenyan distance runner Henry Rono started posting messages. The site is unprepossessing—a primitive-looking jumble of text with splotches of drab grey and yellow—but it has become an unofficial gathering place for track athletes and fans the world over. The front page of the site features a disorganized series of links to news stories and interviews posted elsewhere. On the left margin, an inconspicuous link leads to the "world famous" message board, where dozens of conversation threads are active at any given time and new messages pop up every minute or so.

The athletes posting on the site range from high-school runners to middle-aged joggers to Olympic competitors. Still, Rono's appearance created a buzz. He was a hero even to the heroes of the message board, a runner that Olympians looked up to. In a magical eighty-one-day stretch in 1978, Rono shattered the world records at four different distances from three thousand to ten thousand metres, a feat still unsurpassed. He heralded a revolution in distance-running led by athletes from Africa's Rift Valley, but his own career fizzled in the 1980s as he struggled with alcoholism, and he faded from view for the next two decades. And yet here he was, posting on LetsRun, announcing that he was living in New Mexico and hoping to threaten the world record in the mile for fifty-five-year-olds.

The reactions were initially skeptical:

runner1286: Is this REALLY Henry Rono?

Henry Rono: Those who refuses to believe, I'm on letsrun.com running chat room, check with me. My email [email protected] I talk with alot of people, since I made announcement of my comeback mile record for the age of 55.

Then began an effusion of memories, as posters recalled moments when Rono had intersected their lives: a chance meeting at an airport, a glimpse on TV as a young fan, a humbling encounter on the track.

slaps: Henry, I remember meeting you and you autographed my race number at the Peoria, Illinois Steamboat 4 mile race in 1988... I wish you "Best Wishes" in your quest to break the age group mile record. That is what you wrote for me in your autograph that I still have framed and hanging in my den, I'm looking up at it right now.

Then the endless questions about training, races, the past, the future. Rono's answers were graceful and sometimes elliptical, his broken English giving some of his pronouncements the inscrutability of a Zen koan.

Class of 2005 athlete: Mr. Rono, how many miles were you running each week in the 70's and 80's?

Henry Rono: In 1970s I was running three time each day. Cut one day into three pieces. Give each piece not less than 6 miles what do you get?

The conversation puttered on, amiably for the most part. The horizontal wedge that television has driven between fans and athletes was bridged by the internet, and Rono seemed genuinely delighted to have found a virtual community of like-minded people. But it wasn't a simple return to the olden days described by Knapp, with athletes horizontally close but elevated vertically. The pedestal was gone for good, and Rono found himself facing fans unconstrained by any sense of reverence.

is it true?: They say that you are a great guy, but at the same time they say that you are an exagerating alcoholic who defrauds race directors. They say you have a well known history of fraud. Is it true that you aren't really training much? Is it true that you were an anonymous airport worker?

Some fans asked more straightforward questions about Rono's past struggles with alcohol, and he answered frankly, describing his seventeen stints in rehab and his sobriety since 2002. He continued to train, recording his workouts and his steadily decreasing weight at LetsRun on a daily basis, and eventually he began travelling to races and competing. But his progress was slow, and the chorus of critics intensified.

laughing at the lemmings: You want my take on all this? I think Rono is using this "comeback" as a vehicle to call race directors and offer to come run thier races, for a fee of course($1000 plus expenses per race sounds about right, eh Henry?).

Anton: You've received a LOT of good advice on this board and elsewhere I'm sure, so let me tell you this: you are stubborn, self-centered and way too self-satisfied for your own good. Learn to listen to people and be flexible to get better.

no no no yes yes yes: Your a f***ing fake you basterd

REnt: I HEARD THAT BEFORE HENRYS RACE AT CANBY HE DID A FEW SHOTS OF JACK, IS THAT TRUE??

Other posters quickly chimed in telling Rono to ignore his anonymous critics, and—unlike some of the other running legends who had frequented LetsRun before eventually tiring of the endless attacks—he continued to post. But the criticisms left a mark.

Henry Rono: I have these particular individuals.Where their mouths are rediculing others for fun of it.It hurts for someone like me who loves running and work so hard to lose weights for better life...My arguement is for those people don't even make any attempt to try to run for one foot step. Only to hit some one through their mouths it does hurt more than someone hit you on a basefall pad.

