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Even at Our Worst, We are Still Better Than Most or Anatomy of a Fan

“You aren’t a real fan, you jerk!” shouted a young and not nearly wise beyond her years neophyte donned from head to toe in the incongruous “battle red” and wearing a precariously placed severed bull head on top of her otherwise, but now hidden, attractive blonde skull.

Why might you ask was this attractive young lady shouting at me? 

Well, I was at the dismantling of the Cleveland Browns by our Houston Texans this past Sunday.  I, like most people, was satisfied with a well played, and slightly drama free, experience; something which up until this point has been all too rare of an experience at Reliant Stadium.  However, after the win washed over me and I was quickly jarred back to reality, thanks in no small part to the horrific after game post-modern country music that is not so subtly jammed out into the airwaves and into our hemorrhaging eardrums, a thought occurred to me.  The Texans are 6-3, sure, but only one of those wins was against a team with a winning record.  In fact the combined records of the teams they have defeated stands at 18-34, which by all estimations is scarcely the mark, or in Texans terms, the start, of a champion.

However, I would accept and probably encourage the argument that this season, more so than ever before, the Texans are finally beating the teams they could and should beat.  This is true.  This is irrefutable.  It still begs the question about the various teams that maybe they are on par with or perhaps shouldn’t beat.  Where do the Texans as a team stand?  Fair arguments can be made that the Texans could have and maybe should have won against the Saints, Ravens, and the Raiders.  They were, in the most hyperbolic of senses, “in a position to win” but ultimately failed.  Why?  It is a fair question to ask.  It is a question that by all accounts ought to be asked and discussed, especially before making any Super Bowl travel plans, as it seems the majority of Texans fans seem hardly reticent to do. 

This is not a thought pattern of doom and gloom but rather a gut check, perhaps a plan of self preservation to let ones’ self know not to get ones’ hopes up just yet.

Although maybe I should, for lack of a better phrase, “stop and smell the roses.”  For once, in practically ever, Texans fans are happy this far in to the season.  This is truly a first.  This probably should be celebrated as somewhat of a victory.  Perhaps this momentary happiness shouldn’t be disrupted by a chronically dissatisfied pragmatist, who through years of disappointment has let his confidence in Houston football be crushed down to a pallid residue of dust.  Perhaps realism, rationalism, or logic shouldn’t be allowed to “rain on our parade.”  Perhaps, just perhaps, the Texans will exceed what conventional rationale and NFL history states they are capable of achieving.

I suppose even I could be content to lock my nihilistic view of the Texans away for the moment, only to be unleashed in the not so distant date in the future when the tacit Texans’ inevitable failure will surface.  I could circle back around at that time and laugh a hearty “I told you so” while the masses of bandwagoners bemoan the season’s death for a day, only to be quickly forgotten as they get their wranglers ironed and their boots oiled up for the next cow and pony brigade to celebrate who can stay on an irate longhorn the longest while gleefully stuffing turkey legs and twice fried Twinkies into their smiling maws.

But I am one of those that adore fried Twinkies. 

I am one of those who will be deeply saddened by another Texans failure.  I am one of those “natural” Houstonians.  I am a Houston Texan.  I tend to have a short term memory when a new season is about to begin.  I am, for lack of a defined social group, one of them.

Or am I?

Unfortunately, my sense of fandom was challenged and that is something I feel needs to be addressed.  This young lady, who overheard me tell my friend on our way out of the stadium that, while the win was nice to be sure, I was still skeptical to say the least.  I went on to add the stats I knew off the top of my head, that of course out of those six, not to be dismissed, wins, only one of those came at the hands of, shall we say, a “worthy” opponent.

This is the moment when the tenderfoot dressed as a dazzling crimson bovine decided to question my fandom and hurl the effortless slight of “jerk” directly at me.

Was I a fan?  Had my cynicism reached a breaking point from the Houston fan nation?  Can you no longer be called a fan if you critique the team in any way?  Or perhaps the ultimate question does being a fan equate to unconditional devotion devoid of any sort of critical thinking? 

I think to determine what it means to be a fan, one would need to cite references to “fans” that are historically and widely assumed to be the most “fanatical.”  Which, of course, when one thinks of where the word “fan” came from, namely the root fanatical, ones’ mind naturally shifts to New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and/or Oakland.  Now, there may be many other cities that may come to mind, as this list should by no means be considered exhaustive, and the cities one may think of may change predicated on the sport being discussed.  However, for the sake of our debate, let’s focus primarily on football and primarily on who you think of when you think of fanatical fans.

