Sports: Loyalty vs. Rationality

In today's Boston Globe, Samuel Arbesman argues that being a hard-core fan is less rational than being a fair-weathered one. His rationale is rather involved, so I'm going to quote at length from the piece:

To understand why fair-weather fandom makes more sense, we'll need to apply a bit of logic, classical philosophy, and reason. ...

Very much back in the day, Theseus was the mythical king of Athens. And among his many possessions, he had a ship that he used to return from slaying the Minotaur. After his death, this ship was preserved for hundreds of years in the harbor of Athens. Or was it? Whenever a wooden plank rotted out, it was replaced. If a beam fell apart, a new one was fashioned in its stead. After enough time had passed, every part had been replaced. So now it was a boat that looked very much like the ship of Theseus, and occupied the same spot in the harbor, but not a single piece of it had existed when Theseus sailed. Essentially, it was a replica. And yet people persisted in referring to this ship as the ship of Theseus. In philosophy, this problem of identity has become known as the Ship of Theseus paradox.

To make the analogy abundantly clear: sports teams change from year to year. These days, they change a lot. You might hold a great attachment to the 2004 Red Sox World Series champions, but only around 10 percent of this year's roster consists of players from that team (actual fact!). And if you have been rooting for the Sox for more than 14 years, you're rooting for a fully replaced team - different players are playing the game, different owners get your ticket money. You can see why this is an absurdity. It is in no way the same team, and you are rooting for it out of inertia. You might as well root for any totally different team - the Oakland A's, the Tokyo Giants.

In other words, because teams change players over time, they have no real identity. Without some measure of constancy in the roster, attaching oneself emotionally to a team is absurd.

This argument rests on the following assumption: a team is merely a collection of players. It is not a proxy for our feelings of civic loyalty and regional identification, or other feelings. However, this assumption is misguided. There are many reasons to root for a team, and one of the primary ones is because they are local, they are tied to your city and community.

This is illustrated later in the piece, when Arbesman marvels at how sports fans feel about identical teams switching cities. When the Baltimore Colts headed for Indianapolis, most Baltimore fans felt betrayed. To Arbesman, they should feel loyalty to the departing players. But if a team is a proxy for the community, departing it IS an act of betrayal. Teams, like trees, put down roots in communities. Sometimes these are in the relations they form, like the Red Sox - Jimmy Fund partnership, but more often they are in the feelings of identification that local fans develop to the team. Severing those ties is painful, as embittered Baltimore fans will tell you.

Continuing with his faulty premise, Arbesman asserts that fair-weather fandom is the only rational choice:

So essentially, to say you are a "real" sports fan - the kind of red-blooded American who lives and dies for your team - is to admit that you throw your heart and soul behind a constantly shifting amorphous blob that has no persistent identity. And those fair-weather fans you look down on? They're the rational ones. It's time they got some credit. Think about it: They get to root for teams when it's actually fun, sampling disappointment only as often as they like. They get to choose teams based on color scheme, or mascot. The sky's the limit.

I find this argument hard to take seriously, for a couple reasons. Choosing teams on color and mascot hardly fits into the author's theme of rational philosophical decisions, especially since colors and mascots are also impermanent. A better rationale would be to choose teams because they are currently dominant and will provide the fan with a satisfying experience. Moreover, Arbesman describes himself as "a long-time fan of the Buffalo Bills," which makes me think the whole argument is in jest and insincere.

The reality is that fandom, like love or religion, is largely an irrational choice. There are certainly rational arguments that guide to and away from teams, lovers or religions, but in many cases we are swayed by emotional factors. Some of us associate our sports affiliations with family - harboring fond memories of watching the Red Sox with our parents or relatives. Some of us link it to the community, whether Boston was our birthplace, our college town, or our adopted city. Some of us may have started as bandwagoners, watching a good team at its height of popularity, but have formed a more lasting connection to it.

Fair-weather fandom isn't a more fun choice because part of the fun of sports is in the emotional connections we form. The triumphs are sweeter (and the troughs more depressing) when you feel emotionally invested in the team. When you don't, it's easy to leave when they're down 5-0 in the botttom of the 9th with one out, but then you'll miss the spectacular 6-run comeback.

It is in human nature to form emotional connections, to fall in love, logic and rationale be damned. Rail against emotion all you like, Mr. Arbesman, but as you readily admit ("long-time fan"), none of us are above it.

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