I had been a regular visitor to LetsRun for about five years when Rono showed up. Though I had seen similar encounters before—runners almost as accomplished as Rono who were attacked and hounded until they withdrew from the site—I was still baffled. By definition, anyone who bothered to frequent the message board was a fan of running in some way. And athletes like Rono form the very core of the sport. What was it about the site, the sport or the medium that caused these posters to drive away the objects of their fandom?

sports

Illustration by Karsten Petrat.

A month after the 2004 Olympic Trials, I packed away my spikes for good and started journalism school at Columbia University in New York. In classes on sports journalism, we pledged idealistically to cut through the layers of rote cliché that swaddled athletes and kept them at a distance from their fans. But it wasn't until a year later, covering the 2005 NHL entry draft for the Ottawa Citizen, that I got my first full taste of life on the other side of the microphone. Late in the afternoon, I watched from the margins as a horde of reporters backed Sidney Crosby into a wall, surrounding him on three sides. He had already faced the scrum several times earlier in the day, after pulling on his Pittsburgh Penguins jersey for the first time. The questions now were the same, and so were Crosby's answers, and his smile.

"For me," he said, "the main goal is getting to the NHL."

I hadn't been expecting that Sid and I would sit down at the bar and swap yarns about school days. Still, it was depressing to realize that the stories on television that night and in the newspapers the next day would be constructed from such flimsy material. In fact, many sports columnists now conclude that talking to the athletes is an entirely superfluous exercise. "Sidney Crosby hasn't said an interesting thing in his life," says the Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt, "because they've been preparing him for this since he was twelve years old."

That's not the way interviews work on LetsRun. When the twin brothers who operate LetsRun set up a phone interview with US mile record-holder Alan Webb from his hotel in Europe, audio feed of the interview was streamed live at the LetsRun site, and listeners were encouraged to call in or post questions on the message board. Since emerging in 2001 as the most promising US miler in a generation, Webb's career has lurched between spectacular highs and disappointing lows. His every move is lauded or pillaged on the message board. Typing in "Webb" on the forum's search feature turns up more than forty thousand results. In interviews, Webb occasionally mentions the "message board critics" that second-guess his every move. But he was candid in the hour-long interview, even after this meandering final question:

I noticed after you won USAs that there was a pretty good looking young lady that received your flowers, so I assume that things are going pretty good with the women on that front for you, but...Rogaine or Propecia?

The question had been a hot one on the message board ever since the twenty-four-year-old Webb—with noticeably improved scalp coverage—had reappeared after a winter out of the spotlight. He laughed, but it sounded a little forced.

"Um, actually, neither, by the way," he said finally. "We'll just leave it at that. Let's just say, be happy that it's working!"

While Webb's humour betrayed a bit of discomfort, he didn't seem at all surprised by the question. Such bluntness is, after all, typical of discourse on the internet. About a third of teens report that they've sent messages to friends online that they wouldn't have dared say to someone's face. And the cloak of anonymity provided by message boards magnifies this disinhibition effect. As a famous New Yorker cartoon depicting a pair of dogs surfing the net puts it, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

There's no doubt that the internet has dramatically altered the way we construct our identities. The MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle describes the emergence of a decentred, plural identity that mirrors the multiple windows on a computer screen. We have learned to flip back and forth between the various windows of our personalities, depending on the context and impression we want to convey. The track fan on LetsRun, then, can present a single facet of his identity—a testosterone-fuelled asshole, perhaps—without the rest of his identity being held accountable for his actions in that one window. Even within LetsRun, this fluid form of identity has become second nature to me. I have a username that I use for most of the threads I post on, discussing tactics, race results and so on. But when someone really gets me enraged and I want to respond rudely, or when I want to relate some first-hand experience that might betray my real identity, I'll adopt a temporary username for a few posts.

Internet rudeness has become a much-discussed harbinger of the decline of civilization. But you could argue that asking Webb about his hair restoration, while certainly impolite, is not necessarily uncivil. The distinction between politeness and civility is an important one for those who study the characteristics of online discourse. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, says Temple University professor Zizi Papacharissi, who studies online political debate, "this conflation ignores the democratic merit of robust and heated discussion." In fact, she says, because the lack of face-to-face interaction over the internet leads to more heated discussion, unbound by the rigid etiquette of politeness, cyberspace might actually promote a more robust democracy. Or, at the very least, it can help you find out how Alan Webb got his hair back.

