Packer Fandom as a School for Souls (A Defense of Some Sorts of Fandom Contra a Critic)

Packer Fandom as a School for Souls (A Defense of Some Sorts of Fandom Contra a Critic) October 21, 2019

Being a Packer Fan Has Been Very, Very Good for Me. Maybe. 

Pro-sports fandom has been, for me, a school where my intellect learned to guide my passions. Packer fandom has been a school for my soul, a way of making lifelong friends, and good merriment.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Being a fan may be fine, but being a fanatic is not, ever. Nothing so ruins a good thing than a zealot: Jesus turns zealots into students. Ask Simon, once zealot, then disciple of Jesus.

I have, so far as I know, never been a fanatic for the Packers, just given harmless entertainment that was (generally) blessedly free from politics and strife. God bless the Green Bay Packers.

But Wait!

Maybe or maybe not.

One really bright guy suggested that my fandom is not only bad, but very bad. The dialectic is a hard master and so, much as I might wish, this is not an argument that can be ignored. After all, if he is right, then I will simply have more time to cultivate other loves.

Steve Baughman, lawyer, student and just critic of bad apologetics,  took on pro-sports fandom on one of my social media accounts. He made an interesting case, so  I invited him to write up his ideas for Eidos for the sheer joy of his verve. After all, the NFL (and that friend of tyrants the NBA) can take the criticism!

If you do not have interesting interlocutors, social media helps you find some! Lawyer and critic of Christendom, Steve Baughman takes on my team, the Green Bay Packers, and any support for pro-sports. He argues persuasively, but fails, I think, philosophically because his case is too strong, and fails practically because of too many counter-example to many of his claims. Both of us are not basing our case on the philosophy of sport, a thing that exists, but about which, I must confess, my analytic training makes me (perhaps overly) dubious.

In any case, I have spent some time thinking about “fandom” in entertainment, not just sports, and if my response to Mr. Baughman is overly long, he is certainly not to blame! Instead, this is a chance to get some ideas aired to see how they fare. Most oddly, Baughman echoes arguments I often hear from very religious people, the sort that worry about too much Christmas jollification. Fun is dangerous.

A Very, Very Strong, Hence Dubious Claim Subjected to Examination 

Eschewing subtlety for concision, Baughman says:

. . . I oppose pro-sports fandom because it is indefensibly irrational and dangerous.

Stop for a moment and consider how very strong Baughman’s claim is.

It seems likely that it would be rare for any optional, enduring, complex, and common phenomena to be both indefensibly irrational and dangerous. For what most Americans take to be a harmless hobby to be indefensible, irrational, and dangerous for a century, shows either how insidious pro-sports fandom is or seriously misplaced concern on Baughman’s part.

Think of what Baughman is saying:

Rooting for the Pack is not just wrong headed (say a waste of time), but indefensible. Taking the kids to an Astro’s game is not just indefensible, but irrational to boot. Wearing your jersey to school after they win the World Series (God willing!) is not just indefensible and irrational, but dangerous.

Any one of these is a strong claim, but all together this makes pro-sports fandom a very rare kind of evil. After all, many things are very morally wrong, but rationally defensible. Baughman is claiming a status for pro-sports fandom that makes it worse than many other bad things.

Take Russian Bolshevism of the early twentieth century (please!). Morally, the Bolshevik ran an indefensible regime, taking mass murder to hitherto unprecedented levels. Sadly, as a modern American university demonstrates, there are many who make an intellectual defense of Bolshevism or Leninism without condoning the “excess.” I think those defenses wrong, but they are not nonsense. Bolshevism was and is attractive to some in the intellectual class.

An idea (or set of ideas or behaviors) can, therefore, be bad and yet not be indefensible or irrational. 

Even things that are not held based on reasons are not irrational and so are defensible. It is not irrational to enjoy a moment of pure passion!

In fact, if I were arguing this case to “win,” I might claim that this overly strong statement is (almost sure to be) irrational and dangerous . . .mayhap even fanatical, since Baughman does not rest his case on irrationality alone, but the inherent dangerousness of pro-sports fandom.

Let’s not be too picky and accept that some actions or views are inherently dangerous. There is a temptation to suggest that almost anything enjoyable is dangerous. When folks are having a good time, making merry, they are apt to go too far. Reason might not be able to check passion. Plato, Baughman, and generations of prom chaperones agree: fun is dangerous.

