“The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.”
—Don DeLillo, Underworld (32)
This past summer, while on vacation in East Tennessee, we took our kids to a minor league baseball game. They loved it. Their eyes mooned at the towering pop flies. The first time an outfielder uncorked a long throw, their heads whipped back to me, bearing incredulous expressions. They ate junk food, asked lots of questions about the rules, sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, and traded high-fives when the hometown Chattanooga Lookouts hit a home run. There was something sweet about the whole evening—it was July 4th, and the crowd was full of happy kids, anticipating the post-game fireworks. Finally, in the top of the ninth inning, the visiting Jackson Generals were down to their last strike, and per tradition, everyone stood and clapped and stomped, cheering for a strikeout to end the game. It was at that moment that our six-year-old cupped his hands and hollered: “Jackson suuuuucccckkkksssss!!!!!”
If we can ignore the inadequate parenting revealed by this incident—let us please do so—we might see the larger meanings behind that boy’s raucous exclamation. It reminds us how sports stir our collective passions. While witnessing extraordinary and authentic drama, we create heroes and villains. We possess the freedom to assign our own meanings to the action. As C.L.R. James notes, sports are the language of the “common people,” shaping the conversations that forge a nation’s identity. Since ancient times, humans have watched people compete in athletics, and sports spectators have exhibited the vast spectrum of human behavior, from noble pride to horrifying violence to the foul-mouthed bellows of a little kid.
In We Average Unbeautiful Watchers, Noah Cohan illuminates the stories that fans tell about sports—the athletes, the games, and the communities around them. The book takes its unusual title from an essay by David Foster Wallace, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” in which the author grapples with the astounding grace, and nearly mythic nature, of the elite athlete—“that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.” (1)
As Cohan perceptively notes, fans tend to consider their sporting loyalties as matters of “nonfiction,” rooted in actual people and real action. (72) In fact, our fandom consists of interpretative storytelling. We consume the tales generated by sports competition, and we refashion them to suit our personal needs. “Sports narratives provide a means by which fans can make sense of their lives,” writes Cohan. (4) When we describe our marveling at a towering home run by Aaron Judge, our shaking of an angry fist at Bill Belichick, or our righteous joy after a goal by Megan Rapinoe, we are revealing less about them, and more about ourselves.
We cannot just “stick to sports,” because sports shape who we are—our identities as Americans, our constructions of race and gender, our definitions of success and liberty.
These reimagined meanings are inherently political. As Cohan notes, sports are woven deeply into our understandings of our place in the larger society. Consider our disparate reactions to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against racist police brutality and Donald Trump’s choleric demand to “get that son of a bitch off the field.” We cannot just “stick to sports,” because sports shape who we are—our identities as Americans, our constructions of race and gender, our definitions of success and liberty.
We Average Unbeautiful Watchers is a work of literary criticism, with each chapter concentrating on a few texts. In each case, sports fans figure as central characters. Cohan first analyzes novels about baseball and football fans. He then considers memoirs by writers who have adopted the perspectives of basketball fans. After analyzing portrayals of sports devotees in contemporary films, he concludes by celebrating some recent blogs that challenge mainstream portrayals of their sports. As Cohan notes, literary novelists, Hollywood productions, and independent bloggers communicate the meanings of sports fandom in different ways, based on the imperatives of their genres. The medium shapes the message.
“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” (22-23) So begins Don DeLillo’s epic novel Underworld. This prologue—originally published as the novella Pafko at the Wall—revolves around “The Shot Heard ’Round the World,” Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run on October 3, 1951, that captured the pennant for the New York Giants. But the dramatic on-field action serves only as a big historical narrative, alongside another earthquake in the American consciousness, a successful atomic bomb test by the Soviet Union.
Cohan pushes back against those who read DeLillo’s prologue as a warm bath in sporting nostalgia. He also rejects those who see the baseball game as mindless entertainment that dulls the larger threats to democracy.
DeLillo describes the moment through the experiences of individual fans: the white adult Bill Watterson, who proves both endearing and menacing; the celebrity troika of Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor, and Jackie Gleason, cynical and sharp and drunk; the radio play-by-play man Russ Hodges, swept by the collective joy and his sense of its historical significance; and the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, at the birth of his obsession with the Pieter Bruegel painting “The Triumph of Death,” which he finds in the tatters of an issue of Life. An African-American teenager, Cotter Martin, is the one who “speaks in your voice, American.” He catches Thomson’s home run ball and escapes from Watterson. Later in the novel, his father sells the treasure for a pittance.
Cohan pushes back against those who read DeLillo’s prologue as a warm bath in sporting nostalgia. He also rejects those who see the baseball game as mindless entertainment that dulls the larger threats to democracy. Rather, by illuminating how each individual ascribes meaning to the game, DeLillo creates “a baseball-mediated mode of identity formation that is personal, contingent, quotidian, and resolutely postmodern.” (19) For instance, Cotter and Watterson find genuine common ground through their fealty to the Giants, but Watterson asserts his white supremacy during his ominous pursuit of the treasured ball. Cotter resists both versions of his relationship with Watterson. We see history through his subjective experience, just as we do with Russ Hodges, as we do with J. Edgar Hoover. As Cohan writes, “DeLillo’s fans use baseball to write American stories all their own.” (51)
Is it good to be a fan? Is it healthy to revere a great athlete, to lose oneself in the fortunes of a team? To create our own stories and meanings? Cohan juxtaposes Pafko at the Wall with the Robert Coover novel Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. If DeLillo claims the fan’s power to confront the larger forces of history, then Coover paints a dark, tragicomic portrait of a fan who creates his own history: while fashioning his own universe through a dice-based fantasy baseball game, J. Henry Waugh loses his grip on reality.