Why do we think of New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and/or Oakland?  Is it because they are incredibly supportive and nice?  Those are hardly adjectives we would use to describe those cities in general and most assuredly not their fan base.  No.  Those fans, while not classified as mean spirited as a whole, have an innate passion and drive behind their fandom, which is fueled by certain expectations.  They are determined, they are vehement, and they are vocal in terms of what they love, and perhaps more often than not what they don’t love about their franchises.  If you have ever listened to sports talk radio in any of those cities, than you are shaking your head in agreement because criticisms are not only welcomed and encouraged but are the foundation of all intelligent conversation.  The eventual purpose is positive conversation based around the question, “how can we be better?”

Here’s a question; would the fans in New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and or Oakland have stood calmly by while their beloved franchise allowed a, by record, mediocre head coach to continue in their city for over five years?  There would have been riots; the war on the streets would have burned until all that would be left is the blackened skin of the Earth.

Now, this is not a debate about the merits of Gary Kubiak.  Although, it bears mentioning what the great, Super Bowl winning coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”  By those standards we have enough evidence to factually state that Gary Kubiak is below average or average at best as a head coach.  However, this isn’t about whether you personally like Kubiak or, whether he can coach a team, or whether Bob McNair lets nepotism override his usually sound business acumen.

No, this is about something more personal, our reaction.  How do we as “fans” react, or how are we allowed to react and still be called “fans.”

If New York, Boston, and all of those other cities can call for their coaches’ head or demand change, why can’t we?  Is it because of the lofty expectations of success they have that gives them the feeling of inherent right to criticize?  Is it because we, as Houstonians, have come to have such low expectations that we accept mediocrity or small gains with apathetic approval or worse a resounding applause?  Should our expectations determine how we are allowed to support the team?

The object of any season, whether you are the Patriots or the Browns, is to win a Super Bowl.  Of course, to start any season, there are some teams with more reasonable chances than others, but we still play the games because on that ever so mystical day of the week known as Sunday, surely anything can and will happen, within a vacuum, naturally.

Even Browns fans are historically “great” fans, and even those “fans” will criticize the team, which they obviously will have more to criticize.  But think about those fans; what is the one linking characteristic between them all, between Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh, and Boston?  All of those cities have very different personalities and defining qualities but one characteristic links them all in a definable way.

They all care.  They all care about winning, not one game, not simply getting into the playoffs but winning the, as we say in Texas, “whole enchilada,” the Super Bowl, anything less is an abject failure.

Imagine you go out to eat at your favorite restaurant, not your typical fast food mass marketed chain but also not a three star Michelin joint either; no, just your typical above average linen table cloth restaurant looking to make you content, sufficiently full, and perhaps with a lighter wallet when you leave.  Now imagine you order what is typically your “go to” meal, the meal you know you love unabashedly, be it rare filet mignon or lightly seared snapper, whatever your meal of choice is, you know this makes you happy.  Now imagine the waiter has just left your plate in front of you and you take a hearty whiff and the aroma seems enticing enough, the presentation appears adequate, but then you take a bite. 

The moment the warm exhaust of the food tickles the taste receptors of your baited tongue you nearly heave in repugnance, because what you discovered is that this meal in front of you that had once appeared decent enough in fact tastes like the remains of raw sewage having been filtered through a truck stop toilet finished off with a dog feces reduction.  What do you do?  You love the restaurant; in fact it might even be your favorite restaurant.  Do you just sit and keep shoveling this manically crafted Machiavellian gruel, not fit for human consumption, deep down your gullet and pray it’s noxious acids don’t permanently devour the inside lining of your once stout stomach?  I assume most of you will do the sensible thing and alert the waiter to lodge a complaint, it might not be rude one, it might not even be with a sense of irritation, but the point is you will say something and it will be, at its core, a negative comment.  You will demand change, be it a new meal or a refund.

When you see a movie with your favorite actor do you give it carte blanche no matter what the quality of the movie is or do you call a bust for what it is, a bust?  If you send your car to a mechanic and he doesn’t fix it properly do you just bring it back without a hint of a breath in the contrary and pay him again to fix something that should have been fixed the first go around?  If your close friend was making bad decisions with his life, perhaps becoming addicted to something dreadful like heroin, do you wordlessly enable him or would you say, “hey, guy, knock it off?”

We as humans are conditioned to “call it like we see it.”  More than likely, we will probably go back to that restaurant, or see a new movie with our favorite actor, or even continue to be friends with the heroin addict, but only after we have said our peace and demanded some level of change.  Why?  It’s because we care enough about what we love to say when something doesn’t sit well with us.

We care if what we eat tastes like the remains of Chernobyl or we care if our friend is making bad decisions.  Only the most ardent of foodies, cinephiles, or friends will speak up because, of the most human of qualities, they care.

True fans care.

