Last month, former New York Giants great Frank Gifford passed away at the age of 84. Amid the obituaries and remembrances of Gifford’s football career, his broadcasting career, and his stint as tabloid fodder were fond recollections of one of the last remaining figures from the golden era of Manhattan nightlife, when athletes and celebrities frequented famed hotspots like Toots Shor’s and the 21 Club.
Gifford’s passing also prompted reminiscences of the literary work that he inspired, Frederick Exley’s 1968 “fictional memoir,” A Fan’s Notes, which, although a modest seller the time, became a cult classic, spawning a 1972 movie featuring Jerry Orbach as “Fred” and, presently, a Brooklyn watering hole named for the writer. Gifford’s success and fame exist in stark relief to the writer’s misfortunes: between bouts of alcoholic self-destruction, Exley finds himself repeatedly in the mental ward of the Avalon Valley State Hospital, whereas Gifford’s athletic prowess and matinée idol looks help him become the toast of the town. Discussing the book’s enduring legacy, Walter Kirn notes that Exley’s ability to juxtapose his own life with Gifford’s produces a virtuosic language of self-defeat, “vibrant with resentment, alive with failure.” But rather than resent or envy Gifford, Exley instead finds in the Giants’ star running back (and later wide receiver) a proxy through which his desires can be fulfilled:
Where I could not, with syntax, give shape to my fantasies, Gifford could, with his superb timing, his great hands, his uncanny faking, give shape to his… I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm, my yearning became so involved with his desire to escape life’s bleak anonymity, that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men; I came, incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success. Each time I heard the roar of the crowd, it roared in my ears as much for me as for him.
There’s an important conflation here: Gifford isn’t living out his own dreams so much as he’s living out Exley’s dreams. Rooting on Gifford and the Giants allows him imaginative entrance into a world that would otherwise be inaccessible, and in the curious note to the reader that prefaces the book, Exley takes care to distinguish between the “long malaise” of his own life and the experiences of the character in the book; he asserts that A Fan’s Notes be read not as autobiography or as fiction but rather tellingly as “fantasy” (giving the title of “fan” a slightly different etymological root than “fanatic”). Exley’s enthusiasm for Gifford and for the Giants may seem delusional, but, as the New York Times reported recently, such delusions seem to sustain the sports fan, and can be psychologically helpful in warding off feelings of alienation and developing self-esteem.
But this isn’t the case with Exley, and the vicarious thrills he experiences are momentary. He eventually begins to understand the distance between himself and Gifford, between the fan and the player, and that distance is soul-crushing. In a particularly deplorable exhibition of self-loathing, Exley resorts to homophobic and racist taunts to provoke a fight with two men—one black, the other white. Afterward, dejected, Exley has a sad epiphany, in which he finally grasps that he wasn’t in any way “an instrument” of Gifford’s success: “I fought because I understood, and could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny…to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”
It becomes painfully evident to both Exley and his readers that his understanding of fandom isn’t a point of pride or psychological comfort. The resignation that accompanies this realization marks an important departure from popular conceptions of fandom, which tend to emphasize the communal aspect of being a fan. Note, for example, how frequently a fanbase is referred to as a nation (i.e., Cardinal nation, Red Sox nation) as if it were some kind of collective, sovereign entity. It isn’t that Exley doesn’t experience rooting for the New York Giants as something social—he recounts his experiences attending games with a group of blue-collar guys—but rather that he takes pains to point out that he’s a fan of Gifford first and the Giants second, a classification that both distinguishes and isolates him from other fans.
In A Fan’s Notes, fandom doesn’t inspire solidarity so much as it does mental illness, specifically depression. During one of his extended stays at Avalon Valley State Hospital, Exley confesses the lingering malaise that eats away at him and that colors his entire existence: “I had wanted nothing less than to impose myself deep into the mentality of my countrymen, and now quite suddenly it occurred to me that it was possible to live not only without fame but without self, to live and die without ever having had one’s fellows conscious of the microscopic space one occupies upon this planet. The thought almost overcame me, and I could not dwell upon it without becoming unutterably depressed.” The despair he describes here becomes inextricably linked to his identity as a “fan,” since as a fan he’s left perpetually conscious of validating others’ fame and others’ identities without any reciprocal validation.
