Book Review: “A Fan’s Life” — A Species of Madness?
By Bob Katz
In A Fan’s Life, Paul Campos makes a valiant stab at reconciling his avowedly progressive views on American politics and iconoclastic intellectual pursuits with his lifelong obsession with spectator sports.
A Fan’s Life: The Agony of Victory and the Thrill of Defeat by Paul Campos. University of Chicago Press, 208 pages.
If you’re the type of dedicated sports fan who gets periodically beset with pangs of misgiving regarding the vast amounts of time squandered watching athletic contests, then fretting about them afterward, you have essentially two choices:
1) suck it up, down another beer, check your local listings, and soldier on to the next scheduled game; or 2) lean into those misgivings by convincing yourself that sports obsessions are a special category of fandom that provides a uniquely valuable connection to your culture, your community, and yourself.
Paul Cantos takes the latter path with his book A Fan’s Life: The Agony of Victory and the Thrill of Defeat, and my sympathies are with him. I too fall into that second category. But believe me, it can be a strain.
A professor of law at the University of Colorado, author of The Obesity Myth and Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) and the well regarded LawyersGunsMoneyBlog, Campos is a thinking person’s sports fan (hey, aren’t we all?). In A Fan’s Life, he makes a valiant stab at reconciling his avowedly progressive views on American politics and iconoclastic intellectual pursuits with his lifelong obsession with spectator sports. As a fan of thoughtful writing and ambitious thinking, I found myself rooting for Campos to succeed in his quest. Yet as he makes a point of delineating, we fans are always braced for disappointment. And may even subconsciously prefer it.
He launches the book with Gladwellian panache by citing a study from behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that demonstrates, somewhat surprisingly, that most people hate losing more than they crave winning. Huh? “If we hate to lose much more than we like to win and if sports are zero-sum,” Campos concludes, “. . . then being a deeply engaged fan, bedeviled by inevitable losing, is practically a species of madness.”
His point seems to be that kvetching about bad breaks and injustices — “we was robbed!” — and endlessly wallowing in frustration is the heart of the sports fan experience, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m not so sure, and I further question why Campos felt the need to make this contention a cornerstone of his thesis. Or why he even felt the need to burden the book with something like a thesis. Because what A Fan’s Life is primarily is a memoir, and a pretty interesting one.
Campos grew up in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan as both an undergrad and a law student, and the stages of his life from childhood through the present are knitted together by memories of fandom, mostly rooted in the mania of Go Blue football. In 1997, searching for commiseration in a desperate hour of need following a gruesome Michigan bowl game loss to Alabama, he discovered an online message board. Over the ensuing decades, this message board became for him something akin to an AA group, except nobody here had any desire to kick the habit. Or at least not for very long.
One of this book’s limitations, to my mind, is its disproportionate focus on college football. The real head cases exist in the professional ranks; NCAA nutcases are amateurs by comparison. Commentary from the Michigan football message board plays a prominent role in Campos’ effort to show how fans, to paraphrase the title of a pop bestseller from several decades back, love too much. Using lengthy quotes cherry-picked from internet discussions to illustrate one’s argument is not to Campos’ credit, and I wished he would have done far less of this. What does come through loud and vividly clear is that Paul Campos loves too much.
Yes, he loves his Wolverine football. But Campos most especially seems to love the multi-directional, free-association ruminations that get triggered by his sports affinities. Indeed, the book’s subtitle could well be the unexamined sports fan’s life is not worth living. The book is chockful of intriguing sidebar explorations. One chapter travels from a literary spat involving Norman Podhoretz to the feats of Free Solo rock climber Alex Honnold to a discussion of climate change. Another begins with pondering the staying power of forever TV announcers like Bob Costas and Marv Albert and migrates to Bill James’ sabermetrics before looping around to the root of reactionary political tendencies. And then there’s the section about WrestleMania and the fateful re-birth of Donald Trump.
Like most of us, I assumed, not proudly, that by now I’d heard it all regarding the sordid rise of #45, but Campos’ riff on Trump’s WWE roots was brand new to me. The story begins in April 2007 at a WrestleMania mega-event held at Ford Field, the home of the Detroit Lions. Recounting the ornate backstory here would take up too much space, but suffice to say it involves Trump, Rosie O’Donnell, wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, the TV program Monday Night Raw, Apprentice creator Mark Burnett, and two words that were unknown to me, although I will probably want to use them in every discussion I have about electoral politics going forward.
Kayfabe is a code word used in professional wrestling to describe elements of a contest that are presented as intensely real — the feuds, the allegiances, the eruptions of spontaneous action — but are in fact pre-planned and orchestrated. It’s scripted reality passed off as honest reality. To succeed in this charade, kayfabe needs to rely on the willing, as distinct from the gullible, which is necessary for participation in the second term that was new to me and will be equally useful, smarks.
Smarks are described by Campos as “fans who fully acknowledge that wrestling is nothing but kayfabe, yet who still revel in the drama as if it was real, calling themselves ‘smart marks’ or ‘smarks’.” Have we become a nation of smarks? Are spectator sports the gateway drug that’s taken us there? That seems to be where Campos is headed with this, although his attempt to connect the dots from a boisterous sports stadium filled with pumped-up smarks to a democratic nation preferring to be led by an avowed liar who claims to be a singularly trustworthy truthteller left this reader a few yards short of the goal line.
Often the book lapses into a cranky nostalgia that will sound familiar to anyone who’s sat beside the wrong drunk at a noisy sports bar or spends time with seasoned columnists like the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan when he’s lecturing young ‘uns on the good old days when real men who cared about none of the frills but only about victory played the game, any game, with noble adherence to old school fundamentals. Campos complains about the escalating interruptions of video review, flamboyant victory celebrations (Sandy Koufax never acted that way!), and the Bleacher Report generation’s disinclination to bother with live attendance. To his credit, he’s fully aware of his old guy crankiness. Somewhat less to his credit, he seems to believe that the pitfalls of sports fandom can be redeemed through expanded consciousness.
I wish it were so.
Bob Katz is the author of five books, two of which involve sports. His novel Third and Long, winner of the 2011 Independent Book Publishers Association fiction award, is about a depressed rust belt town that hires a former football star to run its factory. The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball follows the struggles of an elite NCAA referee trying to make each game fair.
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