Why I’m not a fan of teams or religions

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 talking 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.

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Ian Rose wrote an excellent rebuttal: Why I am a Sports Fan

44 Responses to “Why I’m not a fan of teams or religions”

  1. Phil Simon

    I find it easier to root for individuals and individual sports (read: golf, tennis) than teams. I also am not a big fan of teams, but I certainly understand why people go to NFL games.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Individual sports are interesting in that although there are rivalries they never take on the same hostility as team sports do. I guess the traditions don’t last long (as teams last forever but player’s careers are a decade or two at best) enough to built up generations of hatred, like say the Yankees and Red Sox.

      Reply
  2. Mor Sela

    Great post (and a very brave one). I like your analogy between sport teams and religious. Both segregate people who could otherwise be one.

    Reply
  3. Lucas

    When players play for many teams over their career the rationale to live and die rooting for one team fails logic. Thank you for articulating better than I have been able to do. I love sport and the trill of competition, but I am much more driven to watch games with particular players vs teams.

    Reply
    • Scott

      I do think loyalty is noble, but loyalty to what? And why? Those are the important questions.

      Like I said, being a fan creates blind spots. It’s too easy to take things to far when you root for something solely because it’s from your home.

      Reply
  4. Mor Sela

    Great post (and a very brave one). I like your analogy between sport teams and religions. Both segregate people who could otherwise be one.

    Reply
  5. Scott

    A fun sketch about the absurdity of sports fandom (by Mitchell and Webb):

    Reply
    • Anne

      Hello Scott,
      After reading your interesting post and taking in this brilliantly clever and amusing sketch by Mitchell and Webb, I feel that your comments expand to encompass something much broader than would at first appear. Indeed you could not have presented a better argument for indoctrination. To be honest it is something that simply cannot be avoided happening. We inherit the environment that we are exposed to. As individuals we owe it to ourselves to unravel all the belief systems inherited and somehow make sense of them, so that we can eventually emerge with a very clear and rational understanding of our own beliefs and the reasonings behind them. I guess the level of success in this pursuit would depend upon how inquisitive and independently minded the individual is.

      Reply
      • Scott

        Anne: Thanks for the comment.

        Inheritance is fascinating for the reasons you mention. It is unavoidable. But without examination we may have inherited things that betray our own adult values and we’ve buried those betrayals in traditions.

        Of course traditions can be great too – but if the only mechanism for picking a tradition is what your parent’s did or your neighbors do, there is no guarantee those traditions will meet any moral, ethical or philosophical standard.

        Reply
  6. Scott

    And another relevant one from Monty Python about factionalism:

    Reply
  7. Steve Portigal

    Chomsky on sports fandom

    Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

    You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Chomsky is funny – he always has insights but they often hide his biases too. He simply doesn’t like sports, and assumes that the only reason people pretend to like them is a huge system of “training in irrational jingoism.” The simpler answer is many, but certainly not all, of the people next to him at the football game actually like watching football.

      I’m convinced the fundamental argument is we are social creatures, and therefore tribal, and will always have affinity for things that allow us to feel like (safe) members of a tribe: weddings, business conferences, sporting events are all social/tribal bonding experiences. There doesn’t have to be an evil agenda, although I agree with Chomsky that there can be. As I suggested, rooting for something simply because it’s from your hometown creates an enormous ethical blindspot.

      Reply
  8. Rizal Afif

    Dear Scott — Football team != religion . May God guide you to the right path :)

    Reply
      • Steve Chab

        Hi, Scott.

        After seeing one of your great presentations about architecture and perspective, I subscribed to your blog. It seems like perspective is your thing, but I feel like the statement, “Religions, like sports fans, are blind to how many equivalently well justified alternative views there are in the world.” is a blanket statement to cover the views of all “religious” people.

        I’m a follower of Jesus. I was baptized as a child due to tradition. My family got together on Christmas and Easter like most Americans. But I wasn’t raised in the Church. I wasn’t raised as a follower of Jesus. It’s a decision I made a few years ago (after evaluating my life and turning away from my sinfulness, brokenness, and agnosticism).

        A follower of Jesus should have a reason to believe. A person who doesn’t know why he or she believes in God has a poor understanding of his or her own doctrine and theology.

        Anyway, I’m just urging you to reconsider your opinions on “religion.” All “religious” people don’t always blindly follow other “religious” people. I don’t know your spiritual history, but maybe you could sit in on a few different Bible studies and report your findings. You’d be surprised by all the perfectly solid reasons people believe in God.

        And just to clarify why I kept putting religion in quotes: Biblical Christianity is less about following a set of rules and more about growing a relationship with YHVH. So, I don’t like the word “religion.” It limits people’s views of what Christianity really is.

