In Defense of Sports Fandom

I will never understand marathon runners and triathletes. I run only when chased, and, as Rodney Dangerfield said, when I die, I’m donating my body to science fiction. 

But it’s indisputable that the mortification of the flesh in which these skinny people engage can have tremendous benefits. It is an arbitrary passion, but for many, an essential one. I know lots of people for whom their happy existence, productive work, fulfilling family lives, sobriety, and more are arranged around the centerpiece of some kind of exertion that I find appalling. Thank God for it. 

Arranging our passions is hard work. For most of us, it is the work of a lifetime. What the philosophers of antiquity called the “chest” was the space between our heads and our guts where we put things in the right places. As modern philosopher C.S. Lewis put it, the deconstructed anomie of our world creates “men without chests”—people unable to arrange their passions. Without belief in powers universal and transcendent and the understanding of natural law that such beliefs demand, how shall we choose our priorities?

All people worship. What Blaise Pascal called the “God-shaped void” in all of us is a demand as potent as hunger and thirst. If we deny that truth, we allow our worship to be haphazard and hidden from ourselves. We pretend that our idols are simply correct, scientific, obvious, and necessary. The reason I crisscross the country continually, always talking, always writing, always exhausted isn’t because I’ve made an idol of my vocational success, but because it’s important … right

One of the advantages for people of faith is that if we allow even the slightest idea of God to creep into our thinking, our selfishness is quickly exposed. The petty idols I can construct wither in the face of the maker of the universe, and I am reminded, however briefly, to turn my face toward wholesome, eternal things. If I can first acknowledge my worship, I can then direct it. I can arrange my passions. 

Which, of course, brings us to college football. 

Communication is the superpower of our species. Our ability to communicate complicated, aspirational concepts to people we have not, nor ever will, meet is amazing. Drive through any port city and look at those containers stacked high on vessels sailing around the world. People who have never laid eyes on each other, who do not speak the same language, who do not agree even on basic concepts of existence are able to produce, ship, and sell cars, computers, and carrots with each other. Our capacity to communicate complex ideas and continually make new coalitions is how we have vaccines, drones that repulse Russian invaders, and tacos placed on my doorstep 20 minutes after I got a bit peckish. 

But we have excess capacity on the coalition-building front. So powerful is the impulse to join with our fellow humans in the work of choosing our passions that if we deny it, it will emerge in unwholesome ways. Our desire to be in communion with others is closely related to our need for worship. Indeed, the way believers best know and worship God is through our relations with and service to others. If we do not acknowledge it and give it its proper place in our chests, we will submit to it without ever speaking its name. 

So how shall we organize passions so potent as our desire for belonging? We know what happens to such passions when disordered. Mobs have been manifestations of misdirected passion since long before history. Hatred for strangers. Cruelty for those different from us. The abrogation of our judgment. The dereliction of our duty to our fellow humans. 

Unless they’re Pitt fans, then it’s okay. 

I kid, I kid … mostly. The strong attachments I have to my preferred sports teams, particularly the West Virginia University Mountaineers and the St. Louis Cardinals, are, frankly, stupid. I don’t know any of the players, many of whom play for the teams I love by accident of draft order or recruitment. I own no part of their successes. I’m just a guy in the stands or watching TV and buying overpriced T-shirts. But it is sincere. And it does connect me with my fellow children of God. 

Certainly it also produces strong antipathies. If you asked me whether I’d rather have a chocolate bar or watch the Cubs lose, it wouldn’t even be close. But I also know that the rivalries I am irrationally attached to are not really cosequential. I can meet and know people who root for Chicago’s National League team, the University of Texas (horns down), or, Heaven help me, the University of Pittsburgh, and love them as my countrymen and countrywomen and humans. 

These are, therefore, superior to the passions and attachments of politics in our time. The negative partisanship that now poisons the tree of liberty at its roots tells those whom it has intoxicated that people different from them are not just wrong, but wicked. They are not mistaken, they are evil. Putting politics where faith should be produces the same zealous hatreds but almost none of the succor of the community of believers. Shared hatred is small beer when it comes to ordering a life. 

Unlike politics, though, the arbitrary passions of sports are easily enough turned away. This is sadly not true for everyone. There are too many people for whom the useful distraction of sports becomes an obsession with destructive results: gambling, fighting, etc. But for most, game day is a healthy expression of belonging and lightly worn rivalry. Americans often marry people who root for opposing teams, but seldom people from other political parties. 

Sports fandom does not offer a complete way of being or worldview that the fraudulent populism of our time promises. It is wonderful for my preferred teams to beat the Brewers or the Hokies, but it is not a way of living. Especially when political ambition exploits the power of religion itself, it offers an almost irresistible cocktail of both meaning and hate. Sports enthusiasm offers only the latter, and in, pray God, digestible doses. One passion is a relief, one is a burden. 

People need many passions in their lives, but wouldn’t it be very fine indeed if people felt about the members of other parties as I do about Pitt fans. Well, maybe not Pitt …

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