In Mild Praise of Professional Sports Fandom (A Summation)

In Mild Praise of Professional Sports Fandom (A Summation) October 28, 2019

Just this Weekend: Fandom is Fun 

Just this weekend my adult children (including a son-in-law), some of their friends, and my brother gathered to watch the World Series. My brother has the misfortune of being a Nat’s fan and so, in this otherwise Houston room, came in for a good bit of chaff. Dear Old Dan gave as good as he got by pointing out that he was loyal to our roots, hundreds of years of Reynolds’ life in old Virginia.

We played the Altuve Polka and he blasted some Baby Shark. My classically trained musician wife retreated momentarily, but came back #houstonstrong in her ‘Stros jersey, purchased for almost nothing on EBay. The discussion ranged from the Star Wars franchise to Solomon son of David and the jinn. The most heated discussion was on the merits of Last Jedi and there Daniel was with the majority. I shan’t say what that majority was as this discussion is about sports and not religion.

The game drew us together and was the background to jolly fun that cost us the price of a dinner we would have eaten in any case. Thank you Major League Baseball. We did not contribute to the bottom line, but we had much jollification.

Against this background  came a warning, either prophetic or merely puckish, that professional sports fandom is immoral and dangerous.  My social media feed is diverse, often brilliant, and one of the most interesting critics is Steve Baughman, lawyer, merciless foe of bad apologetics, and constant student. He did me the honor of putting his case succinctly, I responded in detail and much less concisely, and he responded with a modified argument supporting his original worries. Whatever else is true, this is proof that dialogue is possible and discussion, not invective, is the answer. The dialectic must rule for the good of the Republic and because making new friends on the way is jolly!

Is professional sports fandom training us for conflict or is it, most providentially, a harmless piece of merriment?

The Utter Usefulness of the Trivial (Correctly Used)

To stand before Michelangelo’s David was more than my mind and limited artistic knowledge could stand. This matters. My life was changed reading Plato’s Republic in a dialectic environment and my soul and mind were illuminated by a brilliant sermon on The Revelation by my dad. During a very hard time in my life, my heart was given rest while I was sitting with my brother and a dear friend in old Silver Stadium watching the Rochester Red Wings.

One of these things is not like the other: nobody ever confused Silver Stadium, long gone, with art and that era of Rochester AAA baseball was not called the Dead Wings for nothing. That game was not art, high culture, or in the most beautiful of physical locations, but the very lightness of the moment, with some beautiful play by the other team, made some healing possible to my battered soul. I was at the bottom and was a bit, just a bit, better at the end of the game.

Mayhap this could have been done elsewhere, but it was there.

Sometimes our souls are not up to Bach, Shakespeare, or Saint Paul. We need fellowship and friendship, merriment that distracts just enough for good conversation, and professional sports provides this. The incredible lightness of fandom: caring passionately without having to care seriously is cathartic. Naturally, as with all merriment, there are folk who miss the point that it is just a game and take it all too seriously. The man who buys the Packers crockpot may be having some fun or he may have gone too far. Who am I to judge?

Yet this very lightness is the thing that disturbs my interlocutor. To his great credit, Mr. Baughman, thoughtful man, is (perhaps) worried less by fandom than he was at the start of our discussion, but he is still very worried. He says:

What I would like to see him do is direct more firepower to my claim that the irrationality of which I complain resides precisely in caring so much about these trivial, arbitrary and banal things. That is the heart of my concern!

Reynolds does acknowledge that everybody knows it is “just a game.” But that seems to me platitudinous. Why do the “just a game” folks scream so loudly, bite their nails, get angry at the umpires, experience elevated pulses, euphoria, sadness, and rejoice with intense vigor despite the palpable disappointment of some young man who really really wanted to be a hero (with his mother likely watching) striking out to lose the game? This does not sound to me like “just a game.“

All of this is quite true, but Baughman draws the wrong conclusion from the experience. Leave aside the mentally unstable or those given to excess in any cathartic activity (the Star Wars fan who threatens anyone who tolerates the prequels or the opera aficionado who gets violent over the choice of tenors for a show) and note that the fact that the professional sports fans will  “bite their nails, get angry at umpires, experience elevated pulses, euphoria, sadness, and rejoice” is just one great good done by professional sports fandom.

People care. They care a great deal.

Marvelous! Wonderful! What a safe, cathartic release of energy!

The fan sits with his friends and releases passions that otherwise might remain bottled up in a manner harmless to the community, but conducive to friendships in the stands. They bond over pulling for the Packers, the Astros, or even the Red Wings, and in the merriment, passionate merriment, good is done.

What good?

There is a release of energy: an exhalation in exaltation of emotions that might otherwise fester. The fan knows that “we” did not win the game or lose, but the passion can be dumped in this (fairly) meaningless activity and so not show up at work, home, or in politics. Aristotle called it catharsis, the impact of drama, and modern sport (think global soccer!) has perfected the cure. Imagine the good done by the World Cup. Better England rooting for the Three Lions (with the best sports song ever) than the Somme after all. Some day, maybe soon, football will come home to England and the merriment will be grand.

It’s just a game, thank God. Nobody dies and we get our competitive energy discharged. “It’s just a game” is so true that it is a platitude.

Platitudes become platitudes because they are so widely acknowledged. One should not repeat them too much, or risk becoming a bore, but when they are challenged, as Baughman has done, then we must remind our friend of the simplest truth: it is just a game. Baughman sees danger in Papaw taking his grandson to Lambeau as his grandfather did for him, and his grandfather did for his grandfather. Evidently we should worry, because Papaw will care intensely about the game and wish to beat the Bears and will pass that passion on to his junior as has been done in Wisconsin for one hundred years. Not once in all that time has any war broken out between Green Bay and Chicago.

