What does it mean to be a sports fan? Why are those of us who are spectators so ambivalent about the athletes we pay to see? It is no secret that we feel disconnected from the players but tied forever to the games they play. Many, perhaps most, athletes are like high priests who serve a god they do not believe in. The fans care about championships. The athletes care about money. As fans we forget that athletes feel less emotional kinship with their teams than we do, because the athletes didn't grow up rooting for the teams they play for. Besides, they get traded. Fans never get traded.
A few spoils fans are delusional enough to think that if they were in the professionals' shoes they would play better than the athletes. But most merely believe they would play harder. Sports fans identify not with supremely gifted athletes like Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds but with scrappers like Pete Rose and John Starks. Or, at least, they identify with them until they get caught betting on baseball or missing 16 of 18 shots in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. At this point, fans find somebody else to identify with.
The problem for fans of all stripes is that no matter how good they are at what they do, they will never hit a buzzer-beating jumper or make a game-saving tackle. Sports detractors love to moan about the warped values of a society that pays teachers $25,000 a year but pays men 1,000 times as much to hit a tiny horsehide spheroid three times out of 10. But lots of people can teach grade school; it takes real talent to hit a tiny spheroid three times out of 10, especially when it is traveling 98 mph and headed straight for your ear. To extend the analogy, anyone can run the Securities and Exchange Commission (Harvey Pitt), anyone can write a novel (Ethan Hawke) and anyone can win the Nobel Peace Prize (Yasir Arafat, Jimmy Carter). But try guarding Shaq.
The players, of course, are divinities. And like most divinities, they know it. When Frank Sinatra was nearing the end of his career, I went to see him at Radio City Music Hall. When the aging, infirm Sinatra ambled out onto the stage, my immediate reaction was a strange sort of disbelief. Sinatra, the first entertainer from my parents' generation that I actually liked, had been as much a part of my childhood as Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle and Fulton J. Sheen. But it had never occurred to me that he actually existed. It was like seeing Charlemagne or Lawrence of Arabia.
With aging athletes, one often has a similar experience. I saw Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax play when I was a teen and at the time had no trouble believing in their existence. Years later, when I saw Mays walking down Park Avenue, I had trouble believing my eyes. It was like standing in front of the Mona Lisa for the first time or realizing that while a performance of Hamlet is a rendition of a masterpiece, this was the masterpiece itself. The feet of gods never touch the ground. Yet here he was, Willie Mays, right out on Park Avenue. Of course, the god promptly shooed me away when I tried to say hey.
A lesser man might have been permanently scarred by this experience. In point of fact, I am a lesser man. But I am not the kind of man who would ever let an experience like this make me rethink my attitude toward athletes, because I long ago decided that the athletes really don't have a whole lot to do with this. Intelligent fans have always been capable of distinguishing between the player and the man.
O.J. Simpson, even now, provides an illuminating example. When O.J. made his break for the border and the network cut away from the NBA Finals to document his flight, a lot of Americans were outraged. What made a retired football player so important that an entire nation could become obsessed with his plight? I'll tell you what: O.J. Simpson was one of the Immortals. And this was not the first time the nation was transfixed by his mad dashes. We knew this guy. We liked this guy. He had achieved the almost unimaginable feat of being so great—like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Julius Erving—that even fans from opposing cities idolized him. How he had come to this savage impasse affected all fans. Because the O.J. Simpson we knew and loved was no longer O.J. Simpson.
Still, what is important here is not Simpson himself but the set of shared emotions that he inspires. Sports are without doubt the most powerful bonding element in the world. Well, at least for males. When I was growing up, my father would tell me amazing stories about Sugar Ray Robinson drinking blood before his fights, of Joe DiMaggio saluting the flag while catching a fly ball, Ty Cobb sharpening his cleats, Babe Ruth calling his shot in Chicago. Manly men being spectacularly manly. Take notes, sonny.
Human life is filled with experiences that seem quite ordinary at the time and assume a fabled stature only with the passage of the years. The little boy out for the day with his father does not know that he will one day be an old man who can walk into a room and dispense the jaw-dropping news that he once saw Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb in the flesh, and deliver it with the same matter-of-factness as saying, "I was with Lee at Antietam."