The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RGIII, cake pans, wedding registries and fandom

via @RGIII

“People invest in stocks because they want to become of a part of the rise of a company,” Redskins fan Shawn Basak told me earlier this week, explaining why he bought an 8-inch cake pan for Robert Griffin III. “This is a little bit of the same thing. He’s someone I think everyone feels a bond with. He’s someone I’m probably never going to meet, but now I have this very odd relationship with, because I bought him a cake pan. And the way he pays everyone back is by bringing us hope and happiness with the Redskins, which is a big part of everyone’s life.”

I know you’re probably sick of reading about the RGIII gift registry thing. That’s understandable. But I’m writing about it one last time, because it’s now something I actually care about, and very few things that meet that criteria.

See, the thing that got me a bit worked up was Michelle Singletary’s recent column on the rush of fans to buy gifts for a wealthy quarterback. Let me quote:

Griffin is missing the point. Although he seems like a nice guy, showing off the gifts – even the swaggered way he is standing in the photo — makes him seem more boastful than grateful. If he wanted to thank fans, a handwritten private note to each giver would have been more appropriate.
It’s not that you shouldn’t receive gifts if you’re wealthy or that you don’t deserve them. And certainly people are free to buy presents for the couple, but why were they registering for gifts at all? Really, they want people to buy them $9 flatware? It’s yet another example of how people treat their special occasions as an opportunity to profit. With so much already, why couldn’t the couple communicate — without a gift registry — that they have so much already?

Now, Singletary is talking more to Griffin than she is to the fans. But I think there’s a fundamental lack of understanding here about the relationship between adult fans and their athletic heroes.

It brings to mind the phenomenon of autographs. Sure, some people wait in line for athletes’ autographs because of the implied financial value. Most, I’d guess, are seeking something else: a rare moment of human connection with someone they don’t know but have nevertheless invested hundreds of hours of emotions into. It’s not really much different than waiting in line for a handshake or a hello. It’s trying to turn something that’s obviously absurd and childlike into something briefly tangible, a real interaction between a fan — who probably knows it’s all a bit silly — and an athlete who’s usually just a flickering image on the TV.

I’m not saying people should or shouldn’t care so much about athletes, but they do.They will.

Which brings me back to Shawn, whom I quoted above. He’s 26, grew up in Montgomery County, but now lives in Chicago. He isn’t around anymore for the autograph shows and the Welcome Home Luncheons and the training camp practices — which he first started attending when he was 7 — but he still cares tremendously about the Redskins.

And — prompted by a question from his own fiancee — he’s actually thought a lot about why he felt so compelled to buy the quarterback an inexpensive gift from his registry, even though he still hasn’t bought wedding gifts for some of his closest personal friends. Griffin, he said, is the opposite of Albert Haynesworth, who promised everything and delivered nothing. Griffin delivered.

“The decision to get him a present wasn’t the hard part,” Shawn told me. “There’s just some emotional relationships that I think a lot of fans have with him, because he’s made a point to show us that he’s not going to fail us. Anyone can say it, but he’s the real deal…..

“We’ve been pained for so long; 10 or 15 years of just misery,” he went on. “It’s no one else’s decision whether I buy a cake pan for a guy I’m never going to meet. And so what if he’s got 15 of them? I’m now a part of his cabinet. A little piece of me is part of that cake pan in his cabinet. It’s less about Robert than it is about the fans. We want to be a part of his life, just the same way he’s a part of ours.”

It’s funny, but it’s not really a joke, unless you’ve decided that the entire process of emotionally investing in a team is a joke. Were we all mature and wise and rational, we’d never spend $15 on any frivolities, on anything other than the bare necessities of life. Since that’s not the case, I can think of a lot worse ways to waste money than spending $15 to feel like a little part of you is embedded in the house of an athlete you love.

Which brings me, finally, to Jimmy Chan, a 34-year old from Sterling who bought Griffin a $15 bath mat. He, too, has thought a lot about this whole episode, both the fans’ actions and the online backlash. It made him think about Michael Jordan, the player he most idolized back in elementary school, and how Griffin has elicited similar, long-dormant emotions.

“It’s just a way to be connected to him. He’ll get something from me, as a thank you, for the way he entertained me this year,” Jimmy said. “I think part of it is living your childhood again.”

If you can’t understand that, I’d submit that you’re the one who’s missing the point.