LetsRun is no longer the only online running community out there. Other sites like Flotrack, which offers amateur video of interviews and races, and TnFnorth, a Canadian equivalent of LetsRun, offer a somewhat different message-board experience. In 2004, after considerable debate, TnFnorth adopted a user registration policy to eliminate anonymous posters. Very quickly, the ubiquitous "hottest athlete" threads trickled to a halt, as did the threads devoted to pillaging the performances (and personalities) of individual runners. In fact, traffic to the site in general immediately dropped to a fraction of its previous levels.

But the toned-down debate also attracted athletes such as Kevin Sullivan, a 1,500-metre runner who broke Graham Hood's national records en route to an exceptional fifth-place finish at the 2000 Olympics. Sullivan was at one time a frequent poster at LetsRun, but his posts became lightning rods for endless criticism of his tactics and results. He no longer posts at LetsRun—though he still visits the site to keep abreast of track news and follow the discussion. "To be honest," he admits, "I also get drawn in out of the curiosity of what people say about myself and others."

At TnFnorth, Sullivan found discussion that was, if not always polite, then at least civil. After Sullivan was beaten at the national
championships in a major upset, a spirited discussion erupted at TnFnorth about Sullivan's tactics, with several posters castigating him for letting the race come down to a final sprint when he should have been fast enough to run past the other contenders from the gun. Eventually Sullivan himself chimed in with some answers about his fitness (a hamstring injury in the spring had compromised his speed work), his preparation (a change in racing plans meant that he had flown from Switzerland to Windsor the day before the race) and his tactics (he and his coach felt a slow sit-and-kick race would better simulate the upcoming World Championships).

A secondary debate then began about whether it had been rude to question Sullivan's tactics, knowing he read the message board. "Just to clarify further," Sullivan wrote on TnFnorth, "I took no offense to the original criticism, I just didn't agree with the reasoning and thought some out there may have been interested in knowing how we came about our decision to race the way we did."

There it was, at last. Frank, friendly interaction between an elite athlete and the fans who watch his races, providing direct insight into his strategy and training. The barrier-breaking potential of the internet, fully realized. Still, there's a big difference between starring in a relatively obscure sport like track and field and playing in one of the major professional sports leagues. Just a few a years ago, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was still a rare example of big-league interactivity, since he read and sometimes responded to the comments posted by readers of his blog, 38 Pitches. The rapid ascendance of Twitter has now shifted fan expectations even further along the spectrum toward unmediated fan-athlete interaction. While there's no doubt that some celebrities employ ghost-tweeters, it's equally clear that Shaquille O'Neal's three million followers get unfiltered access to his thoughts—and, occasionally, responses to their own questions and comments.

Given the eye-glazing inanity of most of O'Neal's three thousand-odd tweets—Shaq is particularly well-known for his yo-momma jokes, like "I'm untradeable just like yur momma I'm keepin her"—this unfiltered access starts to look like a mixed blessing. After all, some distance is necessary for the athlete to remain an idol. "No man is a hero to his valet," says a proverb cited by Knapp, the sociologist who studied heroes. So the democratizing influence of the internet has an inherent limit. When it brings your hero too close to you—if there is no vertical reverence, and no horizontal distance in your social interactions—then he's no longer your hero.

The size of O'Neal's following is a reminder that no technology will ever permit the biggest icons to form any real connection with their fans. But the role of the internet may be most evident in the large middle ground between megastars and the guy with the hardest slapshot in town. That impact has already been felt in the way the internet has affected commerce. For instance, a disproportionate total of book sales on Amazon.com come from more obscure, hard-to-find books. Traditional bookstores, in contrast, rely more on a few bestsellers—the megastars of the book world. This widespread "Long Tail" effect, described in Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's 2006 book, will allow smaller sports—and less famous athletes in major sports—to reach their fans more efficiently through the internet than through traditional media.

