It’s not exactly easy for me to acknowledge that my favorite athletes aren’t the world’s best athletes, but in completely objective moments, I’ll do it. As much as I kid about it, I do have to admit that there are quarterbacks better than Steve Young (although it took me a long time to do so.) However, I readily admit there are outfielders better than Gabe Kapler (although there are those times he goes on hitting streaks, like he did earlier this season where it looked like finally his performance would equal his incredible six pack.)
Sure, it’s always great when you become a fan of an athlete on his or her way up. I looked like a genius when back in 1998 when I predicted that Chellsie Memmel would be World Champion some day. And all of us Boston University hockey fans are following with glee the growing career of everyone’s favorite walk-on goalie, John Curry, with the Penguins organization.
Then there are those times where you become a fan of a player who ends up hitting the dreaded brick wall of performance. They could be consistent as all get out, but not lights out. They could obviously be a role model and leader for others on the team. They could be hampered by injuries in a make-or-break time in their career. They might not perform well under a particular coach’s system or playbook. You could just be a fan of them due to the fact that, off the ice or off the field, they seem like a great person. You could be a fan of them because they’re a fine specimen of man. Whatever. You’re a fan of them, but you can’t defend them when another sports fan disparages them.
Take Justin Armour for instance. My family had barely finished drying our tears after Don Beebe left the Bills back in 1995 when I first got a look at his intended replacement, Justin Armour. Out of Stanford, Armour had similar speed, hands and tenacity of Beebe – and, wasn’t too shabby in the looks department. (Thirteen year old me was a little boy crazy. Steve Young, Steve Walsh, a young Mark Brunell, and then Justin Armour…sigh. Who needed Jonathan Taylor-Thomas when you had those guys?)
I quickly announced my adoration of Armour to my family, and was excited to find an Armour rookie card in my weekly pack of football cards I received as an allowance from my father. Although Armour did impress during the pre-season, and showed much promise during the year, he spent the following season on the injured reserve and then was let go by the Bills. He went on to play with the 49ers, Eagles, Broncos and Ravens – playing respectfully when he was given the chance to, and making the occasional big play. And then, after a career-best year in 1999 with the Ravens, he was let go. A quick Google search finds Armour the architect of a skate park and the owner of a surf school and health food restaurant in California. (It figures I once worshiped the football version of Matthew McConaughey.)
I didn’t have a whole lot of people besides my parents to talk football with as a teenager (I was a sports junkie attending an arts school – I was kind of alone in my devotion), but had I, how would I have defended my being a fan of Justin Armour? (Besides saying he was hot, of course.) He showed promise, and he has the skills – unfortunately, he got injured? I always worried that that defense would be unacceptable to a real sports fan, because isn’t sport, when all is said and done, ultimately about success?
This brings about the overarching questions: can you be the fan of a particular athlete if that athlete isn’t successful? Can a real sports fan, who loves the struggle, loves the fight, but most of all loves the victories, be a fan of someone who doesn’t win, of someone who falls on tough times, of someone who doesn’t live up to their promise? How do you defend being a fan of an athlete who isn’t lights out, who throws down the best floor exercise you’ve ever seen but isn’t going to win an Olympic Gold Medal, who isn’t a NHL draft pick and whose collegiate career never has matched his development team years, whose best season meant he caught 4 touchdowns and only saw playing time every other game? How do you defend your fandom without losing a piece of your credibility as a sports fan?
On a pure sports philosophy level, if sport was initially the way that humans celebrated the power and might of the human body, brute strength, superhuman ability, tenacity and competitiveness, then a sports fan couldn’t be a fan of any athlete who isn’t the top of his or her sport. But sport has evolved so much from its creation into a social activity, a horizontal allegiance, and a representation of what we value as a society that you can’t deduce a reason for fandom to a measure of brute athleticism. We are no longer watching gladiator matches. We are watching professional sports leagues with so many ways that a fan can participate, so many more opportunities for involvement, and so many ways in which an athlete is valued in competition.
For me, the effort of the athlete will always be enough to base fandom on. There existed a moment in time – for some, a very brief one – where they showed a glimmer of greatness, and I jumped on the bandwagon. For Armour, it was his first Monday Night Football game with the Bills, against the Browns in September of 1995, back when he caught his first touchdown. He was the heir apparent to Beebe and Tasker. And when he wasn’t, I always hoped that right around the corner, he would become the wide receiver he had showed the promise to be. For some of these young gymnasts I watched last month at the US Championships, I’ll be fans of the sheer fun and enthusiasm they showed competing on the big stage and for the excitement for sticking their hardest skill. For some of the college hockey players I follow, I’ll be a fan because of their amazing performance in their first Beanpot, or their ability to rally their line when the team is down a goal and be absolutely fine with getting the second assist to a teammate two classes younger than them. I am a fan of athletes who might not be the best because I believe in the possibilities that exist, for the effort they put into the game, and because they keep at it. Because isn’t that what we love with modern sport – the possibilities that exist for success and the hope that we can collectively celebrate? So your favorite right wing, starting pitcher, wide receiver, or gymnast didn’t win this year. As long as we believe it might happen, as long as we see a contribution, we can hope for their success. And if it never happens, we can celebrate their effort and the fun we had following them.