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Bag Revolts, Bill Simmons and Coping with Buck Fandom

How bad is it going for the Bucks?  Even before Wednesday's come-from-the-front loss to the Jazz, some of the biggest Bucks fans you'll find were planning a paper bag revolt this Saturday against the Celtics. The general idea is fairly simple: they're not willing to give up on the franchise, but they hate what has become of it. And they want to express that where the Bucks and other fans are most likely to see it, namely at a Bucks game. By wearing paper bags over their heads.

Reasonable people can certainly disagree on whether that's a constructive way to protest your team's persistent mediocrity, and it's already generating discussion. The "grocery bag revolt" has been getting talked about on WSSP 1250 all week, and yesterday it even crept into Yahoo! Sports' Bucks report. WSSP's discussion of something as subversive as this is particularly interesting since they rely on the Bucks players and management for interviews. I caught Gary and Cliff talking about it on WSSP the other day, and while they maintained that the players wouldn't notice (very likely), that the idea wasn't a new one (absolutely true), and that it was never going to "work," their discussion seemed to largely miss the point of why fans do this in the first place.

Among the principal (and also reasonable) criticisms of this sort of protest is that it seems self-defeating to pay money just to show up and put a bag over your head. If the only goal of disgruntled fans was to hurt their team and owner, then not going to games would be the obvious weapon of choice. Certainly most casual Bucks fans are already ignoring the team and focusing on the upcoming Brewers season. But if you actually love the Bucks, then boycotting games is a double-edged sword. After all, we want them to get better--not lose so much money that they move. The real lever of change would be organizing a few hundred or even thousand season ticket-holders around a key set of principles that they want the Bucks to adhere to: a transparent chain of command and accountability for everyone involved in personnel decisions would be a good start. Now that might get a direct response, but it would also require a level of organization and access to ticket-holders that would be difficult to attain. So in the meantime, we're left to expressing our opinions in more traditional ways, which on their own are unlikely to leave an impression on the powers that be.

Whether it's booing at the game, bitching on sports radio, ranting on message boards, or blogging angrily from the basement, fans find any number of ways to express their displeasure. Absolutely none of these things individually ever "work" in the strictest sense that Gary and Cliff seemingly implied. Herb Kohl will not change his way of running the Bucks because of an article in the paper. Larry Krystkowiak will not play Ramon Sessions more because some radio guy says he should. So if the only measuring stick of a paper bag revolt--or any other protest--is whether it directly causes a change in the Bucks' management philosophy and translates into better performance on the court, then it will most certainly not "work." Owners might not always be smart, but they're not naive enough to admit that a small group of people will change the way they do business. And in reality, the "revolt" seems to be less about creating a tangible, immediate result and more about fan expression and generating discussion. In that sense, the media's dismissal of it provides an incredibly ironic twist: if the main goal is to let people know you're angry, and people on the radio are talking about it before it even happens, isn't it already accomplishing its goal?

So if nothing we individually say or do will really change anything, why do we have newspapers, sports radio, message boards and blogs all spending so much time talking about a team that for so long has driven us nuts? If we're being honest with ourselves, then we should probably admit that all these things are a huge waste of time in the grand scheme of things (which should be of great concern to someone like myself). We'd be better off volunteering at a soup kitchen, reading a book, or spending time with our grandmas. But sports are entertainment and together all the little ways that fans express themselves DO mean something. The Bucks, despite being run by an elected official, are not a democracy, but they are accountable to the public in a an indirect sense and to ticket buyers in a more direct sense. This year is the first one in recent memory where frustration with the Bucks has begun to focus on Herb Kohl and the way he has run the team. We can thank people like Michael Hunt, Gery Woelfel, WSSP, ESPN540, RealGM and even ESPN's Bill Simmons for that: if you get enough people talking, then slowly opinion starts to shift. If you believe there's a problem, then fans openly protesting at games would be yet another valuable expression of the concern over the franchise's direction.

But there's something even more basic about the "revolt" that's being overlooked. While it might seem like something borne out of frustration and anger, it's more importantly a way for fans to join together, watch their favorite team, go out on the town together afterwards, and along the way express--to other fans and the Bucks as an organization--that something needs to change. In the end, they're not protesting the government, injustice, or a war: it's just basketball, and even a protest can be fun if you're doing it at a game with some friends. Sports would be of far less relevance if they did not create this sense of community among fans, which manifests itself as much or more during the bad times as they do during the good. Bill Simmons' campaign for Bucks GM has gotten a huge response for that reason--it might not be a practical or realistic way to rebel against what's happened on the court, but it's an interesting, fun idea that draws attention to what's happening with the Bucks and underscores just how desperate Bucks fans are for something to change. We might not have all the answers, but we still care.

I'll be in New York City this Saturday, but I wish the bag revolutionaries luck. Hopefully they have a good time and everyone who sees them--whether it's fans, players, team officials or ushers--realizes why they're doing it. They intend to be respectful towards the ushers and players, as they should be (Ron Walter might not be afforded the same civility). I know that come Sunday, nothing will have changed in a greater sense, but no one's expecting that. Just like no one is expecting the Bucks to shock the Celtics with a win on Saturday. Even if only a dozen paper bags find their way into the BC, the main thing is that we're still talking about the Bucks and trying to figure out what's wrong and what can be done about it. Keep talking and you never know--the next GM might get to build a team as he sees fit, the coach might get his players to buy into what he's trying to do, and the players might put it all together, play some defense, and win some games. Who knows, it just might work.