There has never been a really good time to talk openly to empty chairs about seemingly private things but this seems as good a time as any to tell you that we, sports people, have been doing it for a while now. It’s our dirty little secret. We know that it’s not something that’s widely accepted except by maybe the fringe insane and that perhaps the general public might frown on that kind of abstract and ultimately unexplained behavior, but now that the cats out the bag, now that Clint Eastwood has gone and made a big public show of it you might as well know that we have been talking to empty chairs for quite some time.
It’s become something of a common occurrence for us through the years, though never embodied so literally as it was during last night’s rag-tag rally of a Republican convention in Tampa Bay, Florida, but we do often talk in circles to empty chairs about all sorts of things: about NHL seasons that may never happen and red-ink NCAA violations that may never come. We talk about rule changes and safety concerns; about PEDs and BCS bowls. We answer all our own questions, always speaking in strange tongues and still only hear maybe half of what’s being said. In short, we engage, with alarming regularity and fervor in the all-American debate, the great one-sided conversation: the finely tuned art of talking loudly at people, and not with them.
Which for fans, seems to be fine. Maybe more than fine. We are, by and large, ok with the idea that our opinions are always seen and never heard, that they are given a kind of functionary nod – “we did it all for the fans!” - and then filed away neatly in the things that don’t really matter pile of every executive office everywhere.
Despite being an emotional bunch, a group wrought with inconsistency and a diehard compassion for arbitrary colors and shapes, we tend to have an unusually high tolerance for this sort of thing, for unaccountable front offices and thinly-veiled stupidity, stupidity like talking to empty chairs. We live for it. We have 24 hour sports channels devoted to nothing but capturing all the sheep speak, angled towards catching all the muck that’s fit to rake. And we tune in religiously, fueling a billion dollar industry, while these brands (let’s not be so naïve; be it the Packers, the Penguins, ESPN or the NBA, they’re teams, they’re companies, they’re overseer bodies, they’re brands) compete for our interest but in the end have a monopoly over our attention. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t go their way, if the money is not on the table or the advertising contracts didn’t come through, if a violation puts a high profile team in jeopardy, they will backtrack or pander or do whatever seems necessary to protect their product with little regard to their true investors, the ones who really matter most, the fans. And we’ll still tune in to watch as absolutely nothing happens.
There is indeed a disconnect between two sporting worlds, between those who watch and those who play and both are routinely caught sitting next to and talking to empty chairs. One would think that the advent of omniscient and almighty internet would have decreased that divide but instead it intensified it, forcing teams, players and owners, to take shelter from the onslaught of the blogosphere. When we weighed in it wasn’t with praise, it was with scorn and so the protective shells went up, heels were dug deep into the ground and the two divisive worlds grew further apart, formed into a soundproof circle within a much wider and more cynical sound-inducing circle.
But, despite the disconnect, we still watch, we still listen, we still hang on to ever single word even if they aren’t really meant for us, if instead they are meant for a thousand empty chairs. And the great irony of this now long-drawn out and perhaps dead-horse beaten metaphor is that the only chairs that aren’t empty in sports are ours. We’re still at the games, still sitting on our couches. We’re still tuned in even if the athletes and owners are tuned out, talking tepidly to empty chairs.