For more than a quarter of a century, Ed Anzalone has attended football games as unofficial team mascot Fireman Ed, leading the crowd in chants for his home team, the New York Jets. That ended last Thursday—on Thanksgiving, no less—midway through a trouncing the team received at the hands of New England Patriots. It had been a particularly brutal game, marked by several fumbles, including one when quarterback Mark Sanchez fell after accidentally running into the backside of his own lineman. By that time, though, Anzalone had already left the stadium. Shortly thereafter, he deleted the Fireman Ed Twitter account.
“We have had much worse teams than this and I never left before,” Anzalone wrote in an op-ed for the New York Metro. It wasn’t the low ebb in Jets fortunes that prompted the retirement, he explained, but rather a growing number of “confrontations” with other Jets fans. Anzalone interprets the trend as “an indication of how society has lost and is continuing to lose respect for one another,” but assuming that there really are more altercations between Jets fans, there may be a more proximate cause.
Part of the trouble is the Tim Tebow effect. The Jets picked up the young quarterback from the Broncos in March. Many fans feel that Tebow has so far been underused, with the coaching staff showing a marked preference for Sanchez, even after the embarrassments of last Thursday. That feeling is fueled in part by the incessant media coverage Tebow receives—ESPN, in particular, has inspired mockery with its habit of reporting on him even when there’s nothing to report. Far from muting those tension, the revelation this week that Tebow is recovering from two cracked ribs has only intensified the debate.
In his retirement column, Anzalone acknowledged those tension, writing that, “the stadium has become divided because of the quarterback controversy as well.” Less acknowledged is the probability that those divisions have played into an accusation Anzalone was quick to dismiss: that the Jets had added him to the payroll. To a fan convinced both that Anzalone’s mascot status had been upgraded to official and that the coaching staff has committed itself to a policy of favoring Sanchez over Tebow, the giveaway was Anzalone’s decision to adopt Sanchez’s jersey as part of his game day uniform. It’s an short step from there to supposing that the jersey change was part of a public relations campaign to bring the fan base over to team Sanchez.
A simpler explanation is that Anzalone chose the jersey on his own, for reasons of his own, but the whole morass is indicative of the situation in which Jets fans find themselves. A partisan divide separates them, driven on one side by the general media frenzy over Tebow, and on the other by the team’s own dedication to Sanchez. It would be difficult to find a starker expression of that divide than a recent New York Daily News article reporting the opposition of “more than a dozen” Jets players to the suggestion that Tebow should start, with one teammate going so far as to call him “terrible.” In a less troubled season, that might be little more than the stuff of barroom jibes, but as of the end of November, the Jets have a 4-7 record, putting them 23rd in the League. For fans, it seems clear that the remainder of the season hinges on the controversy.
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In ways mostly hidden to us under normal circumstances, such dilemmas illustrate the strange disembodiment at the heart of sports fandom. To say that a game is a spectator sport does not, as we might suppose, limit the spectator to a purely passive role. Fans project themselves onto their teams. They invest themselves in decisions that are not their own. In doing so, they learn to feel the impact of those decisions as though the responsibility for making them had been their own.
The alternative is indifference, and there is certainly no shortage of people whom have given their attention to a sport just long enough to discover that they are indifferent. So long as you see football as something remote, the business of over-sized hulks on a manicured field, the game can have no significance. But no game is absolutely confined to what happens on its playing field. Its real domain is between people, in the investment that ties players together, that ties coaches to teams, that ties a stadium full of people to events that might otherwise have no impact on the world beyond the turnstiles.
That’s the source of the agony and the ecstasy that sports commentators are so fond of cribbing from Carol Reed. Yes, it’s strange, in precisely the way that most culture is strange when you think about it. The analogy to The Agony and The Ecstasy is useful insofar as it reminds us that it’s no less strange that we would feel those extremes when looking at smudges of paint on a ceiling, flashes of light on a screen, or ciphers of ink on a page. Competitive games can even aspire to a sort of artistry. The discord felt by fans of a losing team may not be all that far removed from the fury and despair that afflict the frustrated artist.
So while the circumstances of the current season put it in particularly stark relief, the pains of being a Jets fan are indicative of fandom per se. The dilemma is this: How do you make that investment? How do you participate? Those are questions that sports fans face not just once, but continually. For some, it will mean cheering; for some, organizing those cheers into a symbol of unified support.
For others, it will mean presenting a united front in sending a message to the team itself. If Sanchez isn’t working, why not give Tebow a chance to justify the hype? But there’s Fireman Ed, apoplectic on his platform, wearing Sanchez’s number on his jersey, looking to many like an endorsement for the losing strategy.
That may go a long way toward explaining why an especially visible fan like Fireman Ed finds himself increasingly at odds with other fans of the same team. It’s not just that they’re frustrated; they’re frustrated by a situation with a clear and heavily promoted alternative. So they confront the most visible expression of the status quo. One wonders if Anzalone might have eased the tensions around him by adopting a Jets jersey with no number at all. That might have quelled any suggestion that he sided with the partisans of one starting quarterback over another and reasserted his support for the team as a whole.
Reading between the lines of his farewell column, though, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he simply doesn’t identify with his fellow Jets fans anymore. He’ll be there at the sidelines as always, just not as an exhortation to the crowd to speak as unified voice. In doing so, he has revised the terms of his own involvement. But then, that’s something all fans do, no matter how stalwart in their support.