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The Unexpected Virtue of Arbitrary Sports Allegiances

December 3rd, 2019 | 9 min read

By Kyle Keating

I live in a baseball town. I know this because in the fall of 2011, I found myself in a divey pizza joint with a bunch of other transplants from other parts of the country watching one of the most dramatic comebacks in World Series history, cheering for the team that I’d spent most of my life despising. Was I a traitor? A hero? Or something else entirely?

St. Louis has always been a baseball town, but the allegiance has solidified over the years with the combined success of the Cardinals and the betrayal of other teams and owners who have uprooted and left the city in the lurch. St. Louisians talk about “the Cardinal way” as if it is a sort of way of life—an ethic not just for the athletes that compete on the diamond, but also for every true fan and St. Louisian. On opening day, everyone at my school dons red. Playoff baseball creates a city-wide holiday. My only problem: I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. 

Most St. Louisians would protest the idea that their sports allegiances are arbitrary. They have reasons for why they cheer for the Cardinals. Have you seen all the world series banners? Have you visited the stadium with its view of the Arch? Do you know the tradition? Stan Musial? Ozzie Smith? Albert Pujols? (Wait—is he part of the tradition? Have we forgiven him for leaving yet?) In each of the rationalizations there is a subtle suggestion: it is right to be a Cardinals fan. It is this implicit moral element of fandom that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

The problem is that other teams have good reasons for why they are right too. Other teams have won world series besides the Cardinals—some, ehem, even more recently. Some stadiums have rich history and are built into cozy neighborhoods. Have you heard of Ernie Banks? Ryne Sandberg? Sammy Sosa? (Wait—is he part of the tradition? Have we forgiven him for using PEDs yet?). Every fanbase has justifications for the moral superiority of their team. These reasons are arbitrary as they are legitimate.

The Unsurprising Vice of Arbitrary Sports Allegiances

Arbitrary sports allegiances can produce all sorts of vices. Perhaps the one that presents itself most obviously comes in the picture of the fan who has built his entire life around the team. Nothing else can be scheduled during games. The man-cave must be defended against all would-be invaders, especially spouses or children.

For our super-fan, sports function as a way of escape from the monotony of life, a source of meaning and belonging in the midst of the rat race. Kids being difficult? Marriage is hard? Job feels tedious? There’s a game on Saturday morning and the perpetual optimism of your arbitrary allegiance is here to hold out hope that you might actually have a good day. Of course, your team might lose and the whole day be ruined, but what’s the point of dwelling on that?

In order to justify our arbitrary allegiances, we build narratives that make sense of why the other team is inferior, its fans morally suspect. Fans of the Yankees, Lakers, and Alabama football are entitled. Golden State Warriors fans are bandwagoners. The Patriots? Well the narrative writes itself. In most cases, these are post hoc rationalizations of an intuitive dislike for the other team—an intuition that is drawn from our understanding that to be a true fan of one team is by definition to dislike another. Arsenal fans despise Tottenham. And vice-versa. At its worst, the tribalism created by sports allegiances leads to violence as fans incite one another, creating a toxic cocktail of natural vice and irrational zeal.

So what should we do with this toxic mess? One proposal: we could dilute it. We could temper our love, moderating it, adding a bit more reason and perspective. After all we wouldn’t want to make an idol of our sports allegiances. If we had a let less zeal, a little more of the sensibility of the neutral, we’d be able to see that the call by the referee was actually technically in line with the rules, that our team might have deserved to lose, or that the other team may actually possess some decent, and maybe even good, players.

All of this seems sensible. Wouldn’t sports fandoms be better with a little less hysteria, a little less in-the-heat-of-the-moment narrative construction, and a little more sanity? We should take the via media—a little bit of passion, but not so much that things get serious. Sports aren’t bad, they’re only bad when they become idolatrous, when we love them too much.

