First, an admission: I am a Philadelphia Eagles fan living in Boston. And this is not a casual loyalty to my hometown team but a deep devotion. There remains a raw, gnawing pain in my gut whenever Super Bowl XXXIX comes up. I can tolerate Tom Brady — but only because he happened to play at University of Michigan, my alma mater. Yes, between these pro and college football allegiances, I spend most of each autumn stewing over other people playing a game on television.
If I toiled alone in my fuming, that’d be one thing. But this fall there’ll be a new addition to my couch on the weekend: my 2-year-old son.
My boy “gets” things now. He gleans emotional context from the cues given off by his peers, his caregivers, and his parents. He knows when he is going to the doctor, or when a car trip is ending in ice cream. As a new season kicks off this month, he’ll be watching Dada watching football, too — but what will he get from that?
Here’s what I want him to see: the joy of witnessing superior athletic skill; respect for the teamwork and sportsmanship needed for success at the highest level of the game; camaraderie with other fans who share a hometown, an alma mater, or a community. At its best, sport should be one of life’s great metaphors, filled with lessons to be learned about hard work and the role of chance, winning and losing, and sportsmanship regardless of the outcome. I think that, like most children who enjoy sports, my son’s initial tendency will be toward experiencing competition through that lens.
What I worry about is letting the more negative parts of fandom — some of which I definitely see within myself — take root. Enjoying the misery of others has always been a part of sports. The problem is that, more and more often, I am also not alone in taking greater pleasure in seeing rivals, and their fans, lose than in my own team’s victories. Do we really want to teach our kids that name-calling, nastiness, and bullying are wrong — unless, that is, it’s in the name of “supporting” our team?
I’m not the first person to note that sports rivalries share much in common with other forms of tribalism throughout human history. What else would explain how I can easily choose one team to cheer for in an English Premier League match between two cities I have no ties to, a game that has zero impact on American soccer. I just need the opportunity to root for one group against another. Psychologists call it “basking in reflected glory” — when we seek to associate ourselves with a team and pretend that its success somehow elevates us as fans even though we only watched.
Of course, when one of the teams involved actually is “my” team, things deteriorate even more quickly.
What’s comforting, though, is how different my experience as a fan is from that of being an athlete myself.
I find myself engaged in real and imaginary vitriolic exchanges with people — including my friends — about college and pro football. I can’t deny this trigger within me, where a TV sporting event can and does conjure up intense negative emotion, which I can’t turn off. Jerseys become an object of my own emotional projections or, as Jerry Seinfeld once observed, laundry I am rooting for.
And when my team does lose, I rationalize it by finding alternative ways that it is — and, by extension, I am — superior. When Ohio State beats Michigan — which has happened a lot lately — my first thought is not simply disappointment or grumpiness but an overwhelming desire to find some way, any way, to insult the opposing fan base, regardless of how little it has to do with the game played on the field. Though at my lesser moments I may not care to admit it, the relative academic rankings of the rival schools really have close to nothing to do with what happens on a football field in late November.
Not infrequently, however, I also find myself angry, frustrated, and just plain mean when rooting for — and especially against — teams even in sports that I don’t usually follow. Watching the Red Sox lose to the Yankees in the 2003 American League Championship Series is understandably emotional, but the 2012 Ryder Cup? I probably don’t watch more than an hour of golf in a year, and yet I found myself despairing angrily as the US team choked away the title.
Obviously I’m not the only person to succumb to these tendencies. Examples abound from the offbeat and sad, like the poisoning of special trees at Auburn by a disturbed Alabama fan, to fan injuries and even deaths resulting from fights at sporting matches here and abroad. In the past, when I had no connection to these teams or leagues, I might shake my head and softly laugh at “crazy SEC fans” or “football hooligans,” for those folks are clearly unhinged and not like me. The truth, however, is that I see the roots of some of these disturbing outcomes in my own emotional reactions to events.
Yet being a good sport is becoming increasingly difficult. While there have always been unruly fans, today’s ever-expanding “sports-industry complex” is making matters worse.
Earl Warren, the former chief justice, famously declared that he read the sports pages before the news in order to read of man’s accomplishments before his failures. Modern sports media, though, thrives on missteps and shortfalls. Controversy brings millions of viewers to television channels like ESPN and thousands of hits to sports websites. Twenty-four hours a day, the most intense fans can weigh in, stoking a never-ending flame war (see James, LeBron) of comments by haters, trolls, and other unpleasant web denizens.
For live events, team owners face a delicate balance of taking money from the most rabid fans while ensuring they don’t cross the line into family-unfriendly territory. NFL ads focus on excited fans anxiously watching a last-minute play, cheering a win, or heartbroken over a loss. The angry fan exploding never appears — though it is often not hard to find him at the game. Like the alcohol industry, sports teams probably don’t want to enable people whose addiction has gotten out of control. Yet the reality remains it’s those individuals filling their coffers, leaving little incentive to keep sports civil.
What’s comforting, though, is how different my experience as a fan is from that of being an athlete myself. Thinking again of my son, I want him to know the fun and satisfaction I feel when I shoot hoops or throw around the football in the backyard. When I play, almost all of my aggression and emotion is directed toward the physical activity. Sure, I may get into it with someone who calls touch fouls (or dishes out inappropriately hard ones) in a pick-up game. Yet, more often than not, in the exhaustion I feel at the end, I shake hands with my competition and look forward to playing again.
And that’s what I want to teach my son about being a fan, too. To respect those who choose to root against his interests, to imagine being the person in the other laundry. I’m going to start by reminding myself of that goal every day as I head back over to the Eagles/Michigan blogs I read obsessively. I can’t stop being a fan, but hopefully I can be a better one.