Sunday, January 8, 2012

In Defense of a Bad Sports Town

Some relatively on-topic content is in the works, but I hope you'll indulge me a little here, because I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs and I'm a fan of all the Atlanta sports teams—even the ones that are now in Midwestern Canada—so it caught my attention when ESPN's Rob Parker did the journalistic equivalent of poking the entire metro area with a sharp stick:
It's not fair.

And, we know, it really shouldn't matter.

But Atlanta -- the city, not the team -- doesn't deserve a playoff victory over the New York Giants on Sunday.

It has nothing to do with football. It's deeper than that.

Without question, Atlanta is the worst sports town in America.
To be clear, this is some world-class trolling. Parker doesn't expect his article to be taken seriously in any meaningful way—his primary goal is to generate some publicity for himself, and his secondary goal is to get a lot of people riled up, just because it's fun.

All that said, he's absolutely right. Atlanta is a bad sports town. And it's perfectly fine with me if it stays that way, because this, according to Parker, is the alternative:
Giants fans -- even with a fresh Super Bowl in their memories after the 2007 season -- are living and dying with their team. Football is a part of their lifestyle, it's who they are. On Sunday, every single moment of the game will be pure agony until the clock shows all zeroes and the Giants have secured the victory.
My God, that's one of the most miserable things I've ever read. The pure agony of EVERY SINGLE MOMENT. The merciless gloom of a poorly-executed screen pass. The heartwrenching sadness of an untimely holding call. The unyielding woe of a failed replay challenge. The indescribable painOH GOD, THE PAIN—of a walk-off punt return.[1]

Meanwhile, in a bad sports town:
Your typical Atlanta fan -- who is probably from another city since so few are actually from ATL -- will be preoccupied with something else. They might not even be sure what time the game is on.

In fact, at some point, they might ask a friend -- filled with sweet tea -- at a pork-saturated barbeque, "Are the Falcons playing today?"

Yeah, just imagine those monsters—enjoying a sunny Atlanta day with a multicultural array of friends and neighbors, feasting on the delightful cuisine of their adopted hometown, shamefully unaware that somewhere nearby a local professional sports team is hard at work in pursuit of a trophy or cup or whatever. Unaware that the game is winding down and the exhaustion is taking over and the players are looking to the stands, desperate for the sweet performance-enhancing tonic that is tens of thousands of screaming color-coordinated lunatics. But, as always, there are no lunatics. There is only the cold, indifferent silence of the near-empty arena.[2]

Anyway, this is where I started to wonder if Parker was secretly on my side, because he just tried to make a picnic sound sinister, and almost invariably that is the act of a person carrying out a scheme several orders of magnitude more elaborate than necessary. But everything else in his article—paragraph after paragraph of unfavorable attendance numbers,[3] a recap of the Braves' late-season collapse, and a helpful reminder that the Thrashers must now be referred to in the past tense, which may still come as a surprise to a substantial number of Atlantans—points to the conclusion that yeah, he really does think that Giants fans, by virtue of being more "passionate", deserve a win this afternoon, and that Falcons fans deserve a loss.[4]

Of course, any time a city is called out like that its sports fans lose their collective shit, so in a fit of morbid curiosity I scrolled through the comments on Parker's article for as long as I could tolerate the ESPN commenting community—almost three minutes—and found what appears to be a bona fide, hardcore Atlanta sports fan. Here's what "Skyonex" had to say:
F the transplants in this city. I'm born and raised here AS a FALCONS/HAWKS/BRAVES Fan. I could care less for all these transplants from all over the country and the recent influx of NO Katrina refugees. You know who doesn't deserve a win? Idiots in New York who have no idea how hard it is for ATL hardcore pro sports fans.

Hey Rob, take it from a TRUE FALCONS fan for over 20 years... We've had it tough and we deserve a win. More so than any Ain'ts fan or Giants fan ever will...
Sure, this person comes off as severely unbalanced and possibly racist (really? Katrina refugees?) and by all indications should not be allowed to venture outside alone, but does he not also exhibit the characteristics of the "real fans" Parker is extolling? His devotion to his city is intense to the point of utter disregard for human dignity. He's convinced that Atlanta's sports ineptitude (and there's been a great deal of it, to be sure) is an actual difficulty he's had to deal with in his life. And he believes this combination of blind devotion and imaginary suffering makes him somehow more deserving than fans in New York and New Orleans—as if they'd know anything about devastation and sorrow—of watching a specific group of professional athletes win a specific football game.

Point is, if that's what it would take for Atlanta to turn its reputation around—stadiums and sports bars and message boards full of despondent, entitled assholes (and I think that is what it would take)—then I don't want to see it happen. Rob Parker is merely the latest member of the sports media to chastise Atlanta by rehashing the narrative that being a good sports fan means supporting your team with equal ferver win or lose (instead of behaving rationally by rewarding good management and punishing bad management), and being upset that your neighbor still pulls for the team in whatever city he's from (instead of being proud that he'd rather live in your city than his), and conflating on-field misfortune with real trauma (instead of displaying the emotional maturity of an actual adult).

That's what the sports media wants from you, Atlanta. Don't let them win. They don't deserve it.

1. That's right, Giants fans. Here, click on this one too. Is the agony overwhelming yet?
2. But still the game goes on. The in-bound pass goes to Josh Smith and he surveys the court, looking for an opening, but in that place inside him where there should be strength and hunger and aggression there is only the unshakable feeling that nobody gives a shit—that on this court, in this city, there is no difference between winning and losing—and so he puts up a 28-footer that misses everything.
3. To the extent that there's an actual problem with Atlanta sports fans, I suppose it would be the attendance, but even there it's hardly a crisis. Sure, there's room for improvement across the board, but the Braves and Falcons are in the top half of their leagues, and the Hawks aren't terribly far off. Only the Thrashers truly suffered from poor attendance, and they were a last-place team in a sport nobody cared about—I'm shocked they lasted as long as they did.
4. If my experience is any indication, Parker isn't being hyperbolic with the "are the Falcons playing today?" stuff. And he was wise to put the Falcons there instead of the Hawks—people are generally aware of the Falcons, whereas ill-informed curiosity would be a whole new level of prominence for the Hawks. In 2008 a friend and I went to an Atlanta bar to watch Game 6 against the Celtics—it was the Hawks' first playoff series in almost a decade, and merely by making it competitive they were wildly exceeding expectations. With about a minute left and the outcome still very much in doubt, a dozen people at a nearby table brought out a cake and launched into "Happy Birthday", completely oblivious to the game.
    (My other memory from that night is that after the broadcast ended a Cheers rerun came on, and nobody in the bar cared enough to change the channel. Imagine if this was Boston and the show was The Dukes of Hazzard—Waylon wouldn't make it to "never meanin' no harm" before something violent happened to the TV.)

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