Such a connection between depression and fandom may seem unique to Exley, but his book beckons its reader to consider the shared experience of despair that sports fans and depressed people experience.1 The kind of depression that Exley suffers from isn’t the depression that comes from rooting for a losing sports team or the kind of depression one feels after a team’s excruciating loss (say, the kind Red Sox fans felt after Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, to choose an obvious and well-documented example). To put this in Freudian terms, the depression one experiences after a painful loss is probably best understood as mourning since the depressed emotional state results from losing something or someone important. Painful though such a loss may be, mourning isn’t pathological; it’s a natural and temporary condition. But what Exley’s experiences is what Freud termed melancholia, which is the depressed emotional state that has no immediate or localizable cause—the loss is imaginary perhaps even non-existent. Melancholia is pathological because one feels depressed even though rationally, logically one has no reason to; this kind of depression (often referred to as clinical or unipolar depression) can be difficult to shake and to explain to others and be understood primarily because those afflicted so frequently feel fraudulent and embarrassed, as though they don’t feel like they have justification to feel like shit all the time.
As a life-long sports fan with a nearly-life-long history of depression – the melancholic variety, I found myself thinking about the role that being a sports fan plays in my own experience with mental illness. I’ve often thought that watching sports was a way to escape from the malaise, to borrow Exley’s term, that colors my perception of the surrounding world; sports were an important mode of transport or escape. But Exley’s book made me wonder if a certain part of the experience of being a fan overlaps with the kind of powerlessness and inadequacy that depressed people often feel. After all, as a fan, one becomes invested emotionally in events that one has no control over. Fans like to believe that they can affect the outcome of contests by virtue of their support: tangibly by cheering loudly, and in the smaller superstitious ways that fans watch games, such as irrationally adhering to some routine because when that routine is followed the team seems to win, as if the laws that govern causality, correlation, and coincidence become temporarily suspended.
But as is evident to Exley and to the depressed person, one’s own sphere of influence in cheering or rooting for a team is miniscule and the same outcome would be achieved regardless of one’s participation—even though fans often have inflated senses of their own power. For example, consider the hatred and abuse that followed Cubs fan Steve Bartman after he attempted to catch a foul ball in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series and ended up interfering with Cubs left fielder Moises Alou. Bartman’s awkward lunge for the ball did prevent Alou from catching it – a rare instance in which a fan actually interferes meaningfully with the action on the field. Yet, the reaction of the fans was to blame Bartman disproportionately, as if he personally had allowed the 8 runs to score in the inning, rather than to assign responsibility to the athletes who actually play the game. Yet by demonizing Bartman rather than the players, fans are able to continue to believe that they matter. The scapegoating of Bartman enables the collective delusion of the fan that he or she matters in determining the outcome of the game, a delusion that Exley, sitting disconsolately on a street corner, and depressed people see right through.
And not only is the fan insignificant in affecting the outcome of the game, sports have an equally insignificant influence on the fan’s life. This is not a conclusion that one necessarily wants to reach, and once recognized it compromises the very enjoyment of rooting for a team. I remember watching the 2010–11 Green Bay Packers’ run to Super Bowl XLV with ecstatic anticipation. To watch the Super Bowl game I sought out a Wisconsin-centric bar and looked on with a teeming mass of other Packers fans as the team capped an improbable post-season run with a victory over the Steelers. But walking home after the game and entering my apartment, whatever joy I felt had escaped, as I thought about having to go to work the next day. In spite of the considerable anxiety and anguish I expended thinking about each game and about how much I wanted the Packers to win, nothing in my life had changed; the ecstasy of watching the Packers win the Super Bowl had no carryover effect on my life. I think I half-expected (in a way that feels fully delusional in retrospect) that after the Super Bowl victory I (and other Packers fans) would emanate some kind of aura or glow that would let others know that I rooted for a team that had won the Super Bowl, that I was to be looked at differently, specially by others. But only a few hours after the Super Bowl victory, I already felt like the event was years in the past; the whole experience of the season and of being consumed by the team’s fortunes felt empty and hollow.
