This post was written by my fellow Happy Ranter, Ted Kluck.
Why sports fandom?
This is a question I ask myself when I am seething with rage and exasperating my wife at a youth football game. It’s a question a pastor friend – who is a fellow Syracuse University football fan – asked me after the Orange lost to Maryland recently. “Is there anything even remotely redeeming and pleasing to the Lord about this?” he asked, semi-rhetorically…and then we talked about it for an hour because that’s what we do. The “this” he was referring to was his own “seething with rage and exasperating his wife” moment after the Orange game.
On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much that’s redeeming about being in a bad mood after the team which you don’t play on, don’t coach, and otherwise have nothing to do with loses a football game that takes place two hundred miles away from your home. In fact, it’s embarrassing and the kind of thing we end up apologizing to our wives about later.
“When I see the orange and blue on the field, I see my childhood,” he explains. “I’m a fan of the teams I favor because of what I love. “The team” represents people, places, principles, and practices that I’m devoted to. The team holds my devotion, so the team holds me.”
Sports fandom doesn’t make sense at all to people who don’t care about sports, in much the same way that I don’t care about musical theater (for example). I wouldn’t cross the street to see a musical in the same way that, apart from me, my wife would never ever choose to watch a football game. That said, I still want her to understand it, and I want to understand it better myself. This is why we take the time to write about it and think about it.
Our Rooting Interests are a Reflection of Our Values
I explain to my friend that there’s something cool about his decision to support the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Syracuse Orange football program (which is of course a very different animal than supporting the Syracuse Orange basketball program). In the same way that he pours himself out, completely anonymously, as the pastor of a small, needy congregation in a small town, he is similarly pouring himself out on behalf of teams that are under-the-radar and far from perfect. This brings its own particular kind of joy.
The guy who gets his MDiv and immediately looks for one of the 25 pastoral jobs at the local rich, thriving megachurch is probably the same kind of guy who roots for the New York Yankees. This is a low-risk, low-reward proposition. Being the Pastor for Young Adults Whose Names Start with the Letters A through D isn’t in and of itself bad, nor is cheering for the Yankees. It’s just different than cheering for a team that you perceive as needing you in some way (which is, in itself, completely irrational, but I’ll get there).
“A part of me still craves being with the big shots so that I can get attention,” Cory writes. “Yet I’ve learned to love being with the ones who don’t get attention. Even more I love seeing others love them.
“A reason that I don’t watch the Steelers with the rigor that I watch the football Orange is that the Steelers get plenty of attention, so mine is superfluous. But the Orange need me. They don’t get respect—including from their own sometime fans—so they need what I can give them.”
We Root for Who Our Dads Rooted For
“I love my dad,” Cory writes. “I have to start here, because I wouldn’t care about sports without my dad. As a child I liked sports in theory but struggled with uncoordination, excessive orderliness, fear of looking stupid and of getting hurt, and preference for the mind over the body. But my dad doggedly taught me to play and thence enjoy sports, ushering me into a world I never would have known—or shared with him—otherwise.”
My dad did too. My best sports memories all include him. This is all-encompassing and has less to do with fandom and more to do with just being with him. We went to games together (Indianapolis Colts, Indiana University, Ball State, Taylor, and Blackford High School). We lifted weights and threw routes together, training for my promising high school football career. We pushed my pickup truck up and down the street together, training for my abject failure of a college football career. This might sound crazy to most people, but for us it was nirvana. Dad grew up in Chicago, so I was, and am, a Bears fan.
“Dad grew up in central Pennsylvania and was unswervingly loyal to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers,” Cory writes. “Oddly, Dad wasn’t loyal to Penn State. So when we moved to a suburb of Syracuse when I was seven he easily slid into rooting for the football and basketball Orangemen. Naturally, so did I. When I see my four teams—Pirates, Steelers, Orange football and men’s basketball—I see my dad and the hours we’ve talked about them together.
We Love Perfecting What Needs It
“I have a sickness,” Cory writes. “It is that I hate dwelling in imperfection and disorder. However, in most cases I hate dwelling in perfection even more, because perfect places strike me as inauthentic, pretentious, and exclusive. Worse, I feel like if I am not perfecting the imperfect then my life is meaningless. So I have to be in the settings that are most likely to drive me crazy. Like I said—sick.”
Hence our affinity for Syracuse football. When we talk about the Orange during my morning commutes to teach at the small University whose sports I have no active interest in, we always talk about the team as though it’s OUR responsibility to fix it. As though it is our own unique insights that will fix the running game. As though Scott Shafer will somehow intuit our conversations and scrap the spread offense just because I hate watching all of the bubble screens.
“A very strange thing happened to me,” Cory writes. “I was living away from Syracuse, and the worse the program got, the more attached to it I became. It was as if the more humiliated the team made me, the more firmly I committed to seeing it straightened out. This was while many fans dealt with the shame by pretending that the program didn’t exist.
“Here you need to understand a critical part of my madness. I actually believe that I, who spend almost no money on any of my teams, make them better merely by paying attention to them. This is why I am not entertained by watching recorded sporting events. I have to watch them live, because only if the outcome is not already decided can I help them win by watching them on a television hundreds of miles away. It doesn’t matter that I know that this belief is total lunacy—I operate by it anyway.”
This is the irrational part—well, one of them. We’ve both gone all-in on Syracuse football. I chose them because I liked their new hire (of a few years ago) Doug Marrone. I liked what he represented – old-school, smash-mouth running games and a good defense. Discipline. I liked that the team was under-the-radar and that if they were to succeed, I would have gotten in on the ground floor. I have completely enjoyed their meteoric rise from absolute ineptitude to minor-bowl mediocrity. It has been a blast.
What’s the moral? Or is there one?
“When I love my teams I’m loving my self, because my teams represent and project what my self holds profoundly dearly,” Cory writes. “Thus my teams’ performance makes me proud of my self or ashamed of it.”
This strikes us both as the craziest part of all. The fact that I have an inkling of pride or shame because of what a team does is, at worst, insane and, at best, just really stupid and immature. It’s more understandable in a youth-sports context in that at least it’s my son out there and, at some level, how he performs could be a reflection on me. Still, it feels crazy.
“The problem,” Cory claims, “is that idolatry is the practice of worshiping my idealized self-projection, the image that I partly am and partly wish I was, in order to replace the dependent image of God in me with an independent image of self. Sports fandom is a very easy way to do that.”
When I freak out about my son’s pee-wee team’s performance (pause to reflect on how sad/shameful that is) I am worshiping my idealized self-projection. I partly am a guy who knows a lot about football. I partly am a guy who has played and coached it semi-well in a lot of different contexts for a lot of years. But perfection – winning all the time and always being great – is what I partly wish I embodied (but fell far short of) as a player.
“However, to the extent that these aspects of my self that are projected in these teams are good and lovingly and providentially shaped by my Creator, because they are also aspects of him, then to cheer for my teams is to reflect his image in me,” Cory continues. “So at the moment that I am drawn into my teams’ triumphs and woes, how do I know whether I am worshiping the creature (self as god) or the Creator (God in self)?”
We don’t know, but we think the answer has something to do with love.