There was once an All-Star event where the players were lined up to be introduced to the fans. At the far end were two men, different in almost every way. One man, named Patrick, was a little under six feet tall, but highly skilled, highly paid, and high scoring, with few penalty minutes. The other man, named John, was well-over six feet, but low skill, low salary, and almost no points and many, many penalty minutes.
When it was almost time for them to be introduced, Patrick turned to John and said, “Watch, I’ll get booed, and you’ll get one of the loudest cheers.” It was seemingly an absurd prediction, but these words served as a reminder of the obvious; Patrick belonged there, John didn’t. Patrick had played in the All-Star game before, and John hadn’t. Patrick broke a record for scoring points this season, and John had one point, an assist, all season long. Patrick’s was a marquee name in one of the league’s oldest and strongest fan bases. John spent most of the season, sitting more than he played, on a team with arguably the smallest fan base in the league.
In order for fans to vote for John, they had to bypass all of the options the website suggested (including Patrick) and manually type in John’s name. This only happened because a journalist concocted a plan to vote John into the All-Star game sarcastically. You see, the All-Star game has become a bit of a joke, where some of the players who are voted in don’t show up, and many of the ones who don’t try very hard. So the plan, in some ways, was to respond to a joke of a game with a joke of a player. Voting for John was an insult, at least many perceived it that way, an insult to the league, and an insult to John. The league responded by telling John he didn’t belong and that he should decline the vote. John agreed, telling fans he didn’t belong and that they should instead vote for the other all-stars on his team, but he didn’t say that he would decline the vote. Maybe he was so convinced that he didn’t belong that he didn’t think it would come to that. So the league pushed again.
Just a few weeks before the game, John’s team traded him, and his new team sent him down to the minor leagues. The trade didn’t make a tonne of “hockey sense” and it led many to suspect that the league had engineered it. With him playing on a different team and even a different league, it would spare the league the insult of having a man play in the All-Star game who didn’t belong.
Whether or not they made the trade happen, it was clear that the league didn’t think John belonged in the game, and they haven’t hesitated in the past to work behind the scenes to make sure non-deserving people are excluded. Not only that, they are also willing to do what it takes to make things easier for the people who do belong, people like Patrick. Over the summer before the All-Star game, Patrick was accused of doing something very bad. Something so bad that just about anyone else in a public role would be asked to step away for a little while, or even be smart enough to do so voluntarily. The criminal charges have since been dropped, but other similar accusations have been made. Patrick was also charged in a different violent attack that happened a few years before. Still, Patrick is popular enough with the league, so not only does he not have the same obstacles as John, he lives under the league’s protection.
Patrick’s absurd prediction was correct. When John’s name was read, the arena thundered with applause, more than for any other star. When Patrick’s name was read, people booed, people who cheered for rival teams and people who think victims of crime should be taken seriously. But why would people cheer for John? Well, as the march toward the All-Star game went on, we, the fans, learned more about him. He wasn’t just a violent cartoon character goon we imagined him to be, but a man worthy of our respect and our support.
As it turned out, there was a moment where the story changed. John was considering turning down the invitation to the All-Star game, and in an effort to persuade him to do just that, a league official told him that if he went to the game, he would make a fool of himself and embarrass himself in front of his children. And that’s when it changed. Perhaps in John’s own eyes he didn’t belong, but he knew that in the eyes of his children, he did. And that was partly what made the trade that much more tragic. It meant that John, his two kids, and his eight months pregnant wife had to pack up everything and move from Pheonix to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
We don’t know for sure, but it looked like John wouldn’t be able to play in the All-Star game, until enough fans made enough of stink, that the league swallowed their pride and let him play. And he loved it. While other people seemed to be just going through the motions, John was having fun. When Patrick got booed, John laughed really hard.
During the games, John scored two goals, and his team won a million dollars in prize money to share between them. When it was all over, his teammates lifted him up on their shoulders, all 250 pounds of him. When it was time to announce who was the Most Valuable Player, and the winner of the new car, John’s name was called, and the camera panned to his beaming wife and joyful children. (She would later say that she cheered so hard after one of his goals that she had to tell herself to take it easy. The game was played on a Sunday, and she was scheduled to be induced on Thursday.)
This is one of the reasons why I love sports. I know a lot of people who, like John, are convinced that they don’t belong; that they aren’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, rich enough, etc. John belonged in the All-Star game. He had enough votes, and that’s all that mattered. But it was only when he started to believe that he belonged that the All-Star game became worthy of him.