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Learning from Luck

When sports fandom goes wrong

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Just how important a role should sports hold in our lives?

The bombshell news that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck effectively retired before the age of 30 has opened up all sorts of questions for me this week about where the line should be drawn between life and sports.

I've been disturbed by seeing the deep anger and resentment among some fans who have called into question Luck's character or demanded refunds in the wake of his decision. The ones who have said the quarterback was wrong for making a decision about his health and wellbeing. But for what, and why do we do such things?

I think it just shines a light on how sports can make us act ridiculous sometimes.

We as Americans and people, in general, hold our sports identity close to the vest, right up there alongside our identities as mothers and fathers, siblings or what we do for a living. We spend top dollar for jerseys, T-shirts and season tickets, and the affluent write big checks and bankroll the athletic departments at their alma mater, adding a component of monetary and emotional investment into our fandom. 

Given its importance in our lives, sports are interwoven with our memories of childhood, of family and friendship and fun times. They can also fuel deep-rooted nostalgia for the past, with our attachment and emotions teaching us to take every win and loss with the utmost importance. 

But how far is too far to take our sports fandom? Where should the line be between wanting to see our teams succeed and taking things too seriously? Admittedly, as I've asked myself these this week, it has brought up more questions than answers.

I was reminded this week of watching LeBron James' infamous decision on national television in the summer of 2010. Though not a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, I remember seething anger bubbling out of me as my 13-year-old brain told me the NBA - and its competitive balance - was ruined forever by the best player on the planet. 

Today, I'm embarrassed by my resentment for James and I still don't quite understand why I was so outraged by a decision that really had nothing to do with me. But it reminded me of the reactions some Colts fans had as they booed their franchise quarterback of seven seasons off the field after the preseason game. And I do mean some Colts fans.

Though it would be foolish to make any kind of blanket statement about the scene that unfolded in Lucas Oil Stadium, I do think the reaction says something about all of us.

We think our loyalty and love of sport entitles us to certain privileges, when in reality it doesn't.

Being a fan of your hometown team won't guarantee you anything. It won't necessarily lead to success, it doesn't entitle you to demand loyalty from players who may not receive it by their organizations in return and it definitely doesn't excuse fans telling an injured and joyless quarterback what he can and can't do with his life. 

I became a sportswriter because some of my best memories have involved sports. The experience of high-fiving with a random stranger in the stands who is cheering for the same team is one that could exist nowhere else, and the feeling of watching your team win a championship can really make you feel good. 

I've also had some of my worst sports memories because of fans. I've watched parents chase umpires out to the parking lot after a youth baseball game and threaten violence against them all because they made a call that caused their kid's team to lose a meaningless recreation league game. I've watched grown men let their fandom get them into drunken altercations or fist fights with opposing fans, and other moments that bring out the worst of humanity at the ballpark.

So maybe we can all learn something from the Luck debacle this week. Maybe it can be a reminder that life is so much more important than fandom, and that experiencing athletic greatness isn't something we should feel entitled to. 

It should be something enjoyed above all - because when it's gone, no amount of booing, complaining or stomping of our feet can ever bring it back.