I was talking with a friend recently, and I decided that her sister’s new boyfriend—who I’ve never met—is a bad person. I only know one thing about him, but it’s enough: he has always lived in Oklahoma, but claims to be a New England Patriots fan.
For me, the Super Bowl is a time of reflection. After my team gets eliminated, the NFL playoffs lead me to ponder the meaning of sorrow, loyalty, and loss. This year I’ve been lucky so far: my Denver Broncos are in the Super Bowl for the first time in fifteen years. I’ve suffered a lot for them in the meantime. Just last year a playoff loss to the Ravens left me a whimpering mess—I spent the rest of the night eating Oreos and staring blankly into the darkness. When I was in fourth grade, a playoff loss to the Jaguars literally left me in tears.
And that leads me back to why this Oklahoma Patriots fan is a bad person. The way people pick their sports teams is a litmus test for the rest of their lives. At the risk of misappropriating CS Lewis, sports fandom is an allegory of love.
There are two types of fans. The Oklahoma Patriots type is the bandwagoner. For them, the central focus of fandom is getting the most for themselves. They choose the team that gives them the most gratification at the moment, and have no loyalty beyond what’s happening now. I get the feeling that if the Patriots become bad in five years, our Oklahoma friend will abandon them for a newer and sleeker team. After all, the relationship is all about meeting his needs, so it’s perform or be abandoned.
Then there are the true fans. For them, fandom is an act of sacrificial love. They give their love unconditionally, no matter how they feel at the moment. They forgo the temptation of instant gratification for the sake of honoring a commitment. They learn that love is an act of the will more than a response to feelings, and that sometimes we need to love things even when they are not worthy of love. A true fan will stay with his team for heartbreak after heartbreak, without thinking of abandoning them.
As is often the case, GK Chesterton said it best. In Heretics, he chastises Rudyard Kipling for only loving England because of England’s greatness: “The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack of patriotism–that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.”
Our Oklahoma friend admires the Patriots because of their wins, their coach, and their quarterback. But he does not love them. True fans love without reasons, and attach themselves to their team “finally and tragically.” I’m looking at you, Cleveland Browns fans. These are the sort of folks who love their team not because it is great, or successful, or even competent. They love it because it is theirs.
In the larger scheme of things, sports are of trifling importance. But even trifles can be revealing if we view them the right way. Sports love may be a lower love, but it’s still love. And if the Oklahoma Patriot fails on this basic test, how can we expect him to succeed on loves that actually matter? It’s like parents deciding their child is mature enough to own a dog, even though he just killed the goldfish.
Maybe someday I’ll meet this Patriots fan and change my mind about him. But until then, I’ll judge him from a distance. For those of you who are fans of teams not in the Super Bowl, you have my sincere condolences. Believe me, if the Super Bowl goes poorly, I’ll know your pain.