Even by the standards of “things people do on couches between naps,” watching sports is a passive endeavor. This is fine, and not a new thing—caring about a team can be a serious emotional commitment, and in the case of Yankees fans it’s almost a political statement. But what it involves is simple enough, and something that can be done easily from the laziest depths of a beanbag chair: we watch and read and spend, and we cheer or boo and are happy or sad based on what the team does, and we don’t really have much say in any of it. There’s a parallel to be drawn to American politics, here, but it’s really depressing and kind of incomplete, so let’s not. But, as with anything that involves maximal commitment and minimal actual agency, it’s easy to see where sports conspiracy theories come from. This last week has been a good one for those.
Or a bad one, if you’re NBA commissioner David Stern. On Wednesday, Stern let his signature mask of collegial disdain slip when confronted with a favorite conspiracy theory in conversation with Jim Rome. Granted, there’s nothing weird about an adult expressing frank distaste for Jim Rome, a heroically self-satisfied human goatee who’s grating even by sports radio standards. In 1994, when Rome was hosting a show on a fledgling ESPN2, former Rams quarterback Jim Everett famously walked out of an interview in which Rome wouldn’t stop calling him “Chris Evert” (the female tennis star); Everett left the set via a circuitous route that involved flipping over both a table and Rome himself.
This time, Rome asked his outrage-inducing question on the radio, and no furniture was damaged. In answer to the question, Stern sternly said “No, and shame on you for asking.” Rome explained why he asked the question and then, being Rome, more or less asked it again. Stern responded, twice, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” and spent the rest of the interview in weary-putdown mode before hanging up on Rome to (burn) call Stephen A. Smith. The question that Rome asked was perhaps the only query that could elicit such a response from Stern—Rome asked Stern if the NBA Draft Lottery was fixed.
Stern’s rhetorical-question response, while off-message, was not necessarily off the mark. Stern wasn’t implying that Rome roughs up his actual wife — Wikipedia says her name is Janet, and she’s doubtless a wonderful and incredibly patient woman — but rolling out a Sternified version of a classic law school trap question to which there is no non-damning answer. And while it doesn’t necessarily look good that the NBA was in the process of selling the New Orleans Hornets at the moment when the Hornets won the right to select the gangly generational future-stud Anthony Davis, Stern did a decent job rebutting the insinuation when he wasn’t sighing weary insults at Rome. The league had already finalized a price with the team’s new owners, Stern noted, and the lottery was observed by the media and certified by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young. All very nice, and all very futile, to those inclined to believe otherwise. For them, the new Hornets owners obviously knew about the lottery fix before the sale; the media is full of incompetents; Ernst & Young certifies all kinds of things it shouldn’t. QED like a motherfucker.
Except, of course, not. For the most part, parsing when The Fix Is So Obviously In is an exercise in folklore, not forensics. For Rome’s lottery question, there are counter-conjectures for every conjecture: if the league rigged the 1985 lottery to send Patrick Ewing to New York, why didn’t it fix the 1997 lottery to send Tim Duncan to Boston, instead of creating a dull but enduring dynasty in the NBA’s third-smallest media market? Why would the NBA illuminati endeavor to start another one in New Orleans, which is the second-smallest? But for all Rome’s smirky/trolly righteousness and Bill Simmons’ ignorantly knowing cynicism, and despite the lottery’s intermittent sketchiness, conjecture is all there is, here. There’s a reason why there aren’t professors of conspiracy theory in most college history departments.
But while most Fix Is In conspiracies aren’t worthy of your time or David Stern’s huffy scorn, there is still some small “something” to them. Take, for instance, last weekend’s welterweight title fight between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley, in which virtually everyone who watched the fight saw Pacquiao win commandingly—except for the two judges who handed Bradley a confounding split decision victory. The chance of such a hilarious mis-decision happening by accident was, as stat-master Ken Pomeroy found, vanishingly slim. The fact that this was boxing — a sport with a history of diving fighters, sketchy judging, and general mobbed-up scummery like no other — didn’t help. And the looming presence of little-loved super-promoter Bob Arum around the proceedings adds some sketchiness to things, as the presence of super-promoters generally does.
But… that’s it. That’s all we have, all we know, and all we are likely to know. Still, goofy though they may be—and the legendary boxing trainer Teddy Atlas, who debuted some Arum-related conspiracy theories on SportsCenter the night of the fight, was unable to withstand even the most basic “but why” questions from one of ESPN’s poreless muppet host-bots — the fact that these theories exist, proliferate and endure means something. Leaving aside the dim possibility of the more far-fetched theories being true — David Stern hand-picking a ping-pong ball; some council of sharkskin-suited elders giving a backroom thumbs-down on Pacquiao — the very fact that fans so insist and delight in making these stories up speaks to a certain essential truth about being a fan.
Conspiracy theory is worthless as history, because of how casually it reverse-engineers causality from results. Still, it’s valuable as historiography, or as a way of doing history. Even when a conspiracy theory is ridiculous, the reason why people choose to tell that ridiculous story has some significance. If the truth about being a sports fan—that we take what we’re given, believe what we’re told, and fund the whole goofy, craven, flagrantly sketchy thing with our own money—were less awful, we fans might have less reason to make up such awfully elaborate un-truths. To be a fan is to accept a passive role, finally: pay for 12 rounds of boxing, watch those 12 rounds of boxing; root for a team, be happy or sad as the team wins or loses. It’s a strange thing to choose, especially if we choose to give our emotions to a screwed-up sport like boxing, or a cravenly profit-minded plutocracy like the NBA. Considering all that, the least we deserve is the right to make up our own stories about how all this otherwise inexplicable bullshit came to pass. It might not be true, but it’s not quite wrong.