Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Red Sox Fans

This post is not about baseball, the title notwithstanding.  But there is some biographic information about me that is relevant here, which explains the title.  I'm a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, which started for real in the Thurman Munson glory years, with significant overlap to my time in graduate school at Northwestern.  Then, this displaced New Yorker was looking for some way to maintain his affinity for New York.  Baseball proved to be it.

During that time the traditional rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox was exceptionally fierce. Fans got caught up in this and, of course, each of these teams had their loyal following.  The Yankees were a team that many others learned to hate, ergo the show and then the movie Damn Yankees! Fans of the Yankees learned to reciprocate, but in a somewhat different way. Since the Yankees won with high frequency in those years, it was not possible to hate other teams that were less successful in quite the same way as how their fans hated the Yankees. But, in the mind of a Yankees fan, that their fans rooted for these other teams surely showed their loyalties were misplaced.  In this way I learned to consider Red Sox fans as lesser sorts of human beings.

In truth, I had and continue to have some good friends who rooted for the Red Sox.  Our rivalry was good natured and was entirely contained to the end of the season and the playoffs.  Still, I've found it useful, on occasion, to overplay this hand, using Red Sox fans as my personal placeholder for the detested other, those people you've come to intensely dislike and don't respect. Hereafter in this piece, when I talk about Red Sox fans, that's what I'm talking about.

There are some core questions I'd like to pose, which I will do from my own personal vantage, but I mean them to apply generally to everyone.  I will follow each question with some discussion.  I certainly don't have full answers, but I do have preliminary thoughts, which I will try to articulate.

Are Red Sox fans necessary for me as a way to focus my animus, an undeniable part of my personality?

Rooting for your favorite team is a very positive act, emotion laden and cathartic.  This is a big part of being a sports fan.  It is not just witnessing excellence in performance.  It is having aspirations and opening ourselves up to the possibility that those aspirations will be realized.  But, of course, failure is possible too and team sports, by design, are zero-sum games.  For each winner there is also a loser.

If you are open to the possibility of success, how do you self-protect against the disappointment of failure?  One way, I know, is to look at injustice as the cause of the outcome.  The umps made a bad call.  The other team cheated in some way.  We deserved to win.  In the heat of the moment, those sort of explanations are readily forthcoming.  Over time, however, the memory of any particular injustice fades and some other and broader form of self-protection is needed.  For me, Red Sox fans serve as a very useful way to address the concern.

Argyris and Schon, those social thinkers who helped me have a more mature view of adults and of managing in organizations, articulate that we have espoused theories and then we have theories in action.  The two are often not in alignment.  In other words, we talk a good game, but we don't live up to our own high standards.

Outside of the world of sports, my espoused theory is to treat everyone with common human decency.  Sometimes I adhere to that.  Other times, I stray.  I have during my professional life experienced substantial antagonism at times.  The Econ department, when I joined it, was intensely political and I got caught up in that.  Later, as a campus administrator and then in the College of Business, I occasionally bumped elbows with people who had an aggressive streak, much more than I had.  Once the path of negotiating it through to a sensible solution appeared blocked with such people, hostility developed in me.   That then became a permanent scar that conditioned subsequent interactions.

More recently, some of that type of attitude has entered into my teaching, where some of the kids seem quite spoiled to me and I soon lose my patience with them because of that.

Coincidentally, the Yankees haven't been very good as of late.  Neither have the other teams I normally root for.  So I've spent much less time in fan mode.  I wonder if these other irritations get to me more now, because I don't have the sports fan release for this sort of emotion.

Is there a difference between politics and sports regarding being a fan and disliking fans who root for the other team?  

I recently watched an old video on YouTube, Phil Rizzuto's speech during his Hall of Fame Induction.  Rizzuto was one of the TV announcers for the Yankees during the glory years.  The other guy in the booth was Bill White.  Both were former MLB players and they spoke with a ballplayer's reverence for the game.  They were a great team and listening to them while watching a ballgame was very enjoyable.  There was a mythic aspect to that and a friendliness in their banter that gave an aura to it all.  Even whn calling out people who upset him, he called such a person a huckleberry, Rizzuto showed respect and restraint.

At that time, I don't believe there was any equivalence between caring about politics and being a sports fan.  They were two entirely different things and remained that way at least until cable TV came along and probably for several years after that as well.   After Watergate and the Nixon pardon, interest in politics died down substantially.  For the first campaign where I got to vote for President, I wanted Mo Udall to be the Democratic candidate in 1976, but didn't get bent out of shape that Carter became President instead.  Interest in politics was less intense immediately thereafter and for quite some time to come.