Yet I assume for his article that Baughman means more than this. He is strongly suggesting that pro-sports fandom is dangerous to republics: morally dangerous always and not just potentially dangerous. The Packer Backer is being groomed for a bad worldview, mayhap even fascism. Yet note the burden of proof Baughman has assumed. Many a jollification goes badly, the company Christmas party gone feral, but Baughman is asserting that pro-sports fandom is a jollification that must go badly or (at least) only does no harm when fans miss the point of the grooming being done by professional sports to make them unthinking consumers and potential fascists.

After all, there are events that can only do no harm of one utterly misses the point of the event!

An example shows the type of event that is always wicked … though some clueless person could hypothetically miss the point. One might think that someone could attend a Klan meeting innocently, and somehow get good and not bad from this vile organization. This (very hypothetical) Innocent misunderstands all the vile talk, never attends the evil actions, while he enjoys the food and fellowship. Only a fool would use this bare possibility to defend Klan meeting attendance. The only good Klansman would be a bad Klansman: one who never understood the very reason for the meeting and failed to be shaped in just the way the meeting intended to shape him.

This example shows that Baughman is perfectly reasonable to assert that some events are dangerous (by nature): Klan meetings are morally evil by nature and so dangerous to virtue in a republic. Yet this, very serious, situation is what Baughman (appears) to be saying is true of taking the family out to a Packer game on a Wisconsin Sunday afternoon. Wearing a cheesehead is just a socially acceptable hood.

Maybe, but after one hundred years of Packers football, Wisconsin is known more for “nice” than Nuremberg. Also, fandom has changed over time: Bart Starr’s Packers had a different tone than Aaron Rogers’ Packers. That makes a blanket condemnation of pro-sports fandoms very complicated: was Lambeau Field in 1963 the same venue as Lambeau 2019? Surely not in many ways, but I will eschew any argument that modern pro-sports fandom is a problem and not fandom generally. I will treat the effect of growing up admiring Bart Starr  or Reggie White as if this had the same moral impact as growing up with a Antonio Brown jersey.

Perhaps, Baughman’s claim is so implausible, one can just avert one’s mind and move on? Yet I shan’t do so, because that is not interesting and Baughman is an interesting man.

In Which I interact with a Weaker Claim Which is Hopefully What Baughman Meant to Say 

Assume that Baughman made his very strong claim (implausibly strong) for his intellectual interest in defending it. He can make his criticism of pro sports fandom better by arguing something like this:

Weaker Baughman: As it is now (not in the past), pro-sports fandom, as cultivated and practiced, is mostly an activity that makes reasoning less likely and moral behaviors much less likely.

What of this weaker claim that pro-sports fandom is (pretty) bad and should be avoided? I am not impressed with his prima facia case. I would sum up my position this way:

Pro-sports fandom, as it exists, can be good or bad. Fanatics are bad. Acting contrary to reason is bad. Mindless consumption is bad. However, taken as it is, fandom need not be contrary to reason and can be a reasonable activity in a balanced life. Fandom can eschew mindless consumption. Fandom can even cultivate life lessons (though it need not) while providing much good merriment.

I am not defending the corporate NFL. Some fans are fanatics. Some fandom is irrational. Pro-sports are not very important, but then neither is most game playing or merriment if we take the activity apart from the merriment. That the merriment or entertainment is provided by professionals does not keep me from watching and also enjoying amateur sports (I do!), just as my appreciation of professional musicians and actors in concerts and theaters has not kept me from amateur writing, acting, and enjoying music, concerts, and theatricals.

Real Friendships Can Begin Over Pro-Sports Fandom

Baughman does not see any positive good from pro-sports fandom. For example, he finds the “bonding” that takes places between (let’s say) fans from different classes hypocritical. He says of Giants fandom in his hometown:

For Giants-mania, unlike the religion they pursued me, is little more than a crafty exercise in corporate mind-manipulation. The hoopla is, at best, about more money for the already monied, and, at worst, a massive campaign to dumb down the populace with a barrage of frivolity masquerading as civic bonding. Yeah, a little like what Marx said about religion.*

He cannot imagine any good reason for: “caring which group of multimillionaire athletes throws the ball through the hoop most, or carries it farthest, or hits it more times over the fence?”

These are odd claims. After all, I love watching ballet, and not just Nutcracker at Christmas. Nothing about the pay of the prima ballerina keeps me from enjoying an expertise only a dedicated professional can achieve.  I loved hearing Paul Simon, no pauper he, create beauty on stage at the Toyota Center. I loved hearing a former student star in La Boheme at the Houston Grand Opera.

