Pop Culture Monday--Being a Sports Fan is Irrational, And That's a Good Thing

I love sports.  I always have.  My clearest early memory was going to the first ever Kickoff Classic--the opening game of the college football season--in 1983 (age 5).  I drove with my father to Giants Stadium in the swamps of the Meadowlands to see his favorite team, the Penn State Nittany Lions, begin their defense of the National Title against Nebraska.  He was excited, I was excited--it was great.  We sat right behind the goal posts.  I couldn't be happier.

Penn State lost 44 to 6 to a Nebraska team that would go on to play for the National Championship and featured eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier.  Rozier ran for, I think, 800 yards or something.  In reality, it wasn't as close as 44-6 would suggest.  It was really, really ugly.  Nevertheless, it is still a fond memory.

Being a sports fan is fundamentally an irrational act.  You think about and put mental energy into something that has no idea that you exist.  You enter a season with hope, but with the understanding that it is likely going to end in disappointment of some kind.  I have a tendency to root for teams that are terrible with isolated moments of success--the Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL), Northwestern University football and basketball (well, for basketball, remove the "isolated moments of success" part), and the Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL).  But even people who root for "successful" franchises mostly experience disappointment.

Take my sister.  She is, by any reasonable measure, a hardcore New York Yankees (baseball) fan.  The New York Yankees are one of the most successful teams in the history of North American sports, with 27 World Series championships since 1923.  That works out to one championship every three years, or 3 every decade.  That's an unbelievable amount of success, and most fanbases hate the Yankees and their fans for that success.  The problem, if you are my sister, is that she is 22 years old, and the vast majority of that success was way before she was born.

The last dominant Yankees run was from 1996 to 2000, where they won four championships in five years.  She was eight years old when the Yankees beat the Mets in the Subway Series in 2000--around the time she started following baseball with my Dad.  Since then:

  • In the aftermath of 9/11, in a World Series that looked absolutely fated to be won by the Yankees, they lost in Game 7 when the best relief pitcher ever blew up in the 9th inning.
  • Suffered a complete let-down in 2003 against a very mediocre Florida Marlins team, after driving yet another dagger into the hearts of Boston fans.
  • Blew a 3-0 lead against the Red Sox in '04, unleashing the current torrent of insufferable Boston sports fans on the world.
  • Lost a series to the Indians in 2007 due to a Biblical plague of flies.  No, seriously.
  • Suffered through a series of expensive and disastrous starting pitcher signings.  Fun experiment--ask Yankee fans to do some word association with "Randy Johnson," "Kevin Brown," "Kei Igawa," and "Carl Pavano" and see what sorts of inventive curses come out of their mouths.
  • Have been forced to spend years defending Alex Rodriguez, clearly the most unlikable major star in any sport in the last twenty years.
Sure, they won the World Series in '09, which is most than most fans can hang their hat on.  Still, that's a rough go of it for my sister.  And she roots for one of the successful teams.

The obvious question becomes "why do people do this?"  "Wouldn't people be happier doing something else?"  After thinking about this in a number of forms for a long time, I believe the answer is clearly "no."  Being a fan of an abstract entity like a sports team that will likely let you down is a good thing, because it provides a safe and controlled way to meet the human need to revere idols and be part of a mass movement.  If people didn't follow sports, they would find other idols and other mass movements to put their emotional energy into, and that can get really scary really fast.

Take, for example, LeBron James.
Living in Ohio, I have seen first hand the return of LeBron-mania in Cleveland and the surrounding area.  People from Cleveland feel good about themselves, now that the hometown hero has returned.  LeBron played it masterfully--describing/spinning his rather insulting departure from Cleveland the first time into a learning experience about the importance of home and family.  It was exactly what the people in Cleveland wanted to hear from LeBron, whether or not it is actually true (and, to be honest, I think it is at least partially true).  All is forgiven, and they can believe in LeBron again.

Outsiders could easily conclude that people in Cleveland are suckers.  Maybe, but people in Cleveland want to believe in LeBron, and more generally they want to believe in something.  I think people need to believe in a larger-than-life persona who is going to make their problems go away.  LeBron promises to make a very discrete problem--the lack of sports championship in Cleveland since 1946--go away.

You might say, putting on your Marxist hat, that this idolization of LeBron is an opiate that distracts people from the real problems facing the city of Cleveland.  I agree, but I see that as a feature and not a bug.  Cleveland's real problems are many and complex, and some of them are unfixable.  That is the nature of this fallen world, and all we can do is chip away at the problems that are in front of us.  But I think people instinctively rebel against that this kind of incremental approach to problems.  They want a total solution, in the form of some messianic figure who is going to make everything right.

A person who comes on the scene promising to fix all of Cleveland's real problems is inherently a very, very dangerous person.  You don't need to be a deep student of history to see where that kind of thing leads.  And yet, we see time and time again that people are eager to throw themselves into these sorts of messianic causes.  And when it goes south, as it inevitably does, the fall-out is almost inevitably catastrophic.  Even Obama, the weakest of weak-sauce political messiahs, has done lots of damage to the politics of this country when it became clear he couldn't deliver the promised golden age (not intentionally, I think, but true nonetheless).

LeBron's messianic promise, by contrast, has two major advantages of our hypothetical Cleveland political messiah.  First, he can actually deliver a championship to Cleveland, in a way that a politician cannot single-handedly bring manufacturing jobs back or fix schools.  Second, if he fails, there is no real consequence.  After all, at the end of the day it's just sports.  Failed political messiahs leave real consequences in their wake.  Failed sports messiahs just make you look forward to the draft.

I suppose people might see this as flip, but I really believe that the irrationality of following sports fills an irrationality "quota" that would otherwise go to other, more dangerous, kinds of irrationality.  Living and suffering through our sports teams allows us to shine a more cold and sober light on the real problems that face us.  We don't need to believe totally in our political (or religious) leaders, so long as we can turn on the game at the end of the day.    


Anonymous said…
You wrote:
"I think people need to believe in a larger-than-life persona who is going to make their problems go away. "

That 'persona' is called Jesus. Or Mohammed. Or Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Dionysus, Chuck Norris, etc. etc.

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