Centuries from now, if our institutions still exist, archeologists wishing to learn what life was like in 2013 would do well to check out our TV commercials. No other medium better encapsulates our values and aspirations. If we don’t like the pictures of ourselves they present, it’s our fault, not its makers’. Those folks are sharp and have money to spend, a tough combination to beat.
The commercials that have caught by eye especially of late are in Pepsi’s “Are You Fan Enough?” series. There’s been a bunch of them, tied to National Football League teams and games. The kickoff ad, presented in the usual zip-zip-zip fashion, showed energetic-looking men and women wearing NFL gear and waiving team flags, others with painted faces, and a young man getting a team logo (the Pittsburgh Steelers’) shaved onto his head, interspersed with images of people quaffing the sponsor’s sweet, brown beverage. It ends with a shot of a bunch of beefy guys in a crowded stadium, leaning forward, pumping their fists and shouting apoplectically.
What if anything is happening on the field while all that activity is going on—the context, don’t you know?—is unseen and unstated. That’s because there is no context. According to the ad, fan fervor is an end in itself and worth celebrating for its own sake. The French philosopher Rene Descartes defined the human credo as “cogito ergo sum,” which means “I think therefore I am.” If he were alive today and writing Pepsi ads he’d put “we cheer therefore we are” into Latin, and be well paid for it.
It’s a whole new ball game out there, one in which I’m not comfortable because I don’t qualify as “fan enough” by Pepsi’s standards. I’ve never painted my face in a team’s colors, own no team flags, don’t have enough hair to have a team emblem cut onto my scalp and never have come close to busting a gut over any sports action, although I’ve seen plenty of it.
I do own some team gear but received most of it as gifts, from people who think it’s the kind of thing I’d like. I’m politely grateful when I get it but promptly pitch it onto a shelf in my closet, from where it rarely emerges. I have a classic Cubs’ cap I like—blue with a red “C”—and often wear to baseball games. I have a couple Olympic t-shirts from my columnist days that I wear in public from time to time, mostly because they’re good brags. Otherwise the duds get worn only around my house, when I’m in my wood shop or doing my morning exercises.
An obvious reason for my unease with the current stadium scene is generational: most people my age (I’m 75) didn’t make a display of their fandom during my formative years. We went to games, all right, and cheered for the home teams, but mostly we kept quiet unless something worth shouting about was taking place on the field. Stated differently, there were the games and there was the audience of which we were a part, and the two were separate. Ditto for plays, concerts and other forms of public entertainment.
Now the audience considers itself part of the show. I don’t go to rock concerts but I did go to a play a few weeks ago (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” if you can believe they’re still staging it) and the young fellow seated behind me (about 30 years old, I’d guess) whooped or hollered “Yeah!” at every on-stage verbal putdown, of which there were many. I wondered what Oscar Wilde would have thought.
There always have been people who think everything is about them, but today they predominate. In sports I think their ascendancy began in the late 1970s or early ‘80s when the stadium “wave” made its appearance on the West Coast and rolled across the nation. The wave was nice in a way—a communal expression—but it also made the statement that the sports crowd can have an agenda that has nothing to do with the game before it.
I feel similarly about the costumes some people wear to athletic events. For pure entertainment the best show in the NFL isn’t put on by Peyton Manning or Tom Brady but by the fans in the parking lot and stands at Oakland Raiders’ home games. People there have embraced the Raiders’ biker-gang image and celebrate it with fierce face paint, real or temporary tattoos, spiked hair, studded belts and collars, and muscle shirts. And that’s just the women!
The above two examples are harmless, as was that “Rockin’ Rolland” guy who’d show up ubiquitously on TV wearing his rainbow wig and hoisting his “John 3:16” sign. (Where is he? I miss him.) Not so the latest manifestation of crowd exhibitionism, the sustained, ear-splitting roar.
You may be interested to know that there’s a contest going on for whose fans are loudest, and that those of the NFL Kansas City Chiefs are winning. Their top decibel level during a game last month was measured at 137.5 by the Guinness World Record folks, beating the previous mark of 136.6 for an outdoor stadium set a week earlier at a Seattle Seahawks’ home game. Both readings were about the same noise level a jet passenger plane creates on takeoff, as heard by someone standing on the runway bare eared.
The object of those clamors is very much game-related, designed to disrupt the signals of the visiting team’s offense, and the false-start and delay-of-game penalties they cause attest to their effectiveness. Is this fair? No, but so far the league hasn’t wanted to rile the beast by telling it to pipe down. Fans want to express themselves even at a risk of hearing loss, and Commish Goodell is letting them.
The Pepsi people no doubt would rate the K.C. and Seattle screamers as “fan enough,” and worthy of drinking their product. Me, I don’t care what Pepsi thinks. I prefer Coke.
NOTE: I have a new piece on Cub and White Sox prospects in the Arizona Fall League on chicagosidesports.com, which you can check out with the link above. While you’re there see my piece on the old ogre Arthur Wirtz by finding “Wirtz Case Scenario.”