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Why we cheer

The triumph of the ‘us vs. them’ fan mindset


I’ve been a hard-core sports fan as long as I can remember, the kind of kid who demanded that his birthday cakes be frosted with his favorite team’s colors. Generally, I’ve avoided thinking of my fandom as an unhealthy pattern.

But there are moments when the depth of my addiction has smacked me in the face. I am thinking, in particular, of the Sunday afternoon I spent in a deafening sports bar in Columbia, S.C.

I had ordered my pal Keith to drive me 35 miles to this establishment, because it was the only one in the area with a satellite TV that would allow me to watch my Oakland Raiders, who were within striking distance of a playoff spot for the first time in years and were slated to play the hapless Miami Dolphins. 

The score after three quarters: Miami 34, Oakland 0. 

The fan mindset has profoundly shaped our popular culture. Americans have turned virtually everything into a sport: singing, dancing, cooking, even courtship.

By all rights, this should have been my moment of clarity. But when I looked around that bar, at the throngs clustered around glowing screens, eyes agleam with hope, what I experienced was closer to a moment of revelation. This bar was, for us fans, a kind of temple. We were members of a vast congregation who had come not just to rejoice or commiserate, but to worship. 

Fandom, I realized, was a means of activating our faith. In a world that felt increasingly fragmented, it provided us with a sense of tribal identity. It allowed us to pay tribute to our heroes, to watch them make miracles with their bodies, to partake in collective ritual, to don our own articles of faith.

And if this were all that fandom was, frankly, I wouldn’t feel so dang guilty about it. But there is a darker side to fandom: the manner in which it diverts time, attention, and money away from the rest of our lives.

After all, I had not traveled to South Carolina to watch the Raiders. I was there to catch up with Keith, an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for years. We had plenty to talk about. He was seeing his first son off to college, with mixed feelings. I was bracing myself for a third child that I wasn’t sure we could afford. We were both struggling.

Ironically, this was the very reason I had sought out that football game. Because a large part of me wanted to dodge all that adult struggle by retreating into a world that was simpler and more childlike, a world where the most important question wasn’t “What’s going on in your life?” but “How’s your team doing?” 

As much as I still love watching sports, I’ve gradually come to see my fandom as a place of refuge, one that distracts me from my anxieties. More broadly, I worry that our global obsession with sports has distracted us from traditional sources of connection – to our families, our civic duties, even our religious devotion.

Of course, our allegiance to sports has been around for as long as human beings have run and jumped and thrown projectiles. Pre-Columbian cultures such as the Maya played a game in which losing players were sometimes sacrificed. The ancient Greeks organized Olympiads and filled vast arenas. Like any successful species, we’re a competitive lot. 

What marks the modern era as unique is how pervasive and profitable sports have become. When I was growing up in the 1970s, games were something you watched on weekends and mostly read about in the newspaper.

These days, we have three or four channels devoted to round-the-clock coverage of sports, which includes not just game coverage but news about trades, injuries, contracts, and arrests. Almost as many Americans watch the Super Bowl as vote in presidential elections. That’s to say nothing of gambling interests or fantasy leagues.

Taken as a whole, the athletic-industrial complex has become one of the largest, most profitable sectors of our economy. 

The mania isn’t limited to America. Sports have become the dominant force in global culture. And as we’ve become more emotionally and financially invested in our teams, our conduct has become more extreme.

Consider the sad fate of Andres Escobar, a player for the Colombian national soccer team. In 1994, he accidentally scored a goal against his own side in a game Colombia eventually lost to the United States. Days later, Escobar was shot multiple times outside a nightclub in Medellín. After each shot, it was reported, the assailants yelled “goal.”

This tragedy was not an isolated incident. League officials have beefed up security at stadiums around the world as fandom has given way to harassment, hooliganism, even aggravated assault. Some players come to believe they are above the law, hardly surprising given that they are treated as demigods by the rest of us.

In essence, what we’ve seen over the past century is an unmistakable shift in our relationship to athletics. To wit: Fewer and fewer people play sports, while more and more people watch them. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Americans spend almost three hours per day watching television, and only about 20 minutes exercising. The proliferation of screens accounts for some of this. But I would argue that something deeper is at work. 

Fandom provides us an instant source of social legitimacy, a way of plugging into a shared narrative that is unscripted, thrilling to watch, and most of all convenient. 

I am not quarreling with the values imparted by playing sports, which include teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and so on. But it is much harder to argue that watching sports is ennobling.

My own sense is that fandom fosters a mindset that is both aggrieved and hypercompetitive. I base this observation on my erstwhile addiction to sports talk radio, which manages to channel the id of most sports fans. 

What is most striking about listening to the hosts and callers of these programs is the unbridled rage they express – at opposing players and coaches, at their own team, at virtually anyone who offends them.

Even if you don’t watch sports, the fan mindset has profoundly shaped our popular culture. Americans, in particular, have turned virtually everything into a sport: singing, dancing, cooking, even courtship.

Much of our political coverage has adopted the tropes of an athletic event. To wit: Almost none of the political news is about policy. It’s about which candidate is winning in the polls, in the fundraising game, in the media arena itself.

More disturbing is the research suggesting that Americans are increasingly retreating from social interactions. This was the premise of Robert Putnam’s seminal 2000 book, Bowling Alone, in which he cited a host of statistics indicating a decline in participation within civic and social clubs, local politics, and religious organizations.

Fandom offers a much easier (and more passive) path to belonging. All you have to do is sit on your couch and watch the high-def spectacles unfold.

Of course, fandom does connect us to friends, family, our alma maters, even our hometowns. For some folks, sports may be the central means by which they bond with family.

But as a fan I have always felt these connections to be hollow. I do enjoy watching sports with my dad. We’ve rejoiced when our teams did well and (mostly) comforted each other when they lost.

If I’m honest, though, the reason I began watching sports with my dad was that I wanted to be close to him. The same thing is true of my kids. If the only way they can get close to me is to sit down while I’m watching a game, that’s what they’ll do. But they would much rather play a game with me. Or make art. Or have me read them a book. This is the main reason I’ve cut back on my fandom over the past few years. 

Don’t get me wrong. I can still happily while away an afternoon in front of a game. I’m still enchanted by the grace and courage of the athletes and the drama of their combat. 

But I’m trying to keep in mind the big picture. We have limited time in our lives to connect with those we love and to engage with our communities. That’s the score that should matter most.

- Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.

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