Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Exultation and Paradoxes of Sports Fandom

There are some things in this world that I love without reservation: My wife, the doctrine of a loving God,  sunny days, and a few other things. Of all the things I love, however, there is one that inspires the most heated emotions, near-neurotic analysis, and constant consumption: sports.

Playing sports is great, although my sedentary lifestyle and middling athleticism mean I don't do it nearly enough. But watching sports and following teams, that's a minor obsession. And I'm not alone in this mania - there are hundreds of millions who are just as bad, whatever their preferred sport. Plus, modern communication has made it easier and more convenient than ever. We are living in the age of the fan.

What has two outstretched arms and enough money to afford season tickets that cost more than the annual income of half the world? THIS GUY!

I'm a fan of many sports and a number of teams, but I'll focus on just two. One I grew up with, the other I chose: The Denver Broncos and Arsenal FC. The Broncos were basically inevitable - I grew up in Colorado and my dad was a fan. I still look fondly back on glory days of John Elway and Terrell Davis and watch clips from Super Bowls 32 and 33 (sorry, that would be XXXII and XXXIII). I got caught up in Tebowmania. There was no way I could have been a football fan and not a Broncos fan.

Pictured: Me unironically wearing a Tebow shirt. Also, Cosmo and Brooke, but this post isn't really about them.

My other team team was not such a forgone conclusion. In the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup and the United States National Team's surprisingly strong showing, I became a soccer fan and convinced my family to upgrade its cable package to one that included Fox Sports World. The main attraction there was the English Premier League, and I was soon entranced by the entertaining, high-scoring North London team Arsenal FC, led by the incomparable Frenchman Thierry Henry (pronounced "Tee-airy On-ree" for you Americans). I've been a fan ever since, sacrificing early mornings to watch pirated live streams of games and purchasing computer games that let me put myself in the seat of a soccer manager.

Not pictured: My wife rolling her eyes as I try to discuss my Football Manager team with her.

In both instances there was an element of chance and forces beyond my control: My football team was determined by geography, and it helped that my teenage years coincided with the most successful run in Broncos history. Likewise Arsenal peaked with my interest in the sport - they were just gaining renown for their entertaining style and would soon become the first team to complete a Premier League season undefeated. Had I started watching two years later I might have become a fan of Arsenal rival Chelsea, then newly-invigorated by the ownership of a Russian billionaire with the top-class players to prove it. But Arsenal it was and will be.

Being a fan is what makes sports fun - picking a team and sticking with it. Having good players helps, and in down years you may lose a little interest and even cheer for other teams too, but true fandom goes beyond time and talent. Even casual or non-sports fans get caught up in the Olympics where rooting for your guys is the whole draw, even if you had no idea who they were before the broadcast began. Yet, as the bemused relatives of sports addicts can attest, the life of a fan is full of tumult and anguish, of bitterness and depression. Just recently Arsenal lost several of its best players and began the season disastrously with several defeats an 8-2 mauling by Manchester United. It was tough to be a fan that day. The lowest of lows are always juxtaposed with the soaring highs, and the balance between the two can be punishingly unfair. And my teams are usually pretty good - I can't imagine how Detroit Lions fans have done it. Regardless, only one team ends up with the championship, and it's probably not yours. Being a fan means living with disappointment.

Fans also love to play armchair coach, to second-guess calls, to complain about underperforming players, and to wonder how such blatantly bad referring is tolerated in a professional league. And none of that is inappropriate. Of course it can go too far, but a passive spectator who doesn't get engaged is missing the essence of sports fandom. In fact, I'd say it's impossible to truly appreciate the great moments without being so invested. Every fan is a critic, and that's how it should be.

The flip side of this is that the sports teams we root for don't particularly care about us. Sure, they want our support and especially our dollars, but if I never watched another Broncos game nobody would notice. It doesn't really matter who I think should start at right-forward for Arsenal; they have paid professionals to make that decision. My impact is practically nil. Even if I happen to be right, nothing's going to change until a new coach steps in or new players emerge. Nobody's calling me to ask for my thoughts.

Pictured: How they see us

So if my opinion is basically meaningless to the organization, why do I express it? Because I'm a fan, and that's what we do. Because as long as Tebow is the Broncos quarterback it matters to me that he develops into a decent passer. If it didn't matter, I wouldn't be a fan, just an observer, and observing sports has little emotional appeal. It only matters when you care who wins. And the Broncos might not need me, but they need a lot of people like me, especially the ones willing to pay to watch them play and buy their merchandise. It's a wonderful paradox that my opinion doesn't matter at all and yet means everything.

Even if I can't stand something my team is doing (Come on, Arsenal, will you ever learn to defend free kicks!?), I'll be watching when it matters. Whether they let me down or win everything, I'm going to be cheering, obsessing, and sometimes criticizing. There's nothing quite like the unity that comes from being with a bunch of other fans rooting for your team to win, or the insane excitement of a live sports event. Even the solidarity of commiserating over a team that's failing to live up to its potential is meaningful. That's what being a fan is.


(Note: this post was inspired by an online discussion I had elsewhere on the bloggernacle with an individual who argued, essentially, that lay members have no right to criticize the church or its leaders in any capacity, regardless of personal moral considerations -  whatever the church says is always correct for any professed believer. He found my dissent faithless and heretical, while I thought him an irrational fundamentalist. That led to an analogy with sports fandom in my mind, but as I started writing this post I decided it works better as just an old-fashioned paean to sports. So by all means, draw comparison to church/politics/whatever, because I sure do, but otherwise take it for what it is.)


  1. I was about to say, "Thanks Elder Wirthlin." (For anyone who does not understand that comment, I refer you to the comment I made to Brett's recent article, "BAM! Elder Holland.)

    In other words, Casey, I read this as a metaphor rather than the paean, and I must now consider your ability to discuss sports with a spiritual undercurrent in a way that fascinated me quite miraculous.

  2. This is a great read. I'm just starting a blog post about the disappointments that sports fans face and came across this (thank you google). Really interesting to get the perspective of an American fan of English soccer, and love the Football Manager reference!

  3. Nice to get a reader from the wilds of the googlenet. Post a link to your blog here - I'll check it out.

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