This is the first week of March Madness and, as I alluded to last weekend, there was and is much blogging on the subject. The tournament is fast and furious and I can hardly keep up with the winners and the losers. UCLA, UNC, NC ST. All winners right?
I was going to write about how the most passionate people in the NCAA, the players, were the ones who went without a paycheck, and specifically take a look at Schooled, a 2013 documentary that explores the controversy and how some of the more recent legal cases have gone. But fellow Brian Wong (and John Oliver) addressed the subject well enough that I decided to shift gears to the one recurring theme that followed me this whole week of March Madness, fandom.
For some, it means vehemently hating Duke and passionately loving the Tar Heels more than life itself. For others, it is patiently waiting for UCLA to rise to victory… for who knows how long. There is something about being a fan that can take you to all sorts of places.
That idea of fandom is what led me to watch Errol Morris’ six short films on Grantland. The man who brought us “Fog of War” now brings these six wonderful vignettes of sports fandom. The series of ESPN films under the banner of “It’s not crazy, It’s sports” tell the stories of the extreme lengths fans go to — how quirky memorabilia or dangerous on field antics or just their passion for sports end up saving their lives in one way or another.
This is never more evident than in “The Subterranean Stadium.” The film highlights some of the 11 guys who are in an electric football league in Rochester, New York. Very quickly, you realize that this league isn’t the one brought to you by EA Sports and played on an Xbox — these are hand painted plastic figurines vibrating across a metal board.
The colorful array of league members include a retired postal worker, his teenage grandson, a hippie hot dog vendor, and a former drug dealer and ex-con. You never really know who any of their favorite teams are — one can only guess by the oversized jerseys they wear while being interviewed. But it’s not really about the NFL or NCAA at all. It’s the camaraderie of being fans of football, the enjoyment of playing these faux games each week in tournaments held in a Rochester basement that make their collective fandom become something more.
Whether it is a story of the world’s most prolific streaker, who runs naked onto fields just to feel the roar of the crowd, or the guy who dressed up as “Mr. Met” for years and had it become part of his identity (and vice versa), Morris’ films are a beautiful celebration of the pure experience of being a superfan. Something that, when faced with the seedy side of sports, many people still grapple with.