This is plainly “irrational” Baughman says, but it is not.  Fandom, as fandom,  is merely “not rational”, not irrational and that distinction makes all the differenceMy reason sometimes says, quite reasonably, to my passions “have a go” and so good is done by the passions in passionate situations: moon lit beeches with the beloved are not generally for the analytic. It is reasonable to be passionate for just a bit, the job reason needs done gets done by passion . . .sometimes in the sublime moment of romance, sometimes in the simple jollification of a sporting event.

We must never reject reason, irrationality is wrong. Yet reason herself, Wisdom on the streets, recognizes that men are passionate and the passions, as Plato would say, are monstrous unbridled. Reason then provides safe and sane releases for human passions. Surely the fandoms, including professional sports, but also my fellow BuffyStar Trek, Star Wars, and D&D fans know the purpose.

We go to Cons, stadiums, enjoy the not-so-important and so are better able to live rational lives.

Couldn’t Something Else Do the Same? 

Mr Baughman acknowledges the good things that happen as a result of sports, but argues this is incidental and anything, even bad things,  could do the same. Irrational and dangerous activities can do some good, but any fandom could do as much:

Passions-in-common, even irrational and dangerous ones . . ., can do good stuff. So I consider Reynolds’ point about the positives of pro-sports fandom not very relevant to the issue in play here.

As we have seen, Baughman is wrong:  fandom is not irrational, merely not-rational, and in the hands of a rational person, the planned not-rational time is an excellent moment to find emotional release, catharsis, or healing for the soul. As any Boston Red Sox fan knows, even losing, almost a century of losing, can be interesting, even emotionally useful, if not taken too seriously. Red Sox fans, people I know, found solidarity in the hapless struggle of their favorite team to finally win it all.

Fandom is not dangerous by nature unless we take the dubious notion that “us versus them” activities in a game are always fatally dangerous. Any competitive game, becomes “sport” and those best at the sport will wish to get paid or receive some honor (ribbons, awards, social cachet). The professional is created and no harm is done, because some of life is “us versus them” and so we learn how to handle such situations with good sportsmanship

Professional sport is (nearly) unavoidable in a healthy advanced civilization. We turn our “us/them” into sporting events where we can learn sportsmanship and release dangerous passions.

Imagine for a moment a Utopia where “win/lose” is not necessary and everyone in every situation can be a winner if we are just cooperative or nice enough. Assume it, even if you find it hard to believe! If such a place could exist, professional us/them sports would still have a good purpose. Sports would act as a release to the instinct, deeply rooted  in the human race, of competition. The man who roots for the Packers need not hate the Germans to meet his emotional needs.

Maybe, but Baughman still worries.

On Caring Who Wins and Music as Better, but Beating the Other (in Sports) as a School for Souls 

Some of our merriments are competitive, some are not. The ones that are not teach us such social goods as “harmony.” Baughman is concerned about those that are not harmonious. Baughman rightly notes that sports are about winning, while music concerts are not:

Reynolds mentions music as analogous to sports fandom. His point, I take it, is that since nobody complains about all the passion we feel for music, why be uptight about sports? Well, because nobody cares who wins the symphony. Nor do the violins cheer when the cello breaks a string.

This was not my point, but let that go. All praise to those social activities that promote harmony, more please, but (sadly?) not every social interaction is win-win. Sometimes one set of ideas must “defeat” another set, because they are logically incompatible. This requires competition and this competition has winners and “losers.” If this is so, then sporting events might train the soul for the bigger fights to come. Why?

The Chiefs lost to the Packers in Super Bowl I, but lived and learned to come back and win Super Bowl IV. Sporting losses are wonderful models, because they are not final. As I write, the Packers are, once again, beating the Chiefs, but this win is also not final and professional fans know this. The day will come when the star quarterback of the Packers will retire and the tide will turn.

Sports are a marvelous example of how to win or lose so as to be able to engage another day.

Baughman, I suspect, would not agree. Professional sports does not lead to social harmony and that is his highest good:

All things being equal, social movements that focus on defeating out-groups are less conducive to cultivating values that promote social harmony than groups that do not have such a competitive focus.

He continues:

Let us take this now into life outside the stadium. Which population is more prone to hostility towards out-groups, the one that has cultivated cooperative values with a win-win focus (like art, music, and various non-competitive sports like those once popular amongst Australian), or the one that seeks and rejoices in the defeat of opponents?

This is not entirely wrong, just mostly wrong. There is, of course, a great need to teach harmony. We need more music, much more. I was happy last week when Packer fans stayed after the game to listen to band music. Sports promoted music and the music was, if they stopped to think, more enduring than any achievement on the football field. Sousa will be played when Favre is forgotten.

Sometimes life is competitive, not every situation is win/win. This is where the sportsmanship of the games, games with penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, is so important. Green Bay wishes to win, but not by cheating. Our professional games punish cheaters, even if imperfectly. Pete Rose is an all time great baseball player, but he gambled on baseball and so he is “out.” This is a most excellent lesson to us all . . . as is every record marked with an asterisk due to steroid or substance use.

When Chiefs fans tonight applauded a Packer player, injured but able to walk off the field, these fans enforce a norm we will need in more important parts of life. When fans mess up and are called out for it, then another good lesson is learned.

The trivial (sport) prepares us for the vital (family, work, church,). Applauding the injured player on the other team is moral practice for helping the hurting “foe” who wants our job in the office, but falls on hard times. God help us if the first time we get to practice showing compassion to “them,” our erstwhile foes, is when it really matters. 

Professional sports are a school for souls or can be. Sports do not matter in themselves, but we create meaning to allow for catharsis. God bless professional sports fandom.



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