American Fan: Sports Mania and the Culture That Feeds It
UPON THE OUTBREAK of the NCAA tournament, many of my high school students contract unnamed gastrointestinal disorders. They sprint out of class for "bathroom breaks" that also somehow provide the information that Gonzaga has pulled off another first-round upset. Xeroxed tournament brackets litter the student center, and impassioned eruptions are audible hundreds of feet away. Since we're a high school, none of us (I include myself, an addict ever since the Fab Five's second-half collapse in 1992 lost me a hundred dollars or so) is directly involved in this madness. But still we sit rapt all day and into the evening.
Dennis Perrin, an American iconoclast in the grand Menckenian tradition, certainly feels this intimate emotional allure. But he also recognizes that sports are, on some level, and perhaps many, an incredible waste of time. "Why is such emotion spent on overdeveloped strangers?" he wonders. His latest volume, American Fan, never gets around to answering that eminently reasonable question. Instead, Perrin bellows some obvious truths--Michael Jordan never protests Nike's labor conditions! America embraced white-boy McGwire but not black and Latino Sosa!--as if he were bringing the news for the first time. Yet his rage at the breadth of the corruption and commercialism that fans have come to take for granted, and his determination to forswear macho sportswriterly gush, is tonic. Perrin dares to dream of a world where selling out would be criticized rather than predicted, diagrammed, and reviewed. Imagine Upton Sinclair covering the NBA finals, and you have an idea of this book's flavor.
One long, gonzo sportscast, American Fan goes from religion to race to the political economy of sneakers. Along the way he stops to consider individual monuments to sport's essential weirdness: Steelers fans' (unconscious) homage to David the hardhat in the Village People; or the eerie similarities in the prose styles of William S. Burroughs, star columnist Mike Lupica, and Ed Wood. As a hit-and-run prankster, Perrin can be marvelous. "Is He consumed strictly with the NFL, or does He oversee the Canadian League?" Perrin wonders when pondering Bible-thumping jocks. He quotes Noam Chomsky on the democratic integrity of sports-talk shows, then disses both George Will's and Spike Lee's literary maunderings. He shreds the sadism John Madden dresses up as blue-collar adoration and unveils the true Native heritage of the Cleveland Indians--a Penobscot named Lou Sockalexis who hit .338 for the 1897 Spiders.
Some of Perrin's shots clunk off the rim. He sneers at Midwesterners with the facile words of someone who knows the region from TV. And he decides that although numerous sports sociologists have spent years pondering white adoration of black athletes, what really answers the question is good old pop Freudianism: "many white men...are transfixed by black flesh in motion. Dizziness occurs....Perhaps this is why, equilibrium returned, they despise black jocks in celebration." Oh.
Still, when he dismantles Jordan's convenient passivity so completely, or when he mourns our persecution of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand for the national anthem, Perrin's cleansing bursts of anger limn large cultural fault lines. At his best, he collapses the social/racial/global complexities of sports culture into a phrase or two--a bitter collection of impolitic one-liners suitable for any season.