If you were to try to figure out the state of the United States economy by listening to professional athletes and coaches and the fans and commenters who follow them (there’s no reason you would do this, but let’s go with it), you would probably picture something off a Soviet propaganda poster: a nation of simple, honest folk, of clear mind and strong constitution, who rise at first light to put in a day’s hard work as coal miners, construction workers, and diner waitresses. Such is the preponderance of “blue-collar teams,” which inevitably play in “blue-collar cities” for “blue-collar fans,” in the rhetoric surrounding major sports in this country.
To wit: the official Indiana Pacers “Blue Collar/Gold Swagger” fan T-shirts above. These shirts have been ubiquitous on Pacers playoff broadcasts this post-season. Almost all the fans you see behind the game’s announcers and in close-up replays are wearing one. But the Pacers aren’t the only team in basketball that represents the salt of the earth. “You cannot out-blue collar this team,” Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote recently wrote approvingly of the Pacers’ Eastern Conference Finals opponents, the Miami Heat. Over in the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs (who have a “blue-collar mentality” per the San Antonio Express-News) just beat out the Memphis Grizzlies (a “blue-collar team” per starting guard Tony Allen).
It’s not just pro basketball. College coaches brag about how blue-collar their teams are, like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo during this year’s NCAA Tournament. (Izzo has oxymoronically called Michigan State a “blue-collar university.”) There are blue-collar baseball teams and blue-collar football teams — one of the dancers from Dancing with the Stars told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that Packers wide receiver Donald Driver’s background with a “blue-collar team…from a blue-collar town” would serve him well on his appearance on the Los Angeles–based celebrity ballroom-dance competition.
Most ridiculously, Kobe Bryant once called his 2011 Lakers a “blue-collar team” who “fight and scratch and claw for everything.” Kobe Bryant also once appeared in a Los Angeles Magazine spread wearing this:
The accompanying article noted that he’d arrived to the photo shoot in a helicopter. Kobe Bryant is not blue-collar.
More to the point, none of these people are blue-collar. They are pro athletes who have chauffeurs and nutritionists and such. Most of the fans in the arenas watching them are probably not blue-collar either, in the sense of working with their hands or performing other physical labor. For one, there just aren’t that many blue-collar workers anymore: Half as many Americans work in manufacturing now as they did in the 1970s, for example. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still possible to make a decent living in a blue-collar job, but probably not a nice enough living to afford the $955 ticket that will get you on TNT behind the announcers in Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Meanwhile, the current fashion in building and promoting the arenas and stadiums that teams play in is to play up the luxury factor; everything is premium state-of-the-art this and black-leather Wi-Fi-enabled that. Buy into the Krieg DeVault Club Level at a Pacers game and you’re guaranteed your own “dedicated service staff member.”
Why all the blue-collar talk among well-to-do fans watching rich players in fancy arenas? The non-charitable interpretation would be that lawyers, middle managers, and coddled athletes feel guilty about making money without doing hard work in the traditional sense and are eager to seize on any chance to associate themselves with physical labor and self-sufficiency. The athletes might be especially self-conscious because many of them grew up in actual blue-collar families. For one unusual example, take Yao Ming, who said the following about his basketball fortune in an interview with the Chinese government’s Xinhua news service: “I could be called capitalist with so much money 30 years ago, but in fact I earned the income through hard labor work, so I am still a blue collar.” The more positive interpretation is that the “blue-collar” vs. “white-collar” distinction is outdated and that even though you are employed by a law firm, network-administration contractor, or health-services company, you can still put in an honest day’s hard work and self-actualize by interacting meaningfully with the physical world in other areas of your life (exercising, cooking, hiking, building your own lawn mower, recreational freestyle lumberjacking). And you can still enjoy and identify with values such as teamwork, toughness, and tenacity exemplified by athletes who didn’t begin their lives with chauffeurs or nutritionists, and who spent considerable time in dusty-floored gyms running wind sprints and doing dribbling drills before they made it to the spotlight.
Which of those two interpretations you tend toward on a given day has a little to do with how you feel about the future of America and a lot to do with how much you are rooting against the team claiming working-class credibility at that particular moment. The one thing that’s certain is that the people in the Krieg DeVault Club Level and all the other Armani-sponsored luxury sections are ridiculous. Get out of your stupid money boxes and watch the games with the rest of us, you snobs. This is a blue-collar country.