        Respectfully,
        Steve

        Reply
  9. Antonio Rodriguez

    As a New Yorker, I consider myself a Yankees fan, but I really don’t follow sports that much. However, I’ve married into a family of rabid college football fans, whose allegiances to their respective teams are legendary. My wife follows three college teams due to inheritance (her grandfather’s team – Alabama Crimson Tide, her mother’s team – Auburn Tigers, and her own team – Clemson Tigers), and during NCAA Football season, I give up any TV privileges while their games are on.

    However, they are college football purists, criticizing even their own team and applauding the other team when they deserve it (you can hear the resentment in their voice, but they still recognize how well the play was executed). They still want their team to win, but they have a feel for the game and the excitement of the young players that I envy sometimes.

    Reply
    • Scott

      There’s something to be said for the meaning of things being how much you put into it. It’s probably boring for most people to watch sports if they don’t have a personal stake in the outcome. Being a fan guarantees a stake in every game. There’s meaning in that. I remember looking forward to Giants games and that’s part of why: I had emotions about the outcomes.

      Despite my opinions when I do go to games in Seattle I do have moments when I feel bonded with my city. That thousands of us have all come together to share something with each other – we could all be home, but we all chose to come to the stadium and there are feelings that rise that feel good.

      But I still recognize I’d have those feelings in any city I lived, at any similar event.

      Reply
  10. krst

    That’s one of your posts that I totally agree with and totally disagree at the same time. I think that being a local team fan is a little bit patriotic act – you do it because you feel connected with your neighborhood. That’s the same as rooting for you national team. And if this also feels weird for you then what would you say about rooting for your brother’s team or your kid’s team? If supporting your kid and keeping fingers crossed for him is weird than what’s not?

    As I said, for me being a sports fan is very similar to being a patriot – very constructive and destructive at the same time. Like in Poland being a patriot means not only love for my own country but at the same time a little bit (or a lot in some cases) of hatred for Germany and Russia. It just works that way.

    I think it’s more the matter of your self-identity – if you want to be identified as a ‘true’ New Yorker then probably rooting for Knicks will be helpful. If you don’t care then probably it’s not that important.

    Reply
    • Scott

      I’m happy to be agreed with and disagreed with simultaneously :) I think capturing a paradox often is essential to understanding important things.

      The question is really one of limits. Rooting for my brother’s team is fine. Going to a sporting event is largely about hoping people you know do well. But how far does that go? Will you deny the right of the other team to have fans? Degrade them for being fans? Fight with them? Dehumanize them? Many high schools here in Seattle have separate stands for the home and guest teams family to prevent any altercations from occurring, which is both thoughtful and horrible at the same time.

      The challenge of fandom is how when people operate in groups our behavior and sense of identity changes and very destructive things can happen when those forces get out of control.

      Reply
  11. Jeff Williams

    I just wrote a post about how this is applied to the startup world. People repeating words and terms as they expertly apply the assumptions of the day. I find the distance most are willing to reach as a belief is so near. Their opinions are so far reaching.

    Don’t tell me what you know, tell me where you have been..

    Reply
  12. David

    I played in a Fantasy Football league for the 1st time last fall. First time I’ve kept up with teams in a long time (vs. just watching random games). It’s nice *actually* having a personal stake in the outcome.

    Also nice to have the focus more on individual players, for reasons Lucas and Phil touched on.

    Reply
  13. Dave Malouf

    Loyalty first came to mind.
    The idea of rooting for a team is part if the fantasy that you’re a member of the club. So you can’t vaulter your loyalty. That’s why there are season’s tickets and the like. It’s also constructed back before easier telecommunications, so local was all you can look for.

    Belonging, I don’t consider this indoctrination, or at least I don’t consider them equal. In this case, I think humans are generally driven towards belonging. We are social, and I believe tribalism (still different from indoctrination) is a strong pull and as we are glowingly distributed often our hometown teams offer grounding of identity that we long for.

    FUN!!!! – I still give it a 2nd thought every time I put a red shirt on (Cal grad), and I think it’s a hoot that ppl in Boston think Yankees fans care about them. (Former NYer too.) but its fun, in a meaningless way, that yes some ppl take way too seriously, and like religion, lets not kill an entire social construct bc a small sampling are assholes.

    Now, if its nit for you? Like on,one conversations themselves, you have a choice, but that choice doesn’t have to be a condemnation of the entire concept.

    Reply
    • Scott

      You make good points – thanks for offering them.

      On fun, I agree. I still love to watch sports. And I do root for players or teams I like on occasion. But the thing I’m rooting for, and having fun with, has changed dramatically.

