What is your first reaction when you hear the word “fanatic”? Is it positive or negative?
With the possible exception of the Phillie Phanatic, who brings joy to patrons, players, and the occasional coach, I would imagine the properly-spelled “fanatic” doesn’t conjure too many kind thoughts. Outside of that oversized, fluffy green doll, I think it is safe to say that we tend to have a jaded – if not fearful – view of fanatics. Whether it is religion, politics, war, or sports, we don’t want to live next door to – let alone share a meal with – a fanatic.
With that in mind, would it surprise you to know that the word “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic”? Makes perfect sense, no? Some sources actually believe that the word “fan” was, in the late 19th century, a shortening of the word “fanatic”, relating specifically to baseball enthusiasts. I guess that’s fitting.
Over the last 125 years, society has mellowed (one would hope). And excepting 10¢ beer night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeTpnOzoPdw) and some unruly people in the bleachers, it seems that, in time, baseball “fans” on the whole have become something different/better than “fanatics”. (As an aside, I am not sure the same can be said of soccer “fans” who seem to be every bit the “fanatics” of years past.) But before we start to feel too good about ourselves, remember that – even though we have lost the fanatic tag – we still follow our teams and the game with the devotion of a fanatic.
According to Webster, a fanatic is a person “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion”. And a fan is “an enthusiastic devotee, follower, or admirer of a sport, pastime, celebrity, etc.”
This all begs the $64,000 question: Where is the line; at what point do you stop being a fan and become a fanatic?
For instance, is it “excessive enthusiasm” or just plain “enthusiastic devotion” when you paint your face with your favorite team’s colors/logo? How about naming your child after your sports hero? Or decorating an entire room of your house? Having season tickets or watching every game on television (70% of Los Angeles cannot do that with the Dodgers, natch)? In a vacuum, it is very difficult to draw the line.
We know, of course, when someone leaves that line in the dust: When you throw batteries at opposing outfielders; when you beat the other team’s fans in the parking lot; when you threaten to kill a guy for interfering (arguably) with a play on the field. In those instances, we are dealing with fanatics, and society needs to step in before someone gets (even more) hurt.
So, while we can sometimes see the line between “excessive enthusiasm” and “enthusiastic devotion”, how about “intense uncritical devotion”? Is dialing in to sports radio and calling for the manager to be fired considered “intense uncritical devotion”? Is burning a player’s jersey when he leaves the team “intense uncritical devotion”? Is wearing the same t-shirt for every game of the World Series to ensure that the Baseball Gods smile favor down on your team “intense uncritical devotion”? I guess “intense uncritical devotion” is in the eye of the beholder. And if you have ever tried to talk reason to a crazed sports fan (oftentimes referred to as a “fanatic”), try not to look into the eye of that beholder, as you might now like what you see. Napolean once said: “There is no place in a fanatic’s head where reason can enter.”
“Uncritical devotion”, as its own concept, is difficult to deal with. When intensity is added to the mix, look the hell out.
Intense uncritical devotion leads people to say and do things that – if they were in their right, logical, Namaste-inclined mind – they would never say or do. Sometimes we appreciate this intense uncritical devotion – these are the fans that still come to the ballpark in the dog days of August because, “you never know . . . string a few wins together and we might be right back in the race . . .” Sometimes we hate it, like when they call Clayton Kershaw “a bum” because he has walked two batters.
But what about when people start coming up with crazy conspiracy theories in support of their (or against someone else’s) team? Does that reek of “intense uncritical devotion”? These conspiracy theories are prevalent in all sports, and they – like the truth – are “out there”.
- Celtics fans (as well as many others) believe the referees fixed Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals to ensure the Kings lost.
- The people of Arkansas think Sonny Liston was KO’d by Muhammad Ali’s “phantom punch” in 1965.
- Red Sox haters still claim that Curt Schilling put ketchup on his sock in Game 6 of 2004 ALCS.
- Any basketball fan outside of New York City thinks that the only way the Knicks got Patrick Ewing in the 1985 draft was because the NBA froze their lottery envelope.
- Chicagoans can never believe that Michael Jordan took an early retirement to fulfill his lifetime dream of playing baseball, but that David Stern made him step away due to illicit gambling activities.
- And, of course, Dodger fans on both coasts believe that the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” would never have happened if the Giants hadn’t been stealing signs from the centerfield scoreboard.
It’s not just kids who say the darndest things.
So the next time you are sitting in the stands, or walking through the parking lot, or waiting on hold for some talk show, or typing a pithy reply to a Tweet or Facebook post, ask yourself the following questions: In the sober light of day, when all emotion has been stripped away, is what I am about to do or say reasonable? Am I being an enthusiastic devotee or am I showing intense uncritical devotion. If the former, fire away. If the latter, think twice, then a third time, and then go with discretion – it is always the better part of valor.
Be a fan, not a fanatic.
p.s. The inspiration for this post was some recent events I have witnessed and heard about. But, I guess this topic is in the zeitgeist, as in this week’s Sports Illustrated (you will get it in the mail in a few days) there is a review of a book entitled: “Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan”. I wrote this before seeing that.