Why Supporting a Team isn't Like Choosing a Washing Machine

Once you have made something your goal, it comes to have a special importance for you, but not for those who lack it, in a way it didn’t before. So it is with supporting a team. Once you become a fan, the success of the team becomes one of your projects—and to that extent, I would say, there is nothing irrational in your partisanship.

Dr. David Papineau on the rationality in being a fan. It’s rational but not in the way you think.

This article was originally published on Dr. Papineau's blog More Important Than That. You can find that article here.

On Supporting a Team

Sports FreakWhen I announced on Facebook that I’ll soon be spending some time in New York, I added that I’ll probably become a Yankees fan. This prompted an email from Alva Noë. ‘There is something you need to know. All decent, true, right-thinking, generous, progressive, beautiful people from New York are Mets fans. We repudiate the Yankees and everything they stand for . . . the Yankees are to New York as the Republican Party is to America—Loud, Rich, All-Too-Victorious, and Very Very Bad.  I implore you, do not turn toward the Dark Side up there in the Bronx, but open yourself to the Light in Queens, the hapless, loveable, Mets.’

Well, I thanked Alva for the information, and expressed sympathy with his sentiments. But his email didn’t do the trick. Not that I disbelieved what he said. But this didn’t turn me into a Mets fan, or even rule out becoming a Yankees one.

This set me wondering. What makes you a fan, beyond appreciating the objective merits of a team? On reflection the answer is obvious enough. Fans are partisan. They attach more importance to the success of their sides than is warranted by their real virtues—or lack thereof, in cases like the Yankees.

Putting it like this, we might wonder whether supporting a team is fully rational. How can fans sensibly suppose that it is important for their side to win, even when there is no objective basis for their favouritism? Sometimes fans pray for their team’s victory. What can they be thinking? Why should an all-wise God, who presumably dispenses reward in proportion to genuine desert, attach any weight to their partisan enthusiasms?

Still, before we condemn fandom to the dustbin of irrationality, it’s worth noting that this kind of partisanship runs deep through human life. I am devoted to the welfare of my two wonderful children, but I am not so blind as to think that in the greater scheme of things they are more deserving than everybody else’s offspring. I am ready to do things for my friends that I wouldn’t dream of doing for equally worthy strangers. I am delighted when my Department trounces others in the league tables, for no other reason than that I am in it. And so on.

This kind of thing may be rife, but there remains something puzzling about it. If everyone’s children are equally valuable, then how can it be right to think that my own are more important? More generally, how can there be ‘agent-relative values’, things that are valuable for some people but not others? Philosophers working in ‘value theory’ take this question seriously and offer various answers. The one that I like best appeals to the importance of projects.

Humans are distinguished by their ambitions. Where other animals live in the moment, we humans give meaning to our lives by adopting long-term goals and working to achieve them. We care about our families, countries, villages, schools, reputations, careers, houses and gardens.  Some of these are individual projects, while others are collective. But what they have in common is that they create agent-relative values. Once you have made something your goal, it comes to have a special importance for you, but not for those who lack it, in a way it didn’t before. So it is with supporting a team. Once you become a fan, the success of the team becomes one of your projects—and to that extent, I would say, there is nothing irrational in your partisanship.

Does it have to be such a big deal? How much of a project is it to check your team’s scores on the Sunday sports pages? But it is not hard to discern ambitions and plans in ordinary fandom. For a couple of years my son Louis and I had tickets at the Emirates. I am no Arsenal supporter (I remember ‘boring Arsenal’ from the 1970s), but Louis and his friends very much are. In the pub before the game, the conversation went like this. ‘How do you think we’ll do today?’ ‘I hope we’re not playing Chamakh.’ ‘Yeah, we badly need another striker.’ My silence was awkward, but I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘we’. Once I tried to join in and started by saying ‘Arsenal will . . .’ The whole pub turned to look at me.

Sports fans aspire to shape the destiny of their teams. They think about strategy and team selection, and they do what they can to make their views known. They debate with other fans, contribute to websites and phone-ins, and scream encouragement and advice during games, even if they are only watching on television. They may have no real influence, of course, but that doesn’t stop them feeling involved.

Can’t you root for a team or player even if you haven’t adopted them as a project? Certainly. You can want them to win because they deserve to, not because you follow them. I had no axe to grind when Muhammad Ali recaptured his stolen title in the jungle, or when Usain Bolt joyfully ran away from the field in the 2008 Olympic 100 metres. I was delighted simply because excellence had prevailed. Any right-thinking person would have felt the same. 

I am not saying that it is terribly difficult to start supporting a team. It’s just that it demands more than an impartial approval of the team’s merits. You need to sign up to the mission. You need to add a new commitment to the other projects that define your life. I’m not sure that there any rules about how we acquire our projects. Many of them come with growing up. Later in life we lose old ones and find new ones. It depends on what interests and attracts us, on where and how we live, on who we hang out with. We’ll see how it goes in New York. I’d like to have a baseball team. Maybe Alva will succeed in hooking me up with the Mets.

Let me finish with a story I was told by Tony Marcel that illustrates the contingency of sporting affiliations. ‘My cousin and I were at my mother’s bedside when she was in a seemingly terminal coma shortly before her death. We fell to discussing when we had become Arsenal supporters. I remembered a photo of me at about three in an Arsenal strip, and wondered if it was a present from a family member. Suddenly, without opening her eyes, my mother said, “No, your uncle’s friend Peter gave it to you to spite us. We were all Spurs supporters.” Apart from amazement at my mother's capacity, this has caused a continuing identity crisis for me.’

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