      Reply
  14. Sean Crawford

    I’ve always liked that scene in The Human Comedy where the old history teacher, Miss Hicks, roots for all the boys running the 220 low hurdles.

    At my very spirited high school our coaches and teachers would not let us become a 12th player: we could not insult/hurt any specific opposing player, lest the referee call a foul. (I never saw any such foul called)

    I’m surprised at so many avid comments: Somehow I thought of computer folks as being non sports watchers. (I don’t picture Bill or Steve or Steve W. wearing a team jersey)

    I found out years ago that I can’t watch anything beyond high school (i.e. professional) because (besides not being an invested fan) my eye is not good enough to pick out variations in ability, not unless I want to invest my time.

    I don’t plan to take the time because I know sports is a business, where the “players” are employees (or mercenaries or gladiators) who are mistreated to the point they make the effort to form a union. If we say they love us the way we love them, then that is from our own need.

    So yes, sports fandom requires a bit of denial, and a bit of shared illusion. If I was to go and root then I too would keep a perspective, and a sense of humour about it all.

    Reply
  15. Steve Patrick

    Same goes for Nationalism, why root for ‘my’ country, guess its tribalism

    Reply
  16. Tim Dellinger

    I’m the analytical type that watches sports very differently than most… it’s the ideas and longer-term strategic elements that matter most to me. I’m a fan of coaches and managers more than players!

    I’m interested in seeing how the University of Oregon’s hurry-up football offense stacks up against other top teams… if they can roll over everyone in their conference due to superior physical fitness, does that make them a bit soft regarding other skills such that they’re beaten in bowl games?

    What are the repercussions of organizing a college football team around Tim Tebeau using agile linemen? Can you still have a viable team when Tebeau is gone and your linemen are now undersized for a more traditional strategy? How many years does it take to recover?

    How do you structure a basketball team utilize Shaquille O’Neil, who is slow and can’t hit freethrows?

    Is there room on a baseball roster for a knuckleball pitcher? Can the system develop the career of a knuckleball pitcher?

    When in sports can you buy your way to a championship (Florida Marlins, New York Yankees)?

    Maybe it’s the project manager / strategic planner in me that roots for the ideas and the organizational elements of the enterprise more than the individual contributors…

    Reply
  17. Rick in Raleigh

    How is, in your opinion, sports affliation related to the descrease in participation w social groups like Elks, Knights of Columbus, Rotary etc? Thinking of Bowling Alone.

    Perhaps part of the appeal of team affiliation is that there are no serious requirements for membership other than allegiance, where civic organizations req a member to participate. So we shift to a group membership that we can engage on our own terms.

    Reply
  18. Angela

    This is a brave post because you posted it on a day of bad news for twice-screwed-over Sonics fans in Seattle! :) Timing aside, I like how you are addressing the fundamental human need/desire to belong and to identify. Let’s call it tribalism. And you’re absolutely right, the desire to belong and to fit in is not always analytical, but often times emotional. I’d say that it’s a fundamental part of being human: to know and be known. And I’d argue that much of the time, our social behavior is driven by emotion (like fear) rather than analytical rational thinking. (“I will act this way b/c I don’t want to be left out,” or “I will cheer for this team b/c this is who my family and I grew up cheering for, etc.”)

    You’re definitely touching upon the issue of culture and identity in how and why we cheer for certain sports teams or follow a certain type of religion. Just like how we signal other cultural markers (where we come from, where we went to school, what books, music and bands we enjoy) you can probably extend your argument about fandom out to many other forms of culture too.

    I really like how you bring up the issue about blinders, and how we ought to honestly ask ourselves *why* we cheer for the teams that we do, and why we believe what we do. We don’t do it enough.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Thanks for the comment Angela. I actually posted this the day before the announcement about the sonics. I probably would have held off if I’d known: no need for salt in that particular wound.

      The Seattle situation is fascinating in part because most fans in the city were outraged at having the sonics “stolen” by another city, yet are perfectly willing to do something similar to Sacramento. Of course the details are different, but there are many similarities, we’re just on the other side.

      Asking questions is tough. And like my experience with Pittsburgh, its only after you’ve travelled away that you can return to see questions you never even thought to ask before.

      Reply
  19. Adam

    Must be your teams aren’t too good.

    Because I feel sad for you that you are saying good bye to sports.

    To me professional sports are the height of competition, achievement, excellence.

    They are:
    entertaining
    inspiring
    a shared experience with your region when so much is splintered in so many ways these days.

    You don’t have to be a mean-spirited fan. You don’t have to root for the local team. You have chosen not to root at all.

