Editor’s note: With Peyton Manning playing again tonight, and so far this season looking like himself, this is a fantastically written piece by Josh Boeke about the nature of fanhood. Specifically, Boeke takes on the nature of Colts fans and their now ex-quarterback Peyton Manning. While plenty has been written on the issue, this piece, in my opinion, is one of the most well-written and eloquent attempts at bridging the gap. Thanks to Boeke for another excellent piece this week. -KJR
Walking out of Colts’ training camp last month I was talking to a friend about why he values autographs. To me it seemed like a meaningless scribble on a piece of memorabilia, a childish fancy meant to excite the young and maybe interest collectors.
“It’s not about the signature,” he said as we got in the car, “I would never just have a player sign a piece of paper. That’s pointless. It’s about the history, the memories. When I watch the Colts play I wear this hat and it reminds me of the players I’ve cheered for over the years.” He took the hat off and looked at the faded signatures of players past and present that dotted the white and blue landscape of the worn fabric.
Dwight Freeney, Jeff Saturday, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Marshall Faulk, and of course Peyton Manning; all the best Colts’ players of the last decade represented each by a different, but equally illegible, black scrawl of ink. To him, these otherwise arbitrary loops and lines were a constant reminderof memories past but not forgotten, of last second drives and crushing defeats, of elation and of sorrow.
For my friend, and for many fans of a professional sports team, the connection they feel to their respective franchises is akin to religious devotion, an attachment so extreme it transcends reason and engenders profound emotional bonds with a business entity to which they enjoy no tangible connection.
But what, ultimately, is the root cause of this devotion? Is it, as Jerry Seinfeld famously opined, simply rooting for a particular city’s clothes? If you throw a blue and white uniform on a team of automatons, would that evoke the same loyal commitment? One certainly would hope not, and yet it often seems that way. Of course fan loyalty usually starts with the arbitrary location of a person’s birth, but that isn’t a requirement, only a catalyst.
In its purest form, competition is a fundamental and visceral human experience. Anyone who has participated in any sort of competition, whether it be in a video game, at school, in work, amongst friends, or on a professional football field, understands that the lust for competition is innate, that the desire to win is perhaps the single most motivating ambition in all of existence.
Professional sports teams give us an avenue to that experience on a scale we could otherwise never realistically hope to attain. By attaching ourselves to the successes of a sports franchise, like the Colts for example, we bask in the reflected glory of their achievements and are lifted up, metaphorically, by their accomplishments on the field. But that isn’t the whole story.
When the Colts win we feel good, but that feeling isn’t disconnected from the event, rather it is directly attributable to the players on the field who are responsible for the victory, the Colts players, “our” players.
This attribution in the minds of the faithful leads to a certain degree of emotional attachment, by which we attach the good feeling of winning with the players we credit with that victory (or in a negative case, become dissatisfied with players we blame for a loss, i.e. Jeff Linkenbach).
Thus a unidirectional bond is formed between the fan, an entity of which the player on the team is only conceptually aware, and the player who now becomes the object of the fan’s devotion.
What happens then when this player, who now enjoys the same religious like devotion as the team for which he plays, is removed from that team and joins another? This is the fascinating (to me anyway), and cognitively dissonant, dilemma that has haunted the hearts and minds of many Colts’ fans for the past 6 months, and continues to do so even now as the greatest sports icon this city has ever known suits up for a new team in tonight’s upcoming game.
Which brings me finally to my point. Why do so many fans feel the need to create a false dichotomy between the franchise and the players? Why should the clothes supersede the man by whom they’re worn? Is it possible to be both a Peyton Manning fan and a Colts’ fan?
Is it human nature to force exclusivity where none need exist? From religions, to fraternities, to politics, and of course to sports, and everything in between, we humans love to divide, to create categories and labels, to exclude or include based on predefined criteria. This makes us feel superior, set apart and above other people, and it gives us a sense of belonging and community, fulfilling a crucial human desire for acceptance.
As my friend and I drive away from Anderson University, Andrew Luck’s impressive showing fresh on our minds, I ask him if he’s still going to root for Peyton Manning in Denver now that he’s wearing a different shade of blue. Perhaps to nobody’s surprise his answer is quick and decisive, “I mean, I hope he does well in Denver, but it’s the Luck era now, Manning is just a player on another team.”
Just another player? Really? This same guy who just explained to me the sentimental significance of a scribble on a hat now considers his all-time favorite player just another guy because he wears a different uniform. Apparently you can only enjoy memories of your favorite players if those memories occurred while they were on your favorite team. Only in sports would something like this make sense (or perhaps not).
A common refrain, one that I hear all across the internet Colts’ communities that I frequent, is if you wear a Peyton Manning jersey to a Colts’ game you’re a turncoat, a traitor, disloyal, unsupportive, a Peyton Manning fan, not a real Colts’ fan, a Dolt.
This perspective is to me ridiculous. Who is qualified to determine what constitutes a “real fan”? One friend of mine went so far as to say, “There’s a special circle of Hell for those who sew together Colts and Broncos Manning jerseys.” While amusing, it’s also what he actually believes.
Are sports really so absurd that the adoration we claim to possess is so fragile it can be undone by a contract dispute? I’m friends with a Packers’ fan who can’t even utter Brett Favre’s name without suffering a rage stroke.
Sports are wonderful for all kinds of reasons, entertainment chief among them, but for me the human element trumps everything else. I love the Colts, I always have and I always will, but like my friend and his hat, the memories are important too, and the players who helped form them are more valuable to me than the team for which they played. A controversial opinion perhaps, but one that I stand behind.
Peyton Manning is my football hero, and even though his uniform now might be navy blue, he’s still the same guy that gave me some of the most glorious days of my life, and I for one intend to bask in that reflection for as long as he’s playing in the NFL.