Then some things changed in how sports reporting and commenting were done and likewise on political reporting and commenting that brought the two closer into alignment, regrettably so in my view. The TV show Crossfire on CNN was my introduction into the new approach, with a much more in-your-face style, where the hosts felt no compunction to be rude to their guests on occasion, interrupting them in mid sentence if they felt the need to do so.  This soon had a parallel in the sports world.  It is telling that Keith Olbermann, who practiced the approach with Dan Patrick while they were both on ESPN as co-anchors for the show SportsCenter, took the same act to MSNBC, where he is probably responsible for making them a brand and propagating the approach to all their evening programming.

The in-your-face style of reporting and commenting is not what I grew up with and I am still not comfortable with it.  Even now, it is possible to resist the style or, at least, not to be quite so extreme in practicing it.  The show Pardon the Interruption, with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, (coincidentally, Wilbon was an undergraduate at Northwestern while I was a graduate student there) shows some balance and occasional humor, though it is still too over the top for my taste.   Yet it is a rare thing.  Shows like that are prone to be crowded out by more extreme programming (perhaps because younger reporters don't have a memory of a milder alternative approach), which though less elevating does attract eyeballs.  As I wrote not long ago in a post called Invasive Species and Tabloidism, this is a kind of market failure, one we're not apt to recognize unless we look at it from a historical perspective.  Given that it has happened and become mainstream, being a sports fan and being interested in politics have become similar.  The big difference, it seems to me, is that individual athletic contests end, and there is still such a thing as the off season in sports. With politics now, however, it just seems to go on and on.

The role model for this sort of behavior is heavyweight wresting.  As a kid I would watch that on occasion, when Argentina Apollo, Bobo Brazil, and Gorilla Monsoon were featured and my brother and I would view it in our bedroom on our black and white TV.  Then later, as an assistant professor, I would watch with a friend, for the humor and farce in the pronouncements.  By then it was commonly known to all be an act, a put on.  One could enjoy it on its own terms if own possessed a juvenile sense of humor.  (I suspect that now I wouldn't enjoy it.)  Alas, it is not the same thing at all when the audience isn't in on the gag.  And it becomes still a different matter when, while deliberate, there is no gag.

Can we ever go back to the way news and commenting were or move onto something else which isn't so clearly aimed at stoking the audience?  The partial answer is that we have, with satirical comedy the alternative.  Even when I was a kid there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and the David Frost vehicle That Was The Week That Was.  Then, however, people watched the news or read the newspaper so the role of these shows was much more just for the sake of entertainment, though Nixon did go on Laugh-In to say sock it to me.  So, admittedly, the line between news and entertainment was blurred.  But now, we know, many avoid the news outlets entirely and go straight for the humor/satire.  Further, the shows are more edgy now, matching the way other media gets done.  For the gentler, less edgy, and perhaps more clearly sentimental approach to make a comeback, it would need to confront the increasingly limited attention span of the audience.  Maybe that is possible, though maybe not.

Can you argue with fans from the other team if the rivalry is not friendly?

This is one where the espoused theory, yes you can have such an argument, stands in sharp contrast to the theory in action, where my experience has been that such arguments are extremely frustrating and eventually degenerate into something worse, whereupon they typically lead to fracture.  Understanding that, either the topic is avoided, as a way to maintain the peace, or the people avoid each other, to refrain from the unpleasantness that would surely ensue otherwise should they interact.

Can you restore friendly relationships with people after there has been fracture?  

It's possible, I believe, but consider the expression "bury the hatchet" and take it as a guide.  The more benign admonition, "forgive and forget," largely doesn't work.  People don't forget.  And they don't get over it, unless they are made too.

My mother's parents were killed in a concentration camp.  For quite a while I felt a sense of collective guilt toward German people, including those born well after World War II, so obviously not responsible for the Nazi period in any way.  At some point I got past these feelings.  Perhaps watching German angst movies while a graduate student mattered.  Of that I'm not sure.  I recall in the mid 1980s there was a German woman who was a graduate student in the Economics department, Anita, and I taught her microeconomics.  Anita was a decent and articulate person and that helped this way.  Later, my mother received a kind of personal reparations pension from Germany and from Austria too.  That also helped.

When considering injustice, can we distinguish between a mountain and a molehill or is it all a matter of parallax and who is doing the viewing?  

This one I want to begin straight off by saying that I don't' have an answer.  So instead I will pose a couple of different questions.  Have you been in a situation where you are perceived as a Red Sox fan?  If so, what was that like?

I will recount two situations like that for me, one professional the other familial.

For three years I was the director of a small campus unit called the Center for Educational Technologies (CET).  I loved the structure and the freedom that job afforded me to work hard on the mission, as I understood it.  For the most part, my staff felt the same way.  At the beginning of the third year my boss, the campus CIO, initiated a process to merge CET with the much larger campus computing organization CCSO and his CIO office into an organization that was subsequently known as CITES.  I didn't want the merger and I believe that most CCSO folks didn't want the merger either.  For my part I was afraid that our particular culture in CET would get wiped out and our mission would be compromised.  Nevertheless, my boss prevailed and the merger happened.

