Traditions become traditions the same way that people win dance marathons. Traditions simply outlast detractors. A tradition simply keeps going, through all of the “that’s stupid” and ‘we should stop doing that” and “can’t we just find something new?” that everyone casts its way. Traditions aren’t necessarily SMARTER or BETTER than the fads that disappear. Traditions are just more stubborn.
I remember the first time I heard Kansas’s “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant. It is really kind of a creepy thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love it for the history and the passion it evokes, it’s absolutely one of my favorite things in college sports. But objectively, let’s be honest here, it’s a bit disturbing, you know, the way everyone does those yoga motions and moans “RAAAAAAAAACK … CHAWWWWWWWWWWK …. JAYYYYYY … HAWWWWWWWWK …. KAAYYYYYYY … YUUUUUUUUUUUUU. If you saw and heard people doing that anywhere but a basketball game, you’d be convinced you walked in on a weird cult meeting.
But it has lasted. They’ve been chanting Rock Chalk Jayhawk since the 1880s. At no point through it all has one generation of kids said, “Naw, let’s try something else.” That’s what makes it a tradition. Conversely, a few years ago Kansas tried this other chant where they brought out a garbage can they called “The Sound Machine” and told fans to cheer when the lid was open and stop the instant the lid was closed. If I remember right, they called it “Kansas’ newest basketball tradition.” This game but absurd effort lasted exactly one game.
Was the Sound Machine any less viable a concept than Rock Chalk Jayhawk? Maybe, maybe not. But it did not come close to standing the tradition time test.
That’s really what’s happening. A tradition time test. A tradition survival of the fittest. Time is a harsh judge. When I was a kid, we used to attack each other with various insults based on “Welcome Back Kotter’s” classic “Up your nose with a rubber hose” banter. You know: In your ear with a chandelier. In your face with a a brown briefcase. Up your butt with a … we fully expected that stuff to last forever. Shockingly it did not. Time took one look at that bit of stupidity and said, “Um, let me just erase that nonsense from the world as soon as possible.”
Time defeated parachute pants. Time defeated golf knickers. Time defeated the tennis victor leaping over the net and baseball players leaving their gloves out in the field between innings. Time defeated people dressing up and wearing cool hats to sporting events. Time defeated barefooted kickers and long hook shots and high jumpers who tried to leap forward over the bar and the Macarena. Charlie Finley gave the Kansas City A’s a mule mascot named Charlie-O. Time stepped in. Bill Veeck tried to dress up the White Sox in shorts. Time stepped in. The Yankees used to play “Cotton Eyed Joe” at every seventh-inning stretch. Time stepped in.
But here’s the other side of time: Once something DOES defeat time, once it crosses that finish line and become a tradition — not unlike that cartoon bill becoming a law in “Schoolhouse Rocks” — it becomes pretty close to invulnerable. Take the Washington football team. They’re just sticking with the name. They know the history. They know the meaning. They know that Washington Hogs would be such an awesome name. Doesn’t matter. It’s a tradition. And like all traditions, once they’re in, they’re in. Traditions get “Favored nation” status. Time has been trying to wipe out the wave for decades … hasn’t done it yet.
All of which leads to this sad bit of news: They’re moving the Michael Jackson outside the stadium at Fulham of the Premier League.
I like Fulham. A few years ago, I asked Brilliant Readers to send in their suggestions for which Premier League team I should root for, and the Fulham fans were convincing. Fulham is the friendly team in London. While Tottenham and Arsenal rage at each other and Chelsea spends billions of dollars, Fulham just plugs happily along at Craven Cottage, the Wrigley Field of England, which is charming and old and right by the River Thames. Everyone has a good time. Fulham has never actually won a Premier League championship or any other major trophies, but they keep going, happy to be a part of things. optimistic that someday they’ll have their big moment, welcoming to all. They are the only Premier League team to have a section reserved for neutral fans who just want to enjoy themselves. Yes, I like Fulham a lot.
About two and a half years ago, they put this Michael Jackson statue outside Craven Cottage. It’s not a statue as you might imagine one would look outside a stately place like Craven Cottage — you know, made of white stone or dark bronze or whatever. No, really, it looks more like something you would see in Madame Tussaud’s Was Museum. It’s colorful and gaudy, MJ is holding a microphone and wearing one glove and tight pants and apparently is about to moonwalk.*
*Another tradition time defeated — we used to try and moonwalk all the time!
The statue is there because Fulham’s former chairman, Mohammed Al-Fayed wanted it there. He was friends with Michael Jackson. He brought Michael Jackson to a Fulham game, I guess, or maybe even more than one, and the King of Pop had a good time or something. To be honest with you, I don’t see why this kind of madness doesn’t happen more in sports. If I spent hundreds of millions (or a billion) to buy a sports team, you better believe I would do all kind of crazy stuff like this. I’d put statues of Bugs Bunny and Duane Kuiper and Ric Flair at the entrance. I’d have them play “Badlands” twice every game. I’d have my baseball players wear those old wool uniforms and my basketball players wear those really short 1970s shorts every so often. The question to me is not how Bill Veeck or Charlie Finley ever got to own baseball teams. The question is why there haven’t been many more like them.
Anyway, Al-Fayed loved Michael Jackson, and he wanted to do something to honor his memory, and so he had this statue done and placed outside the stadium. It made no sense to anyone. I doubt that there’s a clash at any sports venue in the world quite like that ridiculous Michael Jackson statue outside charming old Craven Cottage. It would be like putting a giant Rubik’s Cube outside Fenway Park or a statue of a box of Jujubes outside Lambeau Field. It was patently ridiculous, and there was an uproar about it for a while … but that’s the amazing thing about being the owner. Nobody really could do anything about it. Al-Fayed wanted a Michael Jackson statue there. And so there was a Michael Jackson statue there.
This year, Al-Fayed sold the team to American automobile parts mogul Shahid Khan — who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars — and almost immediately questions about the statue came up. Khan, apparently, had no idea what kind of hailstorm he had entered. He seemed to leaning toward taking it down. Al-Fayed said if Khan even tried it, he would personally come and shave off Khan’s somewhat famous mustache. Then there was some indecision. Some worry. Khan at one point talked about praying for answers. He seemed generally distraught about it all.
And here’s the thing: I was kind of rooting for the statue to stay. It’s not that I like the statue — I don’t. It’s not like I think it belongs — I don’t. But the way I figure it, if that statue could have lasted for even five more years, it had a real shot of becoming a tradition. And once that happened, it would have to stay. People would get used to it. More, they would unconsciously begin to accept it. And then, even people who DESPISE it would fight for it. It would be a tradition. For generations of kid, that weird Michael Jackson statue by one of England’s most cherished stadiums would not represent the King of Pop but instead it would be a symbol of Fulham soccer. It would come to represent not the Thriller video and Billie Jean and the 1980s and general strangeness but great goals and outings with family and spectacular victories and horrible defeats.
Alas, it is not to be. Apparently the statue is moving to one of Al-Fayed’s countless other properties. They got rid of it just in time, just before it started to stubbornly become a tradition. And so instead of becoming an odd but gradually beloved part of Fulham Football, it will instead be remembered as this extremely weird thing one of Fulham’s more eccentric chairmen did back around 2011 or 2012. And time wins again.