I don’t root for sports teams for the same reason I’m not religious. The divisions between one group and another are too arbitrary to hold my attention.
If you ask a fan why they root for their particular team, it takes them some time to answer. Being a fan is not a logical choice, it’s emotional and tribal. It’s often an inherited decision, a choice not made but absorbed. Most people are fans of the nearest team, the team of their home. It’s likely their parents, grandparents and childhood friends all rooted for the same team, and the bond they feel for that team is combined with the bonds they feel for their community. It’s the same cultural premise of rallying together as a tribe, and rooting for the warriors to go fight and defend the community, keeping everyone safe. This is a good premise if lives are at stake, as rallying together is what has helped us survive this long. This drive is deep in our biology, explaining why it feels good to stand in a stadium with thousands of people all cheering for the same thing. We are driven to feel connected, explaining the popularity of music concerts, rallies and events of all kinds.
But when you realize how many teams there are it’s harder to find a good answer for the question: why this team and not that team?
I used to be a fan. I grew up in NYC and had Yankees, Giants and Knicks posters on my wall, and wore the jerseys of my favorite players to school. I was a passionate sports kid, good at basketball and football, and I felt connected to the local teams for that reason: I imagined myself playing professional sports one day. But as a teenager I stopped wearing player jerseys. It struck me as strange to want to be someone else, even someone I admired. I wanted to be me, and since I played basketball for my high school, I had my own jersey with my own number. I still loved my teams and loved cheering them on, but something had already changed.
Then I moved to Pittsburgh for college and was shocked to discover a new tribe rooting for a new set of teams. What was wrong with these people? I wondered. It seemed absurd to root for the Pirates and the Steelers, since they just happened to be nearby. It didn’t dawn on me until I returned to NYC, and saw the my own hometown fans, that I realized I’d done the same thing my entire life. Had I been born in Chicago, I’d have been a Bulls and Bears fan (teams my Knicks and Giants despised). Being a fan wasn’t a choice I’d made, so much as inherited. And I’d inherited hate too. I hated Chicago simply because they rivaled my Knicks and Giants. To root for a team means to root against the other ones.
Moving to Pittsburgh also reminded me of a childhood friend who moved to NYC from Toronto but still rooted for his hometown Blue-Jays. I remember the daily abuse he got from his “friends” about his choice. His Blue-Jays cap was seen as a betrayal of our tribe, but I realize now he was a much tougher fan than we were. He paid a price for that choice every day. It’s not brave in any way to show up to home games and root for the home team, even if you’re wearing face-paint and a wedge of cheese your head. Everyone loves you because, like the team mascot, you embody the tribe they are already rooting for.
The lyrics to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, a song sung at nearly every major league baseball game, are telling: Root, root root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame. But why? What if the home team is a bunch of jerks? Or if they’re a lousy team? It’s only a shame if they lost unfairly. The fact that they were home or away should be irrelevant, shouldn’t it? At basketball games it’s now standard for the people sitting behind the hoop to wave objects and scream, hoping to distract players on the opposing team. At football games fans scream as loud as they can when they other team has the ball, hoping to prevent them from talk to each other about what play to run. Somewhere along the way rooting for ones own team has warped into to impacting the play of the game itself. The Seattle Seahawks even calls their fans the 12th man, an extra player helping the team. It’s great to see a team honor their supporters, but it’s also weird for fans to become part of the game.
Today I root only for close games. I don’t care much for any team. Mostly I want to see everyone play well. I want to watch the height of the sport. I want to see a game that will live on in all of the player’s memories for being the greatest game they played, something a blowout win never provides. I like certain players, and occasionally, find connections to certain teams, but it rarely runs deep or lasts long. To fans of teams this makes me a traitor, but I prefer to see my love of competition transcending my interest in any particular team.
Like fans of sports teams, most people adopt the religion of their village and their parents. It’s not a choice, in the same way it wasn’t a choice for me to root for the Knicks. Religions, like sports fans, are blind to how many equivalently well justified alternative views there are in the world. They often rally as much around crushing their rivals as they do honoring their own beliefs, despite there being no championship trophy to compete for. Being a fan of anything makes it easy to lose perspective on what you care about and why, which explains why I will never be a fan in the same way again.
Ian Rose wrote an excellent rebuttal: Why I am a Sports Fan