The Unexpected Virtue of Arbitrary Sports Allegiances

But what if the loving our sports teams too much is actually what makes it good? In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a somewhat similar argument about our general posture toward the world. He uses the London neighborhood of Pimlico to make his point, but for our purposes I will replace Pimlico with an arbitrary sports allegiance of my own, Arsenal Football Club, a Premier League soccer team from north London:

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Arsenal. If we think what is really best for Arsenal we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Arsenal; in that case he will merely cut his throat or [cheer for] Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Arsenal; for then it will remain Arsenal, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Arsenal; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Arsenal, then Arsenal would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Arsenal as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Arsenal in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

Chesterton’s argues that the very arbitrariness of our love for a thing makes it lovable and imbues it with value. If we love our team because they win, what will that mean for our love when they inevitably reach a season of drought? We look down on fair-weather fans and extol loyalty to the team because we recognize that switching allegiances based on something as fickle as success means we will be switching allegiances frequently. And if we are trading teams every season or two, our level of commitment to any one place becomes shallow. 

If we love our team merely as they are, we will never understand the irrational optimism it takes to break out the Sharpies and make the sign “Maybe Next Year.” One of the beauties of sports is that the hope for change is built into its economics. Teams can’t simply be content being terrible, offering no hope to their fans, tanking merely to save money or cut costs.

Even in seasons of drought, GMs exhort their fans to “trust the process”—which is another way of saying: hope. Can teams and management betray that hope? Of course, they do all the time, whether by cynical PR stunts or sheer incompetence. But those who betray the trust and arbitrary love of their fans don’t tend to last long.

We are inclined to justify our love for our team by giving reasons, but what if reasons actually undermine the virtue of our sports allegiances? What if the reasons are actually the things that make us unduly tribalistic, combative, or self-righteous? What if by embracing the arbitrariness of our allegiance we come to discover that it isn’t so much that we cheer for our team because they are objectively better, but that our team is made better by our allegiance. 

It is worth noting here that the arbitrariness of this allegiance is not absolute. I’m not arguing for a sort of irrational fideism that checks all principles at the door. Being a Cubs fan doesn’t mean condoning the performance enhancing drugs that in all probability powered Sammy Sosa’s home run surge. It doesn’t mean cheering for your opponents injuries, or hurling racial abuse at players. Rather, it is a principled loyalty that recognizes that relative arbitrariness of one’s loyalty, while at the same time loving your team and its fans enough to recognize when they are wrong. You and I can have different objects of love while agreeing on basic norms that make a thing lovable in the first place.

But why should anyone care about something as trivial as making a sports team better? What does our allegiance to a sports team actually produce? It produces the very thing that makes sports so attractive and powerful: community. By becoming a loyal, true fan of our team we enter a community—a community tied to a particular place, with a particular history, and set of traditions.

After all, as Chesterton points out, one of the most fundamental communities in society—the family—is bound by this same arbitrariness. Mothers love their children because they are theirs, not because there in some quality in the child vis-a-vis other children that make them more valuable. Belonging to such a community, whether a family, a fandom, or even the church, reminds us that the world is bigger than ourselves. It calls us out of ourselves, drawing us to build our identity not around our inner feelings (what Chesterton describes as the inner light) but on some greater loyalty to a thing outside ourselves. 

The whole argument is that the irrational, arbitrary love we see in sports is actually the foundation of community itself—and a pointer toward the arbitrary, irrational love of Christ for us which forms the basis for the existence of the community of the church. In this way, sports can tap into our deepest religious impulse. Could this lead to idolatry? To worshipping the created rather than the creator? Yes. But abusus non tollit usum.

What if by stirring our deepest impulses to arbitrary allegiance it draws us to an arbitrary for love the world that God has created, thereby drawing our eyes up to the one who created it, as it did for Chesterton? And to extend the point even further, if we love our team irrationally, perhaps we will be able to love our city just as irrationally, and perhaps then, even our neighbor. 

The hard thing about deep, irrational, arbitrary sports allegiances is that they don’t change easily. Nine years as a St. Louisian hasn’t changed by my loyalty to the Cubs (it hasn’t hurt that in the past few years the Cubs have started to catch up to the Cardinals in the standings). But it has planted a seed of sympathy for the Cardinals. My irrational and arbitrary love for this city means that if they are in the playoffs (and they aren’t playing the Cubs) you might find me—for just a moment—caught up in the excitement of the city, cheering for those blasted Cards.

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