What follows is one of the most powerful quotes from Frederick Backman’s Beartown.
Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard, It makes demands. Hate is simple. So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.
It’s important to note the context, though, before digging in. This comes at a part in the book where a junior hockey player has sexually assaulted the team manager’s daughter, and as the fallout from this horrific act begins to spiral. I’m therefore going to share some old thoughts on hockey fandom that tie into it, as well as on hockey culture in general.
First, let’s talk about why things are the way they are in regards to hockey fandom, and discussions around the sport in general.
Jeff Marek made an interesting point on the MvsW podcast back in the day that speaks to a divisive nature that is all too prevalent. His basic premise was that sports marketing and culture is set up to create and “us vs them” mentality, and that this is expressed most clearly in the use of “(Blank) Nation” or “(Blank) Army” or “(Blank)Fam” *barf* to describe a fan base.
What this does is establish a mobilization of the fans wherein we feel as though we are actually part of the battle, so to speak. We follow and support the cause of our favourite teams, and feel intimately linked to the outcomes that befall them. If they win, we take to the streets to celebrate; if they lose, we feel like our home and native land has been invaded and pillaged, leaving us wander aimlessly until the battle picks up again.
The fallacy here, of course, is that what will be will be, regardless of how we personally feel about the team in question. Our attachments to our teams and the players are mostly peripheral, in the sense that we likely have no personal knowledge of or attachment to the actual people who are playing the game.
We pay money for tickets, jerseys and cable packages, investing in war bonds if you will, but we don’t affect the outcomes of the games, Bartman notwithstanding.
Again, regardless of what happens, it’s not a reflection of who we are personally; if they win, we cheer but the accolades are not ours, and if we lose, it stinks but the failure is also not really ours.
Another thing that this mobilization does is create a black and white way of looking at the world. We get so drawn in to the cause that the lines between right and wrong or good and bad are blurred.
For example, if Player X on Team Y commits an egregious act either on or off the ice, we rightfully demand that he be held accountable. BUT, sometimes if Player Z on our favourite teams commits a similar act, well then we spin it any which way to make it out to be not so bad, that the world is just out to get him/us.
In short, mobilized fan bases creates “us vs them” and “black and white” thinking, often allowing emotion to trump logic and decency.
So how do we get around this?
I can only speak about my own situation, but here are two ways in which I’ve been able to balance being a fan, enjoying the game and reconciling my place within its often toxic culture.
First, over the past several years, I’ve dipped my toes into the hockey writer pool. While whether or not I’m any good at it is very much up for debate, what I’ve learned through the process is the importance of trying to maintain a level head, to look at situations from all sorts of angles, and to remain as reasonable and logical as possible when watching games and analyzing news.
Obviously that’s easier said than done, especially for a hetero white dude who’s been conditioned to wear a loyal fan hat in all circumstances, reason be damned.
But the reality is that approaching the game from a position of responsibility and with a view to building credibility lends itself to being more honest, more realistic, less attached, less emotionally engaged in the success or failure of the team, way more reluctant to Stan players no matter what trouble they get into.
An old boss of mine used to say to me “it’s not whether or you not you disagree, but how.” There’s no question that I will, at times, see things through the lenses I’ve been conditioned to use, as any fan of any team will. It’s OK to disagree about what happens on and off the ice, the merits of roster composition and fancy stats or which team won a trade, but if one is not prepared to step aside and admit that their biases and preconceived notions might be off, then it’s game over and there’s no point in continuing the conversation.
The second big part of it for me is my current stage of life. I’m 38, married, and have 3 boys age 9 and under, all of whom are playing the game at some level.
I want my boys to appreciate and love the game the way I do, and I also want them to be good people, to respect others, to think and care about the things in life that really matter.
What kind of example would I be setting if they saw me getting worked up about a hockey game to the point where I can’t speak to friends and family, or started cursing out guys on TV or Twitter, or losing sleep over the outcome of a game or playoff series?
Additionally, how could I tell them “hockey is for everyone” if I sit back and accept the ongoing ostracism and outright rejections of women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community?
But what I’m trying to learn and subsequently demonstrate to my boys is that you can be a loyal fan and a good person, enjoying the game for what all games are supposed to be – FUN and INCLUSIVE!
Even more than that, your team can lose and you can be happy for the fans of the OTHER team because you know they care as much as you do.
I want to be known as someone who enjoys being a fan of this team, who enjoys watching the game I love, and who’s able to allow all others to do so in relation to their team of choice in any way they see fit. Not only that, but we also need to empathize with those that hockey continues to shun or disregard, standing up for what is good and right in the face of a way-too-slow-to-change culture.
All this to say, I love hockey, but it’s only hockey.
And hockey should never take precedence over being a decent and loving human being.