Hollywood reinforces this portrayal of the obsessive sports fan as a failed adult. Cohan reads a series of films that portray white adult men who read deep, outsized meanings into sports. They are emasculated, in low-paying jobs, with little control over their destiny. Consider Patton Oswalt’s pathetic circumstances in Big Fan, or Jimmy Fallon’s arrested maturity in Fever Pitch. Most dramatically, in The Fan, Robert DeNiro’s character romanticizes his own childhood, loses his job, exhibits misogyny, blunders as a parent, and threatens people with a knife that he calls “Little Pecker,” signifying a kind of impotence. His obsessive fandom reaches the level of depravity when he murders a player—just so that his favorite player can have his lucky uniform number back.
Hollywood reinforces this portrayal of the obsessive sports fan as a failed adult. Cohan reads a series of films that portray white adult men who read deep, outsized meanings into sports. They are emasculated, in low-paying jobs, with little control over their destiny.
Cohan criticizes Hollywood’s totalizing stereotypes of sports fans. He maintains that literature displays more nuance. In two novels about football fans, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook, the theme of mental illness again looms large. Both protagonists have unhealthy obsessions about sports. They exhibit narcissistic tendencies, propensities for violence, complicated relationships with their fathers, and fuzzy views of reality. Yet Exley and Quick also paint fandom as a vehicle for healing. Because of their characters’ devotion to sports, they join genuine communities that buoy their souls. The thrill of watching football, moreover, paints a vivid splash against the whitewashed blankness of their mental institutions.
In both cases, as well, the main characters read fiction to reshape their self-understanding. Neither character is “cured,” but each grows more self-aware. For instance, when Exley reads Nathaniel Hawthorne, he accepts that “sin and remorse are … a necessary parcel” in him. (69) Literature, like sport, involves all the joys and failures and ambiguities that make us human. We appreciate beauty. We find community. We yell that “Jackson suuuuucccckkkksssss!!!!!”
“Fandom,” states Cohan, “is as much about writing the self as it is reading the game.” (115) That insight reflects the primary contribution of We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: it emphasizes how fans not only view sports through our own experiences and imperatives, but also tell stories about our sporting consumption to suit those needs. As a critical reader of cultural products, Cohan adeptly identifies the themes that unite these works, and he is careful to convey their complexities.
Still, neither literature nor film may reflect the experiences of actual sports fans. Cohan’s methodology melts distinctions across time and space: cheering for an NFL team might mean something different in the hyper-commercialized, hyper-partisan world of 2020 than in the more intimate sports culture of the 1960s. Also, by sticking closely to the texts, he neither speculates on the backgrounds and motivations of his authors, nor examines the popular reception to these novels and films. Yet when analyzing genres closer to nonfiction, Cohan probes deeper into how sports fans write about themselves.
… when analyzing genres closer to nonfiction, Cohan probes deeper into how sports fans write about themselves. … Cohan sees more possibilities in the relatively new genre of the sports blog. Unlike the game recounts and hoary columns of the traditional sports press, fan-driven sites “represent the dynamic critical thinking that the sports blogosphere can foster because they overtly treat sports as complex narratives.”
By definition, the memoir examines the construction of the self. When centered around basketball, first-person accounts from a fan’s perspective inevitably grapple with race. Three works by white writers—Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron, David Shields’s Black Planet, and Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball—all contain appreciations of the sport’s identification with African-American culture. But each author engages in what Cohan calls “aspirational homosocial ventriloquism,” imagining interactions with famous black athletes. These flights of fancy traffic in racial stereotype, especially regarding black male sexuality (Raab’s invented conversation with LeBron James includes an argument about the significance of the basketball star’s penis size). Thus, as these white writers explore their own relation to the sport, they tend to objectify blackness.
Cohan sees more possibilities in the relatively new genre of the sports blog. Unlike the game recounts and hoary columns of the traditional sports press, fan-driven sites “represent the dynamic critical thinking that the sports blogosphere can foster because they overtly treat sports as complex narratives.” The writers on FreeDarko.com fashioned themselves as a progressive collective, writing about basketball independent of team loyalties, with stories crafted out of appreciation for individual players’ artistry, while engaging in nuanced discussions about sport and race. Those at FireJoeMorgan.com hilariously skewered baseball journalists who wrote lazy columns, ignored statistics, and recirculated tired clichés such as calling white players “gritty.” Jessica Luther’s blog, Power Forward, came from an explicitly feminist perspective, delving into issues such as sexual harassment, LBGT rights, and gendered double standards in media treatment.
Through feminism, in particular, Cohan envisions the sports fan’s liberation—a vehicle for what sports might represent, if free of its associations with violent, exclusionary hypermasculinity. If the sentiment is noble, the reality deserves more cynicism. Consider, for instance, Barstool Sports, a blog with a drunken frat-bro vibe. It is notorious for its crass jokes about issues such as rape, and its loyal followers launch online assaults at its critics. The site attracts an estimated eight million visitors per month. The company is valued at $100 million. Barstool, too, is written in the voice of fans. As Cohan shows us, fans can tell their stories and impose their own meanings. But those meanings do not always fit our emancipatory fantasies of a democratic sports culture.