By Tim Baffoe-

(CBS)  “Then don’t watch.” That’s what a stranger on the internet told me recently when I dared to expect that the Christmas Day Chicago Bulls/Brooklyn Nets game was going to be less than great basketball. I didn’t think I was posing a very controversial rhetorical question there, but that guy took great exception to what he took as much more than benign criticism of his beloved, below-average Bulls.

I don’t bring this conversation to greater light in order to provide a public beating for that guy or to use this bully pulpit to unfairly pick on him (despite him calling me a “whiny b—-”). This debate like any other doesn’t offend me personally. What bothers me, and why I engaged this person, is that I see it as an example of what is wrong with many sports “conversations” today and a lesson in what I hope will lead toward a sports-related New Year’s resolution for him and you.

Stop taking a differing opinion—particularly criticism of your favorite teams and sports figures—as an attack on you personally and making it a roadblock to logic.

You are not the Chicago Bulls no matter how badly you want to be. You are not Derrick Rose. You are not an extension of Jay Cutler or Josh McCown. The Cubs playing the White Sox is not a contest for your self-worth.

If what I have to say about these teams and players conflicts with what you have to say about them, your reaction should not be to call me a whiny bitch or hope that I die in a fire. You should not be compelled to actually dismiss me in type with “Don’t watch.” If so, you have blurred the line that separates being a fan and being irrationally obsessive.

It will take some practice, but try to condition yourself to suppress immediately feeding off of the emotional reaction you have to hearing or reading something you don’t like and taking to the keyboard to offer nothing substantial but rather name-calling or something to the effect of “Why do you hate ____?” or “Why can’t you be positive?” This is an internal battle I also fight on a daily basis—not asking those specific questions, though, which are quite dumb—and I think the better angels of my nature win most of the time, but occasionally I’m more meatball than man.

And I can be positive. When it’s my honest sentiment. Demanding a columnist or an on-air talker to blow sunshine up your butt is demanding that person be disingenuous and lie to you for the sake of making you feel cozy. It’s also mistaking what those people are paid to do. My space here is not for pom-pom waving, and if it were to become so, I’d kindly be shown the door. (Ditto not watching the sports I’m writing about, “Then don’t watch” guy.) When I recognize something as a positive, you’ll get my super hot sports take of positivity. When I think a player or a coach or a team sucks, you’ll get that, too. And you’ll get bad jokes. So many bad jokes.

Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe wrote a piece a few weeks ago that touched on this odd conundrum for lots of fans—wanting writers to be fans and being confused when one doesn’t see the story through rose-colored beer goggles:

Naturally, the Internet is a good source of explanation for this new dynamic. The web gives fans an infinite forum. Fans have a place to read like-minded people. It’s like one giant sports-talk show with no hosts interrupting. It turns out that fans love reading other fans. And, naturally, they all love their teams. What a surprise. Now they expect everyone else to love a team. It’s the wild west of fanboys.

I usually don’t find Shaughnessy’s work enjoyable. But I went into reading that particular column with my best attempt to leave any prejudice at the door and came out on the other end having read something that made a really good point. It’s much easier to do than you might think.

The best possible observations are what I want to read. Divorcing oneself from any loyalties if they exist almost always best provides that. (I’m admittedly a fan of most of the teams I write about, but I always make sure to compartmentalize my fan status with my professional status.)

The pseudo-Aristotelian words ring true: “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” You are capable of sipping from the cup of Baffoe, swirl it around your palate a bit, and decide to drink or spit. You are not inherently dumb. And I have no problem with thoughtful disagreement. (People who would walk lock step with my thoughts actually creep me the hell out.) I welcome respectful debate—it can serve to hone both of our rhetorical skills. But when you merely kick the cup over and stop away angrily from the mess, you look like a spaz, and nothing gets accomplished.

That same day I read the Shaughnessy piece I saw on Twitter a high school kid who had been in a conversation involving the extremely funny Ray Ratto of Comcast Sports Net Bay Area. The kid seemed perplexed as to how Ratto could cover San Francisco teams for so long and yet not be a fan of those teams. If this were one of the many adult trolls Ratto often humorously exposes, I’d have left what I saw alone. But this was a confused kid, and I was moved to try to help. So I passed along the Shaughnessy link and figured that would learn the kid a thing or two. I was wrong, and a pretty long conversation ensued. One that didn’t exactly end up in agreement, but that’s okay.

The greater point is that wanting people to agree with us is understandable. Birds of a feather and all that. But needing a writer to be a fan like you are is asking for bias to be brought to what you read rather than the best possible analysis. And treating disagreement as a shot against you as a person or discrediting an opinion because it doesn’t stem from the pathos you feed off of as fan is not intelligent. I’ve seen more than one writer put in his or her Twitter profile something to the effect of “I hate your team” as a joke about the number of people who get genuinely emotional about somebody saying anything but absolute praise for a team they like.

The Green Bay Packers are going to lose to the San Francisco 49ers this weekend. It also really sucks that there are still tickets available for the game. If you’re a Packer fan, those statements probably evoke displeasure from you. I mean, who would want to hear those things about the team they like? But if you’re smart, you’ll take a deep breath, and instead of choosing the best way to curse at me you’ll either try to understand why I would say those things (and for the sake of not writing a column within a column, I understand merely making those two statements without giving more reasoning isn’t very valid) and/or how best to present a counterargument that involves something more than “Typical Bears fan” or some other ad hominem. It needs to be more than the counterproductive binary reasoning of “If you don’t like the product the Bulls are putting out, then don’t watch,” which requests that someone who is paid to write about sports not watch sports.

Rather than picking up the phone out of frustration that Chicago radio hosts aren’t talking enough Blackhawks for your liking, understand that you like a sport toward which most people are somewhere between lukewarm and apathetic. Omitting hockey discussion isn’t some conspiracy to piss you off. It’s that the Blackhawks, even when playing as well as they have, don’t generate a lot of buzz in this city in the regular season. That in no way is a commentary on you as a fan or person. How would you, the hockey fan, react if you heard someone complain about the dearth of Chicago Rush talk on The Score?

Finding an endorsement of the Washington NFL team name to be wrong or acknowledging football as inherently bad for brains or seeing a lack of acceptance of a gay athlete as bigoted or justifying using a vile, racist word because musicians use it is not an affront to your First Amendment rights (that you don’t really seem to understand in the first place) or the wussification of sports or America or an attempt to make your fan experience less so. It’s usually a logical argument about ethics that conflicts with a purely emotional fear of change you don’t want to confront. Put aside your comfortability for a second and actually consider why these things have other people so uncomfortable rather than dismissing them or insulting the argument or arguer.

So in 2014 understand that you have a choice when it comes to what you read or hear in your sports world that gets your dander up. You can attempt to understand an argument that differs from yours and analyze it rationally, being able to intelligently deconstruct how the opposing view is wrong or maybe even changing your opinion (amazingly that can happen, and it’s more than okay). Disagreement is healthy and can be productive if you allow it. Or you can choose—yes, choose—to be obtuse and knee-jerk and base. And that’s when you’ll be thought of as stupid.

Here’s to a smarter 2014. Let’s watch.

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