I stayed up to listen to the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast last night, which is going to get sampled pretty heavily when ESPN does 30 for 30: Trust the Process, and amid the many yawps and screams which mirror(ed) the yawps and screams of my heart, I was struck by a comment that Michael Levin made about not wanting to be a Sixers fan anymore. It’s just laundry, Levin said. What about the people who profit from that laundry, who make the decisions about who wears the laundry and for how long? We don’t want to root for those guys, but we still like Nerlens Noel and Robert Covington and Jerami Grant. Where does that leave us? Do we hate the plutocrats upstairs more than we love the uniforms? How do we balance those two emotions? (Not to sound like some antebellum firebrand here, but I’m not sure reconciliation is possible at the moment.)
Professional sports – and I include college sports and Olympic sports here, as they are full-time jobs for specialists and not some church softball league – seems to exist to make people balance these emotions. For the guy (and I’m pretty sure he’s a guy) who wants to grab the clicker, sit in his leather recliner, and down some brewskies while turning the actions of a local sports team into a series of cathartic diatribes because he’s marginalized in his position at work and his wife is forty, I doubt he thinks much about the owner or the general manager. The only people who are the team are the coaches and players. Shots of the owner or the front office personnel in the booth are distractions from the game, from the highly original metaphor of modern combat that this guy has craftily concocted. I think this guy is still the majority of sports fans in America; I think his numbers, though, are being carved into by more mindful fans or new fans (or both) who want to consume more of the team. These fans are positively ravenous; they follow experts and beat writers on Twitter, they bookmark team pages, they listen to podcasts, they used to read Grantland, they still read Pro Football Focus and Fangraphs, etc. The desire to become more unified with the team or the sport (or both) creates investment and knowledge in one brushstroke. Say what you will about the Internet or texting or any of the other technological changes of the past twenty-five years: even if it does, as critics say, hamper intimate connections, it geometrically multiplies casual ones that were once literally unimaginable. And the appetite for more connections, I think, serves to create more. When I was in middle school, there could not have been very many people who worried about the long-term ramifications of playing football, at least not to the catastrophic level that we witness today. Now, everyone I talk to about sports, and everyone whose takes I read about sports, has the concussion drama in their mind every time there’s a football game on. Who was talking about paying college athletes ten to fifteen years ago? Or decrying public money for private stadiums? Or calling for new names for teams that named themselves for Native Americans? Those people weren’t in the mainstream; nowadays, even if those people are not representative of ESPN or Fox Sports or that guy in his recliner, they are easily accessed and have traditional and digital platforms.
In this tradition, who owns the team matters. Increased focus on ownership has never been unusual. Bill Veeck, George Halas, and Jerry Buss and many others grabbed the limelight before the likes of Jeffrey Loria, Stan Kroenke, and Josh Harris. Yet I think people recognize that, after George Steinbrenner, ownership matters far more than they had previously assumed, and on every level. Owners can call to move a team from its home city, or call for public money to finance some arena; owners can meddle in personnel decisions, or hire the wrong characters for the front office. And the educated/new/both fans, I think, are uncomfortable with the idea of rooting for a team that exists to make money for its billionaire owner. Unless we own stock in Amazon, we don’t sit around on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings hoping for Jeff Bezos to make more money. Why do that for a sports team? Why do that for a sports team that makes use of disadvantaged or disenfranchised groups for the pleasure of the powerful? Why do that for a sports team that acts in its own self-interest to the detriment of a metropolitan area? Why do that for a sports team that, through anti-trust loopholes, makes a mockery of the free market that so many Americans claim to love? And so on, and so forth, until you don’t want to root for the team anymore, but you can’t stop doing so either.
