I always hated leaving Whalers games early. Maybe if they were down three goals I could be coaxed out of my seat when the PA announcer said, "Oooooooone minute left in the period." But it would take all of my father's cajoling to get me to leave the Hartford Civic Center before the crush of 10,000 people parked in the same three garages made his trek home a nightmare. He didn't spend five minutes backing a Mercury Grand Marquis into a too-small parking spot just to get stuck afterward in a 15-minute line of cars crawling toward a cash-only booth.
I won't pretend he had to clock in at the steel mill the next morning. He had a white-collar job at an insurance company, one that paid well enough for him to afford Whalers season tickets. But he faced the same problems the rest of the 99 percent faces. Nobody has a pension; nobody has a guarantee; and raising three kids takes a big bite out of your nest egg. He had to be in the office the next morning around the same time that I had to be at the bus stop, and getting home at 11 p.m. would've just made everything even more of a hassle. So fuck it, we were going home, even though we were down only 3-1 to the Penguins.
It's easy to make fun of Heat fans for leaving Game 6 when it'd looked like all was lost. Even local TV reporters, a class of professionally unembarrassed people, said they were embarrassed, that the stereotypes about Heat fans were true, that Miami was a Bad Sports Town. But fandom isn't the same thing as slavish devotion. Your favorite team doesn't pay you, and it doesn't owe you anything. I learned that lesson when the Whalers left for North Carolina. Sportswriters easily forget that for most people attending a game is a hobby, a fun diversion, not a job.
Expecting fans to stay until the end of a game reeks of the same fogeyism that bemoans kids checking their phones all the time. Maybe in the '50s—when we all had pensions and a union, and the day could more easily be carved up into eight-hour blocks of sleep, work, and leisure—maybe then sports fans could be expected to devote four hours to watching a game in-person. But this is 2013—the friction of everyday life is far too great to expect total devotion from all but the obscenely wealthy or the totally unemployable. Fans already endure the indignities of wretched traffic, overpriced concessions, and the potential for heartbreak when they attend a game in person. Don't they at least deserve the option to look away when things go sideways and maybe get a good night's sleep, too?
At least some of the Heat fans who left the game early were doing the same back-of-the-envelope math that my father used to do. (Down 5 + 58 seconds left) x (10 minutes to the car + 30 minutes of traffic) / (Joey's math homework + an 8:30 conference call) = we're headed for the exits. Look again at the fans leaving early. You don't see a lot of the chinstrap beards and glass earrings we expect of our Heat stereotypes. I just see a bunch of weary-looking people who were at a basketball game less than nine hours before they had to leave for work the next morning. It's like they don't even listen to Pitbull.
As last night reminded us, sports are fun. At least, they're supposed to be. But you have to fit them into an already cluttered life, and sometimes the fit isn't perfect. The Heat fans who left the game early were playing the percentages. They surely regret their decision today, but it's not an indefensible one. Sports intrude on everything now—on your workday, on your mood, on your taxes, on your cable bill. Nothing wrong with fans exercising their diminishing prerogative to check the fuck out.