In the process I got a title change, something of a promotion, and a bump up in salary.  Further, I was the only one with faculty status in all of CITES, though by that point I was 100% time as an administrator.  Mainly because of the faculty status, I was treated with kid gloves and afforded a lot of respect.  At a personal level, then, the merger worked for me.

But it didn't work nearly as well for my direct reports and the units that they led.  The governance structure contributed to that.  At the highest level was the CIO Cabinet, which I was a member of and which functioned reasonably well.  It was small, collegial, and a place where each participant had a voice.  At the next rung down there was something called the Roundtable, which included the Cabinet and then the various division directors. (My direct reports were division directors.  There were many more and much larger divisions in the rest of the organization.)  The Roundtable meetings were far less satisfying.  They included some sniping by the division directors and some expression of open contempt for other members of the group.  Here I should mention that there was political tension between the various divisions in the old CCSO.  It wasn't just us against them, though it felt that way at times.

The third governance group had acronym MOG, which stood for something like Managers Operations Group.  As an academic first and foremost, I was considered a strategic thinker but definitely not an operations guy.  So I wasn't on the MOG.  Neither was the CIO.  My direct reports attended the MOG and they hated it.  They felt disrespected there and as if their opinions didn't count.  They were getting beaten up by those meetings.  I wanted to protect them, but I didn't have a mechanism to do so.  It was all very frustrating.

Related to this, my units were under financed.  Indeed, much of the larger CITES organization seemed under financed, with the notable exception of the Networking division.  Then there was a different sort of issue, quite apart from the money.  I felt that much of the IT organization was far too insular.  People talked with other IT people only, got their opinions confirmed in those discussions, and then locked into their views.  For the most part they didn't have conversations with people outside of IT and sometimes not even with IT people who were on campus but were located in one of the Colleges rather than in CITES.  These communication failures contributed to an inflexible mindset and a somewhat tyrannical view of how IT should be done on campus.

It was my job, one that I fell into rather than one I sought out, to be the voice of the faculty within CITES.  People seemed to appreciate my articulating an alternative view.  Yet they never showed that appreciation by acceding to my views.  Rather, they acted as if it gave them comfort to proceed as they had been planning to all along, having now heard an alternative suggestion on how to proceed but invariably finding some flaw with that.

After a few years of this, I got fed up with the arrangement.  I left CITES for the College of Business 4 years after the merger happened.  I do want to point out that all of this wasn't just me.  Some years later, after the Campus went through the Stewarding Excellence process, most of the people who were in the divisions that reported to me got reassigned to the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL).  That structure may have made sense back in 2002, when CITES formed, but politics and individual personalities prevented it from happening then.  What they have now still may not be ideal, but it is a better structure than when I was a part of it.

My family story is shorter.  I am a minority of one within my wife's family.  They are Methodists.  I am Jewish.  For the most part, I would say this hasn't mattered and that our collective good nature got us through what otherwise could possibly have been some awkwardness.  There was one time, however, when my kids were quite young and we were visiting my sister-in-law in Texas, when getting along didn't happen.  My mother-in-law, Helen, was there too.  Helen wanted the kids to be Baptized.  I was not asked about this, but had I been I would have been dead against it.  We were at some place they called "the ranch" and while I was off doing something with my sister-in-law's husband, Randy, they performed a little ceremony in the house  (or perhaps outside, that part I don't remember).  I found out about it after the fact.  I was not pleased, for sure.   I then did what I used to do a lot as a teenager.  I mumbled.  That was it.  It didn't come up again, as far as I recall.  But the memory is still there, part of the patchwork quilt of memories from when the kids were young, including many other fond memories of Helen.  She passed away quite a while ago. 

Wrap Up

With sufficient time, it is possible for me to discuss these various incidents without getting too worked up about them   That doesn't mean I'd be able to have an even handed conversation on a parallel matter were something similar to happen now.  In the present tense, it is much harder to keep the anger under wraps.   I don't know anyone who is good at doing that.

Within the context of rooting for the Yankees, being angry at Red Sox fans seems benign to me.  If you have to be angry that's a good outlet for the emotion.  In other contexts, however, letting anger surface is like playing with fire.  It can be very dangerous.

I spend a good chunk of time looking at my Facebook feed, sometimes much more than is healthful for me.   Many of my friends express anger.  Some quite frequently.  The expression, righteous indignation, comes to mind.  Much of it is directed at Trump, but some of it focuses on fellow citizens.    Even if the immediate future looks pretty grim, might there still be a way to heal beyond that?  If so, how could that possibly happen?  It's these questions that explain why I wrote this piece and framed it the way I did. 

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