My Villanova connections are scanty, to say the least; since I grew up in the Philadelphia area, there’s no reason I shouldn’t pull for Saint Joe’s or Penn rather than Nova. (Frankly, my primary allegiance should be to Temple because of a family connection.) I think I root for Villanova because they were the Philly team on television back when I was getting into college basketball. In another year, it would have been the Jameer Nelson Hawks or the Dionte Christmas Owls who earned my affection, but it was the Scottie Reynolds Wildcats who did it. This year’s Ryan Arcidiacono Wildcats (though from the first it was Kris Jenkins who caught my eye, I swear), were a thrill. I caught them as frequently as I could, but only managed to make them appointment viewing during the Big East and NCAA tournaments. I died a little as they folded against Seton Hall, couldn’t believe how they tore up Miami, bit my figurative nails during Kansas, gloried in their beatdown of Oklahoma, and rejoiced (quietly, because my fiancee went to bed) when they beat UNC. Villanova basketball is well below the Phillies, Eagles, and Sixers on my emotional totem pole, and I still tried to spend as much of March with them as I could spare. A sports team sucks you in, and next year I’ll want to spend as much of my March with them. But it’s for the laundry; JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard left last year, and Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono will leave this year, and the year after Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart will be gone, and on and on like that, and none of those guys will get paid to play high-level college basketball with hundreds of millions of dollars float around them. And I’ll still pull for the guys in those jerseys. It will be wrong of me to pull for them. I should hate the idea of this, the greatest unpaid internship the Devil ever pulled, being a significant source of my pleasure from December through April. But then I’d have to hate every other month of the year. There’s always some Mark Emmert, some Peter Donohue, some Josh Harris, some Jeffrey Lurie who will grossly reap the fruit of others’ labors simply because they have the washing machines.
I don’t know the answer. More than ever, as it sinks in that I’m not really likely to ever live in the Delaware Valley again, I’ve tried to rebuild the connection to the places I’m from. One of the ways I’ve chosen to do that is by caring more about Philadelphia sports, which come to me more frequently than anything else from home. I would have a hard time giving up the Sixers, even if on nights like last night, I would like to have done so. And in the long run, why would I? Someday the owners will sell, and even if I chose now to attach myself to the Timberwolves or something, someday their owners would sell, or do something as weaselly as Jerry Colangelo has done from 2,000 miles away to a city whose name he can’t spell. There’s no way to escape from the monopoly of little top-hatted, mustachioed men who run Sports.
Last night shone a light on how very fragile my connection with the Sixers is, and on how fragile that connection is for many people, even the people who care a lot more than I do. We were given a lifeline with Sam Hinkie’s resignation. It was a reasonable way to give up on the team, to turn our backs on them for a while. Ownership caved to a backbiting hustler whose last impressive ticks on the resume coincide with the Clinton administration and whose sole goal in taking a job
in with Philadelphia appears to have been to get his son, who was born eighteen months after John F. Kennedy was killed and couldn’t get the Brooklyn Nets to hire him, a job. (Spare me the “Bryan didn’t ask for this” saga that people like Adrian Wojnarowski are pushing. Bryan didn’t say no to this either.) We’re talking cronyism that would have made Boss Tweed titter here. I want to root for Harris and Colangelo and Colangelo about as much as I want to root for Ted and Myra and Charlie. And for a couple hours, I entertained the thought of just not doing it. And that taught me that it’s very possible that what I’ve spent so much of my time thinking about and dreaming on is something I could leave behind. I could cast off the last three years and just give up on the Sixers. And heck, the NBA would follow. Maybe college basketball would disappear from my life as well, and eventually I’d lose so much that Elizabeth Bishop would be proud of me.
It’s a cliche to talk about how unimportant sports are in the grand scheme of things, which can, of course, become grander and grander until nothing is important. And while some Sixers fans consoled themselves with that last night, I realized that the Sixers, at least for a while, are in my grand scheme of things. If the Sixers get good again, I don’t want to miss out on that after hours of studying asset collection. That would be a loss about as painful as hearing that Hinkie was edged out of the structure he built by a guy who thinks he and Jon Kyl will share a mansion in Heaven. For now, at least, I can’t go. Even those of us who will leave – and I’m sure they will do just that! – ought to drop some roses at Hinkie’s grave before the door hits them on the way out.