Sunday, January 21, 2007

Welcome to Varsity Dad

I looked at the first sonogram of my wife's belly and, through the joy, the thought hit me:

My kid ain't gonna be LeBron James.

I'm all for parenting that encourages kids to believe they can be anything they want to be. But as a one-time professional sports critic, I know better. Lawyer, physicist, chef – even sportswriter? Why not?

Pro athlete? Not a chance.

Parents' aspirations for their child's sports-stardom might be sincere. Hey: If you want to push your kid to be some kind of sports star, that's your prerogative. The reality of that, however, is a complete myth. Beyond the sheer (im)probabilities, let alone the opportunity cost of what you deny your kid to accomplish their/your dream, it strikes me as not particularly fun for anyone.

And as I set out to parent my kid, I've only got one goal as it relates to sports:

To raise an all-star fan.

Unlike actual sports participation, being a fan is totally masterable. The expectations that society has of a sports fan couldn't be lower. There's a high social value to being a fan – it's one of the most basic and powerful forms of currency. And, finally, there are no anxieties (or disappointments) about making the varsity, getting drafted or becoming an All-Star.

The idea to define what makes a great sports fan in a blog crystallized when I wrote a column in the spring of 2006 for ESPN.com, explaining why I was rooting against sports' ultimate Cinderella - George Mason in college basketball's March Madness championship tournament.

My loyalty was to Florida's Gators, the Cinderella's opponent; it was an allegiance I had married into. In exploring the strange circumstances of how I had adopted a passionate fan allegiance -- (1) so late in life, and (2) through my wife, no less -- I expanded the analysis to something more universal: Redefining the rules of fandom to embrace – not reject – the logistical and emotional realities of what had previously been constructed as a pejorative: "Fair-weather" fandom.

I laid out five windows of opportunity in ANY fan's life when they might jump, swap, drop, embrace or reject previous allegiances, without fear of being labeled "bandwagon" by other fans.

Of the nearly 1,000 columns I filed for ESPN.com over the past six years, no column ever triggered a response as emotional as this one.

Fans wrote in to joyfully thank me for finally releasing them from a self-imposed exile or for legitimizing their previously criticized sports loyalties. Others emailed to curse me as undercutting fandom or, worse, corrupting the next generation of fans.

The response fascinated me. When it comes to creating, developing and honing sports "fan-ness," everyone has an opinion. But could I really define some sort of fan ideal? Could I lay out rules or theories or a game plan to reach the highest level of fandom?

New fatherhood – plotting the lessons I would teach my own kid about being a sports fan – offered me the opportunity to re-examine the rules, roles, assumptions and choices at the heart of fandom.

Given an undefined personality -- a blank slate – what kind of fan will I encourage my child to be?

As a result, I began to develop a re-interpretation of what makes the "ultimate fan": A fan philosophy I would feel good about imparting to my own kid, yet flexible enough for any fan – parent or not – to adapt for their own life – or at least contemplate.

And so with the backdrop of plotting out my own kid's fan development, this blog will lay out my foundation of raising a great sports fan, drawing on stories in the news, first-hand experiences, other bloggers' commentary and the "Aha!" moments that come from re-examining my own assumptions about being a fan, simply from the combination of the process of following sports on an obsessive basis and the uncharted path of fatherhood and how those lessons might affect my kid's experience or future as a fan.

In this way, the appeal of the blog is far broader than simply for sports fans with kids or sports fans with kids on the way. The blog will be for any fan interested in a self-proclaimed "expert" take on a constantly evolving definition of being a "great fan." (But just know going in: It's about raising a sports fan.)

This blog will cover all sorts of topics and subjects I think are important to raising an all-star sports fan: Archetypes, Allegiances, Appreciation, Participation, Behavior, Appearances, Competitiveness, Consumption, Community, Individualism, the Future of Fandom and more. (I'll explain more about what those topic headings mean to me as the blog progresses.)

I think there's an authenticity to the blog subject that elevates it beyond my personal argument about what makes "great" or "lame" fans:

As a template for how I'll raise my OWN kid as a fan, the values – the stakes – emerge as implicitly real and relatable. What's on the line: My own kid's fandom, and my own sense of fan self in being the main person to influence that.

(And, reading this over, it is here my wife slaps me in the head and demands to know why her influence isn't reflected or represented, especially considering the kid, at 8 months, already owns more Florida Gators-themed crap than anyone rightfully should... a direct result of his mother's influence and quite possibly the only fan allegiance he will truly have no say over. This, of course, has massive implications for the future, and the inevitability of this blog getting to that is as guaranteed as my son's future need for "fan therapy" because of the impact of his mother on his life. Hey, when can ANY kind of therapy – sports or otherwise -- not be essentially reduced to mom issues?)

There is a challenge embedded in all of this, which makes laying it out in real-time, through this blog, so appealing: On my other, original Dan Shanoff blog (http://danshanoff.blogspot.com), one of the things that makes it so much fun to write (and, hopefully, to read) is the participation of readers through the Comment area below each post.

Because what I'm writing isn't necessarily right. It may be wildly wrong: I could turn into the equivalent of Todd Marinovich's father, creating a "Robo-Fan" who leads a thoroughly joyless life (though perhaps not ultimately ending up as some drugged-out freak, like Papa Marinovich's poor son). Worse, my son-as-fan could end up a misinformed blowhard, writing a sports column for some online sports site.

And so I welcome and look forward to reading your reactions to what I write here. I welcome the challenges to my "How-to-Raise-a-Fan" belief system. My defense might make it stronger; my tacking to new models, thanks to your opinions, will make it stronger, too.

As a final thought, I have no illusions about my kid making millions as a pro athlete to financially support me when I'm old and he has grown up.

But he just might care enough about sports to give me a call after the big game to share the moment – or even gloat over how I called it wrong. Could anything be more rewarding between parent and child than that?

-- Dan

4 comments:

margery said...

It's OK if you pretend my influence isn't represented. I know the truth. That's what being a life-long fan is all about. You don't just pick it up (which some might argue you've done with the Gators); it's in my blood. And now it's in his, no matter what you might try to do about it!

mbpollack said...

What happens if your son isn't into sports?

Are you worried at all that he might prefer musical theater?

Brandon said...

Did you get the kid Baby Gator yet?

Team Baby Entertainment seems like THE perfect advertiser for this site.

Tim S. said...

I had a psych prof who had the same thing with his young son. He wanted to instill his life lessons with his son. It ended up being some great fodder when his son strayed (much like the musical theatre vs sports fandom). He realized that he can put it out and HOPE he takes it. No one will ever say he didn't try...and I think that's what matters.

Best of luck with helping your son realize the wonders of sports and fandom..