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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Updated: January 29, 3:21 PM ET
Up Front

By Stephen A. Smith
ESPN The Magazine

What do you call a bunch of beer-guzzling, potbellied, blue-collared, beyond-their-prime, wannabe adult males? Non-player haters.

For the uninitiated, you won't find the meaning thumbing through Webster's, but the definition is simple: A non-player hater is someone who never played sports, or wasn't very good when he did, or has lost his game since—yet has somehow morphed into an "expert." At least insofar as his ability to critique what he's watching has outpaced his ability to do what he's watching.

"You can't beat it," Rodney Cowen, my 250-pound childhood buddy, nicknamed Poolie, has been telling me for years. "Look, man. I'm a big boy. I really, really love big women, too. But even that can't beat being a critic. It requires no exercise whatsoever! Ya know what I'm saying?"

Actually, I never have understood Poolie when it comes to women. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a point when it comes to sports fanaticism. Whether it's tailgate parties, talk radio or the masses of fans venting on the web, escaping the venom and hostility that's long been associated with fandom is difficult. Which is how it should be! Because when it comes down to it, no sport can survive without a rabid base.

Let's hope these fans—who were given the keys to this issue of my favorite sports magazine—never go away.

In this world of guaranteed millions, where far too many athletes cash in despite a glaring lack of productivity, imagine how catastrophic it would be if the sports universe were devoid of public opinion. Imagine how tragic it would be for the leagues, their franchises and us—the fans!

Exhibit A Stephon Marbury. Ask yourself what sports would be like if players like Marbury never had to worry about the court of public opinion. Or, maybe more important to him, how that opinion impacts his soon-to-be-former employer, the Knicks, or the rest of the NBA. Marbury has played just 24 games in nearly two seasons, yet he's being paid upwards of $40 million. He even showed up in a courtside seat at a Knicks-Lakers game in LA, smiling and talking about how "Life is beautiful. I'm still getting paid."

Exhibit B: Pacman Jones. Imagine what the NFL would be like if commissioner Roger Goodell wasn't concerned with the league's image and didn't care to suspend those players with a proclivity for unsavory companions, police blotters and strip clubs.

Exhibit C: Steroids. Yeah, sure, Major League Baseball aired its dirty laundry about performance enhancing drugs. But why? For the betterment of the game? Concern for the health of players? Think again, people! If you want the real reason, look no further than a mirror.

Truth is, sports do not have a conscience. Fans do! Your commitment is unwavering and undeniable. It's you, the fans, who inspire, who provide standards for dedication, who stand fast at the line of accountability, demanding it bypasses no athlete.

Never mind that you do so with profanity one minute and beer breath the next, or that some of you put more energy into being a fan than some athletes put into workouts. The fact that it's done with such passion and fervor makes for better days.

At least, most of the time.

Some of you may recall an incident in 2001, when Allen Iverson was with the 76ers. He was walking off the court at Conseco Fieldhouse when someone yelled an off-color remark, and Iverson responded in kind. Iverson's comments sparked headlines. His perspective on the situation did not.ALLEN IVERSON SAID IT BEST.

"I've been through a lot," he said at the time. "I've seen a lot, too. Enough to know that most fans are great. They just want to know you're giving it your all. That you play every game like it's your last. Give 'em that, and even the ones who think they hate you can't help but show you love. And all that does is leave you no choice but to love them back."

So go ahead and hate, folks! Root for the team you love and against everyone else. Express yourselves. Exhale. And know along the way that aside from annoyance at your profanity or all those unrealistic expectations, you're not only loved and appreciated—you're needed.