The question quickly becomes, then, if sports fandom acquaints one with the inherent meaninglessness of their existence and of the insignificance of sports on their own life, why continue to be a fan? If, as the New York Times article points out, sports fans are less prone to suffer depression, what is the appeal of sports for those who don’t or can’t ward off melancholy? As he watches a late-career Gifford lead the Giants to the 1963 NFL Championship game, Exley writes, “One had to hand it to the guy, his gift for living out his dreams. As much as for any other reason, I was jubilant because of the irony.” The inclination might be to see this irony as painful, the lack of effect that all the anguish and anxiety of rooting for a sports team generates as disappointing. After all, the experience of being a fan – of watching a game from your mother’s sofa, where you’ve returned in middle-age after your career has washed out, as your idol leads his team to victory or of realizing that intensely following the team you’ve rooted for since childhood as it wins a championship doesn’t change the fact that you have to get up and go to work the next day, as you’ve done for most of your adult life, and as you’ll continue to do for the foreseeable future – would only seem to accentuate the depressed person’s abject despair.
But, as Exley makes evident, and as anyone suffering from depression knows, an ironic connection is better than none at all. And therein lies the appeal of sports for the depressed person: the absurdity of attaching meaning to something so trivial and inherently meaningless makes the seeming meaninglessness of one’s own life somehow more bearable. It isn’t that the realm of sports offers escapism exactly, since one never loses sight of the insurmountable gap between fantasy and reality, but an awareness of the fantasy as a fantasy doesn’t wholly negate its power. In the television show The X-Files, Special Agent Fox Mulder has a poster in his office of a flying saucer with white text on the bottom that reads, “I WANT TO BELIEVE.” Such a simple sentence expresses a rather complex idea that suggests the sizeable chasm separating actual belief from a desire to believe and that illustrates merely wanting to believe doesn’t automatically overcome the obstacles (self-doubt, absence of evidence) that inhibit doing so. It may seem strange, perhaps even hyperbolic, to equate the supernatural with sports fandom, but the very things the New York Times essay claims that devoted sports fans experience – a sense of belonging, healthy self-esteem – can seem to the depressed person to be, well, supernatural. And, for the depressed person, an awareness of the desire to believe in those things, even if they seem unobtainable, is a much more psychologically productive condition than despair.
1 It’s probably worth pausing for a moment here to think about how mental illness in athletes tends to be overlooked and even undermined by the larger culture. The struggles of contemporary athletes such as Brandon Marshall, Royce White, Larry Sanders (to say nothing of past athletes who suffered from mental illness and struggled to receive proper care such as Jimmy Piersall, to name a rather famous example) to have their conditions recognized and received treatment have all met with resistance from the public, their employers, and other athletes in going public with their illness. Even well-meaning discussions that explore depression and suicide, as in the tragic cases of former NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, tend to treat depression as a symptom of a larger disease, (CTE, which of course it is)* but in doing so subtly tend to downplay depression in order to legitimate the larger disease (i.e., “he wasn’t really depressed; he suffered from head trauma.”). The call is often for increased care and treatment for NFL players suffering from head trauma but not necessarily for increased care and treatment for mental health independently.
*I’m not trying to play the two diseases off one another, and certainly not trying to minimize the very dangerous and awful symptoms of CTE – only pointing out the ways that depression becomes subsumed within a larger narrative of pathology rather than a narrative of pathology all its own.
2 Bartman may have cost the Cubs an out, but there’s still no guarantee that Alou – never really noted for his defensive acumen – would have made the difficult catch. Even after the play, the Cubs were still up 3-0 with one out in the eighth inning. The subsequent Marlins rally was aided by exceptionally poor pitching and defense on the Cubs part. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez, for example, who led all shortstops in fielding percentage that year, mishandled a potential inning-ending double play ball that kept the Marlins’ rally going. The Marlins scored 8 runs in that inning (and went on to win 8-3), so there’s considerable blame to go around, of which Bartman’s share is miniscule at best.