Therefore, it can be said, that the true fans care enough to say something, even when it’s negative.  True fans care enough to have the forethought to either let their displeasure about awful decisions be heard, even if no one important hears, because at the very least its healthy conversation … or perhaps as a means of, again, self preservation, so as to not let their heart be set up for an eventual rupture.

Now let’s contrast that further. 

What would you think of a person who went to a restaurant and merrily ate terrible ill prepared food without a second thought?  Or a person who knowingly supported a god awful movie?  Or a person who enable bad decisions in their friends?

I think most people would categorize those people as weak, ineffective, or at the very least lame.

If you didn’t care then you wouldn’t say anything; you’d contently keep tolerating the mediocre, average, or bad as acceptable.

Why is there a disconnect in the sports world?

Why are fans who give blind support, ones who unconditionally love something which is incapable of loving them back, considered the “real fans” … while the ones who support the team but also are obsessive and care enough, and it’s worth noting are aware enough, to make educated criticisms considered “not real fans?”

You see the disconnect?

Houstonians are nice and friendly people but in terms of fandom the majority, is, frankly, too nice, that is to say they love big but in mostly surface ways, in short they don’t care enough to dig deeper into the “why’s” and “how’s”.  In essence they enable the mediocrity with blind support.

The care represented by the other major cities is evident, but cannot be measured in game attendance, outlandish costumes, or noisily yelling “Go team!” but rather in how fervently they praise the good and how decisively they hold accountable the bad. 

I am unsure if it is because of a lack of expectations in Houston or if it is because we are just genuinely nice, decent people at our core and maybe it is just that Houstonians do not wish to utter a negative phrase about anyone except the liberal blue blood media and Dallas. 

No matter what the reason, there is a difference between the classically considered great fans of the sports world and us. 

Of course, not everyone needs to, or should, show support in the same way.  Perhaps if the fandom of Houston changed their culture to be more like those other cities then it would forever change what makes Houston so great to live in outside of the sports realm.  Perhaps with the care to criticize come larger more societal changes that necessitate that special form of realism.  In the end, sports is not life, and if overall quality of life was affected it would not be worth it.

This young woman posed an interesting question about, not just me, but the very definition of “fan” in general.  I, for one, would like to see Houston fans be more like New York or Boston because the energy in the stadiums is palpable, unlike anything outside of literally being in a pressure cooker, but I wouldn’t want Houston the city to be more like New York the city.  So perhaps we have to accept the bad with the overwhelming good that comes with it.

Who is or isn’t a fan is probably not an idea that should be debated, because really isn’t how you feel about something primordially internal and by definition exceedingly subjective.  I can’t say the woman in the home made Texans dress is not a fan and I should not say she is probably only wearing the dress for attention and is only at the game as a social or perhaps primarily alcoholic experience, I don’t know how she feels deep down in her innards.  Neither can I say that the guy painted up like a cross between, what I can only assume is, a bull and Harvey Firestein, is a super fan because this could all just be a platform for communal acceptance for him.

Here’s something else to mull over … when Bill Belichick holds his post-win press conference what is his demeanor?  Is it one of over exuberance or is it something, perhaps more dour or reflective?  Sure his incredulity is amusing to everyone; but to the true Patriots fans is it annoying or rather does it instill in them a sense of pride, respect, and faith in their coach when, even after a blow out win, he simply states “we could have been better.”

There is no perfect game; sure we can walk a fine line of nitpicky but, while we can’t say who is or isn’t a fan I will pose this final question, in regards to degrees of fans, who is the, dare I say, “better” fan or more closely linked with the root word “fanatical” … is it the person dressed up like walk around character at an amusement park, who win or lose, goes to whatever hipster bar is the “it” place to high five the customary rubes with backwards hats and frosted hair while slinging back a medium cool Coors light or Zima while listening to the latest assembly line Train or Maroon 5 “song” that is sold to the ineffectual consumer as “music,” to then immediately the following day go back to their community college composition one class and immediately forget about the team until next week they can paint their face and get drunk to forget or … rather is a better fan the person that, win or lose, leaves the game in unvarying deliberation, which I might add continues all week long, and cares enough and has the wherewithal to ask, admittedly tough questions, like why Kubiak challenged a play that was so obviously unchallengeable even from the vantage point in the nose bleed section, or why Kubiak seemingly abandoned the play calling that had yielded such positives earlier in the game for inane plays that only end in three and outs, or any other number of negatives that could be precursors to something more damaging in the future?  These telling signs mean something to these fans, and haunt them for the weeks ahead.

I know, for me at least, I leave each game asking these and other fundamental questions like, can they be better, will they better, but perhaps more selfishly I ask, am I rooting for a lost cause?

So … who is the “real” fan?