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Why We Watch: Is It Really “All About Winning”?

Driving home earlier tonight I caught some of Rob Long‘s fill-in work on 105.7 The Fan. It was great to hear Long landing on his feet after the unceremonious demise of Fox Sports 1370, a station (and collection of hosts) that deserved a better shake. Here’s to hearing him more often on the FM dial.

That said, one of his points got under my skin.

In addressing the fact that Michael Vick has regained some endorsement deals since getting out of prison and proving himself a capable NFL quarterback once more, Long said (I’m paraphrasing) that all the Eagles fans who had a problem with Vick when he first signed don’t care anymore because “it’s all about winning.” Underpinning that point lies an often-held assumption that being a sports fan means seeking (and enjoying) wins above all else, that we’re all automatically given to excusing and/or ignoring the shortcomings of individuals if the end result is watching them collectively prevail on the field.

That’s not right, and it’s not true.

For me, it is legitimately tough — and sometimes impossible — to root for players who do things I consider to have crossed the line. By way of example I can’t — despite being a Steelers fan (you knew that already so calm down) — root for Ben Roethlisberger as an individual. Just can’t do it anymore. Maybe that’ll change, maybe not. It’s a real, tangible feeling either way.

This isn’t about global morality judgements. Everyone is entitled to find his or her own lines, his or her own reasons to deem player conduct distasteful or not. Or, perhaps more accurately, forgivable or not. This is not the black-and-white issue that some folks would like to make it. The same holds true for the actors we enjoy in movies or on TV, the music we listen to, the politicians for whom we cast our votes. There’s no universal standard.

Therein lies the rub. In the same way that I can’t make a global judgment, nor can the folks on the other side who claim that winning trumps all. Some people do indeed feel that way, but there are others — like me and, I suspect, at least some of you — who do lose interest in certain players when we find that we can no longer support them in good conscience.

One particular beauty of sports is that it’s entirely possible to still support a team despite dislike of individual players. A Giants fan, for example, didn’t have to like Barry Bonds to still support that team. One need not love every player (or every member of the organization) to still love the uniform.

This is a grey area that gets far too little attention when we consider what it means to be a fan. No doubt that’s a matter of convenience, which is fair enough, but no purpose is served by reducing it to a non-issue. It is an issue, one with which I think a lot of fans probably struggle more often than we admit.

Winning doesn’t trump everything. No single thing does, or ever could.

6 comments to Why We Watch: Is It Really “All About Winning”?

  • Mike R

    Neal, I agree 100%. But we’re probably in the small percentage of sports fans who feel that way.

    Lets say Kakes was a troublemaker but had a triple crown winning season en route to leading the O’s to the world series. You’re average Baltimorian, or idiots who say things like “I’ll never set foot in Camden Yards until they start winning, or until Angelos sells the team,” will run out and buy up all the #21 jerseys, because he’s the star, and the girls who don’t know any better think he’s cute. Hence, why all you see yankee girls wear is A-Rod or Jeter.

    I think I heard somewhere that Michael Vick’s Eagles jersey was the best selling NFL jersey last year. So a large percentage of people must think that winning can contribute to a short memory, which sucks. Also, I feel like I still see just as many Roethlisberger jerseys out and about as I had before. I don’t expect to see any less Ward, Harrison either.

    I hope we can all agree that what Rashard Mendenhall said about Bin Laden, calling him “misunderstood” is bullshit. It makes you want to let every member of the U.S. Armed Forces line up, punch him in the face then kick him in the balls, then let the Navy SEALs go to work on him. But if he goes out and breaks the rushing yards record, He’ll probably have the best selling jersey this year.

    I guess most sports fans are stupid.

  • dan the man

    Here’s a wrinkle: does winning start to matter more when the team hasn’t won for a long stretch?

    For example Neal, if the Steelers hadn’t won shit in 10 or more years, and Big Ben was still a borderline rapist during those 10 years, but he took them to the Superbowl last year… would you then set aside your judgments on Ben for the sake of finally having a Superbowl season?

    Closer to home, if the Orioles had a team full of thugs and steroid users, but it finally got us not just over .500, but to the playoffs, would we climb on board for the rare feeling of Winning? I think as it pertains to the Orioles, most of us would. I think I would. It’s been that long, and you could make an argument that even though the team was full of unlikable players, it means so much to the city itself to finally win, that the overall good outweighs the bad.

  • Agreed, Neal. Good post. Bandwagonners are sad idiots.

    Mike R wrote:

    I hope we can all agree that what Rashard Mendenhall said about Bin Laden, calling him “misunderstood” is bullshit.

    How does that pertain to the point at all though? If anything, his comment was against violence and the celebration of it, in stark contrast to the other athletes you mentioned that committed violent crimes. I’ll agree with you that the second half of his tweet was stupid/questionable, but for the most part it was criticizing (and rightfully) the celebration of violence, even in the death of someone notorious for doing it himself.

  • dan the man

    I was encouraged about Matusz with his last start, but he’s already let up 2 walks and 2 runs in 1.1 IP so far today.

  • dan the man

    It is a shame about 1370, by the way. I heard Rob Long on 105.7, though, and it’s probably safe to say we’ll be hearing him more. What with Rob and Bob on the Fan now, it’s only a matter of time before Drew Himself gets on there! Ha, nah I kid. He’s all set being on Billick’s payroll. (Sorry, it had been awhile).

  • Mike R

    @ Tomás:

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Of course saying stupid things isn’t on the same level as dogfighting, or abusing women, etc…

    But when players say things like Mendenhall said and use choice words like James Harrison recently used, they offend and alienate people. I’m sure theres some O’s fans out there who don’t care much for Luke Scott after his comments about the president.

    True, saying offensive things isn’t as harsh as commiting crimes, but it still makes you a jerk, a douchebag, and someone I wouldn’t support.