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How To Be A Fan

Detached admiration for sporting achievement? Not on your life. It's all about allegiance and, even, love.
Detached admiration for sporting achievement? Not on your life. It's all about allegiance and, even, love.

My son didn't weep when his beloved 49ers lost to the Seahawks in the NFC championship. His team may have been vanquished, but at least there was ground for hope that the Broncos would stop the enemy from winning the Super Bowl.

Ah, the ways of love and hate in the world of the fan!

When I learned that the British philosopher David Papineau would be teaching in New York City over the next few years, and that he was interested in sports, I knew an intervention would be required. It would be wrong, wouldn't it, to stand by and do nothing to try to warn him against the poisonous lures and dark charms of that powerful baseball empire in the Bronx? So I sent him a letter and I laid things out as plainly as I could. Light is better than darkness, good better than evil, and all decent, right-thinking, progressive people in New York are followers of the Mets, and so on and so forth. He replied, quite correctly, that whether or not what I say is true, you don't choose what team to support for reasons, not even good reasons. Choosing a team, as he puts it, isn't like buying a washing machine.

Now he's written a whole post on this topic at his new sports and philosophy blog, More Important Than That: How Philosophy Can Illuminate Sport and Vice Versa. I recommend it to you.

If you don't become a fan for reasons, he wonders, then isn't it irrational to be a fan? Wouldn't it be better to admire sporting achievement for its own intrinsic qualities, unbiased by partisan loyalties and affiliations?

This is a good question. We can sharpen it: professional sports franchises are capitalist enterprises; these days they use public tax-dollars to build stadiums, but set ticket prices so high the average tax-payers themselves can't afford to attend; they buy and sell our beloved players as if they were commodities; the ties that bind them to our communities are weak — they don't hesitate to move out of city-centers to more affluent suburbs or, even, from time to time, to leave town altogether for new markets in other states.

And yet we love them.

And love them we do. That is the right word, isn't it?

We stand by our team. We care about it. We are attached to it. We suffer when the team fails and we rejoice in victory. We don't abandon our team when it is down, and however frustrated we may be with the team's actions, with management, or with the poor play of our side, we don't for one second think that these are reasons to move our affections elsewhere. And when another team is better, richer, stronger, that gives us no motivation to switch loyalties; it only makes us resent the enemy more.

Detached admiration for sporting achievement? Not on your life.

Papineau thinks that our devotion to a team isn't quite irrational in the end. He writes:

Humans are distinguished by their ambitions. Where other animals live in the moment, we humans give meaning to our lives by adopting long-term goals and working to achieve them. We care about our families, countries, villages, schools, reputations, careers, houses and gardens. Some of these are individual projects, while others are collective. But what they have in common is that they create agent-relative values. Once you have made something your goal, it comes to have a special importance for you, but not for those who lack it, in a way it didn't before. So it is with supporting a team. Once you become a fan, the success of the team becomes one of your projects—and to that extent, I would say, there is nothing irrational in your partisanship.

I'm not sure I quite get Papineau's reasoning here. Sure, once you become a fan, the success of the team becomes one of your projects. But that can't be what makes it rational to be a fan. That would get it backwards. Granted, if I am committed to this team, then it is understandable why I shed tears when they lose. But why should I be committed in that way? Why should I make this my project?

Maybe I have misunderstood the point. Maybe the idea is rather just this: it is our nature to form attachments of this kind and, once we do, they organize our lives. We don't choose which team to love any more than we choose what person to love, or what kind of person we ourselves are. It isn't our lives and loves that are the worse for this. We need to give up the hyper-rationalistic demand that we justify ourselves and our commitments.

I like the sound of this. But I'm not sure. Blind love, like blind patriotism, is a dangerous thing. And, of course, loves are not invulnerable. Sometimes betrayal — a storied case: the Dodgers move from Brooklyn to LA in 1958 — terminates the attachment that joins us to our partners or teams.

And so, it seems to me, that although we don't choose our loves for reasons, we are condemned at last to admit that our loves are not beyond reason or indifferent to critical evaluation. We are not off the hook. We can't just take our projects for granted.

I think my son's strength in the face of the 49ers loss displayed exemplary moderation.

Go Broncos!

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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