I won't bore you with my religious/spiritual dogma, but I will say that I believe there are nine levels of Hell for cursed souls. Eight of those levels are populated with same-side-sitters in restaurants and telemarketers. The ninth is reserved for the most wretched of the despicable: pedophiles, televangelists, the WNBA and autograph hounds.
To be clear, I am not only talking about the scum who earn their living by purchasing, selling and trading endorsed memorabilia. Yes, those folks are very, very bad. But I also mean any of you pathetic losers who will interrupt another human being's daily existence to request that they produce a signature for you. If your measly excuse of a life can be validated by the written endorsement of a professional athlete, then you need a touch of therapy.
Sure, there are dispensations for the terminally ill and kids under 18, but I've seen plenty of parents shoving their kids (or wheelchair-bound "relatives") in front of a crowd to seek that ultimate reward: a scrawled signature. On the rare occasion when the athlete chooses to sign (often, coincidentally, when the athlete's image has recently plunged in the public eye), his inevitable exit is met with vociferous scorn and taunts from the very same folks who were previously clamoring for his penmanship.
There are a refreshing number of athletes who simply refuse to sign anything that's not being donated to charity. While I'm sure it doesn't insulate them from being called every name in the book by an unappreciative mob, I think that's a splendid philosophy. The lengths these autograph seekers will go to merely to get a signed ball would humiliate most normal people. The rabid tribe on a quest for autographs has practically ruined opportunities for fans to get some face time with their favorite sports stars. Practically each player in every league needs a security team, and it's still not sufficient to ward off every zealot. A night out at dinner with the family will inevitably turn into an awkward carnival of boors who care nothing about things like dignity, privacy and decency.
Recently, during an NFL Pro Bowl junket to Hawaii, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison was yapping on his cell phone. It could have been a conversation with his agent, family, bishop or surgeon, but that didn't matter to a group of lads who wanted to rap with the football star. According to the outlandish allegations of the boys, Harrison and his two bodyguards put them in chokeholds after Harrison refused to sign autographs for them. Even if that is a completely accurate depiction, Harrison is to be lauded. "No" means "no," and if he said, "I ain't signin' shit," then he meant it. If athletes begin to aggressively defend themselves from these parasites, maybe their message of zero tolerance will be received loud and clear.
As pathetically rabid as the autograph hounds may be, there's an even more unseemly element in the realm of sport: the collectors of "fetish memorabilia." No, they're not the grips and production assistants who ransack porno sets to snatch up stray pubes from Jenna Jameson. Fetish memorabilia is a term used to describe the collecting of personal effects from sports stars. Curt Schilling's bloody sock from the 2004 American League Championship Series? That's fetish memorabilia epitomized. Collectors will swipe anything in a locker room that's not nailed down, even going so far as to take a chair that rested near Alex Rodriguez during a post-game interview.
The latest item to find itself recognized as fetish memorabilia is more depressing than disturbing, however. Apparently, five pounds of unopened fan mail addressed to Warren Sapp (then a Tampa Bay Buccaneer) made its way to the Kincaid Auction Company after Tampa-based PSC Collectibles filed for bankruptcy. If the auction goes through as planned, some total and complete scumbag will have purchased five pounds of unrequited adoration. There's something to be proud of.
I'm admittedly hypersensitive to this subject of fan mail, reason being, about 30 years ago I got Ron Palillo's address from an issue of Dynamite magazine and fired off a hopeful letter. Days, weeks, months and finally years went by without a response from Horshack. I was so distraught that I couldn't even hear the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter without curling up into the fetal position and weeping . Sure, I got my vindication years later when Dustin "Screech" Diamond pummeled Palillo in an episode of Celebrity Boxing, but the damage was done. Thus, when I came across the news that Sapp had allowed five pounds of fan mail to go unopened, those same traumatic feelings came over me.
But the bigger question remained: why in the hell would anyone want to own a five-pound box of sealed letters? As distasteful as it may be, I can at least grasp the notion that if Jeff Nelson is your favorite pitcher, you'd bid upward of a few thousand bucks to own his post-elbow-surgery bone chips. But a box of fan mail that a Bucs intern couldn't even get to Sapp or his posse? That's just wrong.
To Sapp's credit, he claims he was just now made aware of the fan-mail situation. Once it came to his (and, via the media, the public's) attention, he responded in atypical fashion, vowing to not only retrieve the mail, but to respond to each and every letter. How did all that correspondence find its way to a collectible company? It seems that the company that managed Sapp's website (which just happened to share storage space with PSC Collectibles) offered an address for fan mail, and somehow the box made its way to the memorabilia-sellers.
Fan mail is vastly different from a hounded signature, and is just about the last remaining link between fan and athlete. Any buffoon can barge into an athlete's personal space with pen and paper, but fans (especially of the under-18 persuasion) who take the time to snail-mail a request to their favorite athlete deserve a response. Even if some lackey is forging the sports star's signature on a photograph, it could mean a world of difference to a youth merely to be recognized by his hero. Otherwise … well, up their nose with a rubber hose.