Basil Kahwash examines the implications of wearing the jersey of a team you don’t root for.
The NBA store tab has been open in my web browser all afternoon. Occasionally, I’ll glance at it but it’s mostly left to blend in with the background, like the idea in the back of my mind. The NBA playoffs are on, and I am thinking of buying a Knicks jersey. This matters because a) I’ve turned away from this thought three times in the last month, b) the Knicks were knocked out weeks ago and c) I didn’t lose a wink of sleep the night the Celtics handed New York their season-ending loss. I am not a Knicks fan. Yet here I am: three clicks away from making a purchase that until recently would have made absolutely no sense to me.
How did I get here? Less than a year ago I berated a friend in a Hines Ward jersey for cheering against the Steelers. His defense: “I like Hines Ward.” Not the team he plays for (nor, I would assume, the reality show he competes on). Well I happen to like Chauncey Billups, and I do live in New York, so now that he’s on the Knicks … but no, my pride keeps getting in the way.
The millennial generation has bred a new fan prototype. We’ve all seen them: the kids who, in 2008, slipped Jets jerseys over their Favre cutouts, while die-hard Cheeseheads excoriated their former QB. The Jimmie Johnson jackets favored by suburban folks who’ve scarcely seen five minutes of NASCAR action. The guy strolling through Queens in an AC Milan jersey who couldn’t pick Gattuso out of a lineup that also included Johnny Drama and a Rockhopper Penguin. The hipsters, in their infinite irony, geared up in the apparel of a defunct pro hockey or basketball team.
The relationship between sports and entertainment is universally acknowledged and frequently discussed, especially on networks whose names contain both of those words. But what about the relationship between entertainment and fandom? Should we feel guilty cheering for the teams that entertain us most, even if they didn’t last year and may not next? FreeDarko introduced the idea of “liberated fandom,” whereby spectators choose their teams according to their style of play or the presence of a particularly outstanding player or any other personal reason. Inherent in this is the idea that rather than hitching yourself to a wagon for life you can switch between teams as often as you’d like. You can even support more than one team—with the possibility of one or two rising above the others at a given time.
The 2006 and 2010 World Cups provided perhaps the purest examples of liberated fandom. Most Americans have not followed international soccer since childhood, and many prefer to adopt a second team other than the Red, White and Blue. Those who did were free to cheer for whomever they pleased, be it Brazil for their fluid ball movement or Portugal because of Cristiano Ronaldo. After all, no one’s going to mock you for being a Portugal and a Cowboys fan.
There’s even another, more extreme level of liberated fandom. What about when that entertainment from sports extends beyond the court/field/rink? Plenty of fan apparel has been sold because of its cultural significance or attachment to celebrities. Jay-Z famously claimed to have “made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can”. Ice Cube could make the same argument about the Lakers jersey. Just because your uncle likes Roger Federer’s accessory line doesn’t mean he’ll tune in to the next installment of Federer-Nadal (if there even is one). Wiz Khalifa makes the Pirates logo look cool, no easy task. Even documentarian Michael Moore flashes his Sparty pride almost everywhere he goes. In a world where advertising is ubiquitous, symbols of even the humblest teams can be inescapable. As a result, people adopt the Philadelphia Eagles as their team like they choose Coke over Pepsi.
This isn’t to say that strong team loyalty is on its way out, just that there are alternatives. There’s no right way to be a fan. There will always be a place for dyed-in-the-wool supporters of any team. Quite often, that place is the student section. Maybe so-called liberated fans don’t bring the same, singular, often misguided passion to sporting events as their more traditional counterparts, but they also wouldn’t riot over a controversial call, start dumpster fires, or drive Steve Bartman into Witness Protection. Liberated fandom is here to stay. So I’ll bite my lip the next time I catch my buddy switching sides mid-season and withhold judgment when I see a mustachioed Williamsburg resident in a Hartford Whalers shirt. And you know what, I think I’ll go ahead and buy that Knicks jersey.