To see what lies ahead for sports stars, it's instructive to look at the current state of the music industry. Musicians have had to
confront the changes wrought by the internet sooner than anyone else, since the very essence of their medium—songs—can be uploaded and downloaded on the web. Virtually every band now recognizes the importance of cultivating fans through an interactive web presence on a site like MySpace—though, like the NBA stars, the biggest groups are unlikely to provide any real interactivity. But young, up-and-coming artists devote considerable energy to communicating with their fans, and when some of those groups find success, it's hard to break the habit. Guitarist Tad Kubler of Brooklyn-based rock band the Hold
Steady
, for example, often finds himself answering one hundred fan messages a day. His band has reached a level of success where keeping in touch is becoming a burden—but he hasn't forgotten how much those messages mean. "That's all I wanted when I was a fan, right?" he told an interviewer. "To have some small contact with these guys you really dug. I think I'm still that way. I'll be, like, devastated if I never meet Jimmy Page before I die."

Like Kubler, a new generation of sports stars is rising through the ranks, bringing with them a different set of expectations about how fans and heroes should interact. Minnesota Twins pitcher Pat Neshek, a hard-throwing reliever with a spasmodic sidearm delivery, ran his own website and blog throughout his career in the minors, chatting with fans about life as a baseball player and his hobby as a sports card and autograph collector. When he arrived in the majors in 2006, he kept right on blogging. "I always wanted to know what pro athletes did before games, on off days and in their spare time," he told a reporter, "so I said if I ever got drafted I would start a website."

The following year—his first full season in the majors—he found himself on the list of five players vying for the final spot in the
All-Star Game, to be determined by fan vote. Neshek's web-savvy fans swung into action. A network of sports blogs started a Vote Neshek campaign, and a fan in Kansas City posted a YouTube video showing himself barricaded in his room for days on end, voting over and over for Neshek. It garnered seventeen thousand views. Neshek wound up third in the final voting, but it was an impressive result for an unheralded rookie from a small-market team. It was a clear demonstration of why athletes should engage with fans online—but it's important to note that Neshek didn't simply launch a website to aim for a spot on the All-Star team. That would have backfired. He already had the website, and was already part of the online world. Internet savvy came naturally to him, as a member of the new generation of athletes.

In 2007, Flotrack posted an interview with World Cup champion Craig Mottram, a lanky Australian and one of the biggest stars on the distance-running circuit, after a disappointing third-place finish at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York. Shortly after the video went up, several threads started on LetsRun critiquing the performance of the interviewer, Mark Floreani. LetsRun posters felt that Floreani—essentially a track fan with a camera—had come off as unprofessional, ambushing Mottram moments after he crossed the finish line, failing to introduce himself and opening with a rather undiplomatic question ("So, third place... not quite what you were looking for, I guess"). Several posters thought Mottram looked annoyed at the imposition. The threads blossomed into an extended discussion of who should be allowed to interact with the stars of the sport, and under what terms.

A week later, Mottram set an Australian record in winning the two-mile event at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon. His
time—8:03.50—made him the third-fastest person in history. Floreani again buttonholed him shortly after the race, asking for a brief interview.

"If you're nice," Mottram said with a mischievous smile, "and you don't fucking annoy me this time."

If there was any doubt what he was referring to, it was erased when Floreani launched into his first question ("Last week, you—") and Mottram cut him off again. "Wait, wait," he said with exaggerated patience, as if speaking to a recalcitrant five-year-old. "Introduce yourself to me first, don't just fire away with the questions."

It was a broad wink to the posters at LetsRun, a signal that Mottram, too—a man with the special, possibly even heroic ability to run back-to-back miles in just a tick over four minutes each—was reading the message boards. The messages posted below the video on Flotrack showed that viewers appreciated the unmediated access to the star, and were willing to grant him some vertical distance—a spot on the pedestal.

blackness: in that interview you can clearly see that mottram didn't really see the NYC interview in the same light as most viewers of flotrack. it's nice to see unrehearsed interviews!!!

Chalkdust torture: Totally owned. Of course Mottram loves LetsRun.

D: He gave me a High Five at Boston Indoor Games, and my hand hurt for a week.

Runnaked131: quite honestly my hero

See the rest of Issue 37 (Fall 2010).

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Death of a Sports Fan
—The Old One-Two
—Shoot It Harder, Lads!

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