    To the extent that people obsess about sports and don’t pay attention to their communities, families, world etc is unfortunate, but blaming sports (which really doesn’t do much harm to anyone) for people being disengaged is unfair in my opinion.

    And its not like religion. Sports is real. Take it or leave it, no strings. I’m going to keep taking it.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Hi Adam. I did write:

      “Today I root only for close games… 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 love playing and watching sports. My love simply goes beyond the teams themselves.

      Reply
      • Adam

        Thanks for your response Scott.

        I think I agree with you for the most part, but…

        First my disclaimer, I have been a Celtics fan since the 1990s.

        For teams:

        1) Rather than watching individual performances, focusing on teams brings appreciation for coaches, teamwork, players buying into roles, schemes etc. You often focus on non-stars and their important contributions.

        2) I work in teams and can relate more to the team-oriented approach.

        3) Perhaps irrationally: I feel that only if you learn to love a team unconditionally (watch them when they are bad) can you truly feel the joy of them succeeding. You can think about the GM, coaches, ownership, draft, players who have been there through the years. If you watch them on their off nights, if you see them fail (sometimes I can’t watch) it becomes more human — lowlights help measure the hilights. You can better understand their tears when they win.

        Reply
  20. Omer

    For me, my religion ‘Islam’ has helped me discover the true purpose of life,

    “Islam clearly addresses one of the most central and challenging questions in human history: “What is the purpose of life?” God declares in the Quran, “And I did not create … mankind except to worship Me.” (51:56) For Muslims, the purpose of life is to worship God, the Creator of all things. Worship in Islam is a comprehensive concept that urges people to be conscious of God throughout their daily lives and provides a framework to help people live a balanced and virtuous life.”

    This way of life promotes strong moral character, good relations with people, and just and harmonious societies. Devoting one’s self to a life of submission to God is the key to attaining a true sense of peace because it produces a balance of spiritual needs with worldly affairs. It also lends special meaning to the concept of living one’s life responsibly, aware of the accountability to come in the hereafter.

    Belief in the Day of Judgment is extremely important in Islam. This event will signal the transition between the temporary life of this world to the eternal life in the hereafter. On that day, people will be resurrected and held accountable for their deeds in life, which will determine their eternal destination in Heaven or Hell. Many verses in the Quran describe the events on the Day of Judgment in great detail and give a description of Heaven and Hell.

    Reply
  21. Troy

    I have been saying the same things about sports and politics. It’s quite arbitrary in the two party system. People choose up sides. They wave there flags.They chant and taunt the opponents and get behind a team regardless of what they are saying or their ability to problem solve. Just watch the conventions next go around.

    Reply
  22. Michael Bannen

    Cats are animals. Cats scratch things. Cats don’t like mice. Therefore all animals scratch things…because all animals are cats, which is why I don’t like mice either.

    Or not.

    I like a lot of your stuff (I’ve even spent money on it), but logically fallacies your offering in this post are pretty weird. Become some (most?) people inherit their religion, and stick with it, therefore “it’s not a choice”, and you don’t root for the Knicks. Sorry. You’re right many people don’t question or attempt to prove historically, scientifically, practically their beliefs in most any field, including religion, but it does not follow that religion is therefore wrong, or a particular belief is therefore irrational, or, more to the point, incorrect.

    You may not agree. Most may not have thought, or questioned, or researched, or proven, to themselves. But that doesn’t make all animals cats. You know, speaking metaphorically. And, well, practically too.

    The principle, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you”, applied in this situation, I think.

    I still don’t like mice.

    Kind regards.

    Reply
  23. Snorkasaurus

    Boy, people sure love to take sports and religion personally. Strange… since people really have no influence on either, and neither of them is (or should be) a meaningful reflection of the individual.

    Inheritance is a ridiculous way to select a religion, sports team, preferred car manufacturer, occupation, or most things. People should think for themselves and make choices based on the merits of the available solutions. At the same time, people shouldn’t feel the need to continuously convey the virtues of their “inherited” beliefs to supporters of another sports team, religion, car manufacturer, or otherwise. In all likelihood, if you inherited a belief… it specifically means you did not select it based on its merits, which would lead me to believe that your belief is more likely to be wrong.

    Reply
  24. Sean Crawford

    Scott, I wish I’d written earlier that I am sure you would like Pat Conroy’s nonfiction autobiography My Losing Season where he really loves the opposing teams and the guys he was paired against. (no zone defence)

    He reflects on a lot about life in his years playing varsity at a harsh military college he loved, a college that sent graduates on to Vietnam. For me, the best was seeing how a man too horrible to have his children attend his funeral became loved by his kids and by the whole town because he changed to be as good as The Great Santini: Pat’s own father.

    Reply

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