We have, somewhat arbitrarily, made certain physical challenges important: to the ankle in ballet, the vocal chords in music, the hands in football. The task is meaningless, the execution sublime. Baughman’s comparison to Sisyphus is not apt, saying:

Even Camus’ Sisyphus, condemned for all eternity to carry a rock up and down a hill, found a state of contented acceptance in the mundanity of it all. There is in money sports no room for serene acceptance of that sort.

The comparison fails, because the professional athlete is not cursed to do what he does. He is executing beautifully an admittedly culturally arbitrary task in a narrow window of time. Seeing the aging quarterback defy time to toss one more touchdown pass is lovely and has a kind of meaning. He will not be back next year. He chooses his task, he executes against age and defenders, and that is joyous.

This is not Sisyphus endlessly rolling a rock up a hill, but humans doing a difficult deed in the narrow window of time when they can do such a thing and doing it at the very highest level. If Sisyphus in Hades had to retire, or could fail in rolling his rock up a hill, then seeing him succeed, against the odds, would be divine and he would no longer be damned.

These athletes execute amazingly beautiful actions. At Minute Maid Park, Hope and I watch athletes execute beautiful actions in competition. The competition is not meaningful except as a test of the artistry. No particular move of the ballet dancer, the singer at the Houston Grand testing her instrument, or Altuve turning a ball into a home run matters, but the artistry and the humanity of meeting a challenge does.

As I write, the professional baseball Houston Astros are close to a World Series. My dentist, no baseball fanatic by his own admission, spends no money on the Astros, none, but we spent an enjoyable time discussing the team. It was a good, natural topic of conversation, though given the limitations of the dental chair, he did most of the talking. Nobody is going to make a dime off of that jolly moment of conversation, certainly not from my dentist.

What did we gain?

The Astros gain us an entry point to dialog and over time we use it to keep talking. This was very true for me as a child. Professional sports helped this nerdy not-so-atheletic fifth grader find a common topic of conversation with boys who would not have cared about Narnia, Langston Hughes (my paper topic!), or plays. As a result of our conversations, we became real friends sometimes for years! Professional sports was a common ground that allowed us to find deeper human commonalities that we might have missed in a school environment divided between “jocks,” “geeks,” and other social classes.

I suppose over the almost-decade I have been in Houston, the Astros have gotten a few thousand of my dollars for the most part to spend time with friends chatting about everything from Altuve to Plato to Orthodoxy while we watch a game. The pleasure of watching the artistry of professional athletes and having a common topic of conversation between my very diverse friend group is far more valuable than the sixteen dollars I spent for a ticket.

Baughman sees it all as a fraud: the banker Astro fan would not wish his daughter to marry the truck driver Astro fan. Maybe, but if so, the problem is not fandom, but the snobbery and lack of charity of the banker. Should we criticize one of the few areas where the two meet as equals and friends? I have witnessed barriers broken between classes over professional sports (race being just one example) that had lasting positive impact. It is professional sports that makes Jackie Robinson iconic and this may have a small impact, but I have seen it have an impact.

Professional sports by nature strives to create this level playing field. Of course, this may be hypocritical or may be motivated only by the desire for sordid gain, though I have known players and people who worked in sports leagues and this stereotype was not true of them. These decent people know it is just a game, but hope to do some good through the game and provide people with some harmless merriment.

The very superficial nature of the bond makes it less seem less threatening  (immediately) to the bad ideas of the bigot or class conscious snob. He breaks some barriers in the bleachers since it is “just a game.” Hours spent in the upper decks with a beer and peanuts talking about the game has a habit of drifting to other things.  If a person is not careful, real friendship develops, and this is natural. The very triviality of the immediate connection in pro-sports, the rituals and the boundaries, make meeting of minds from different classes easier.

Do not blame pro-sports if the venal and superficial are venal and superficial about pro-sports. Pro-sports is a kind of merriment or art and as such there is only so much it can do. To the man with some snobbery, but who is not inclined to be a snob, pro-sports can be a way to become better. To a man who is a snob, pro-sports fandom, like any gentle prodding, will be insufficient. There is a very good reason evil racists fought sports integration so hard.

When you admire Jim Brown for his artistry on the field, you have a chance to listen to Jim Brown. Jim Brown and generations of athletes like him had some things to say.

Enjoying Pro-Sports and Fandom Costs Less Than Much Merriment 

Nor is professional fandom particularly expensive. Pro-sports by nature reaches out to the community. I can watch the Rockets, Texans, Astros for hours without spending a dime. I can listen on my pre-World War II  radio for free and I do, reaching back in time to my Papaw listening to the Reds on his radio. As jolly pleasures go, this is cheap. My local grocery store gives us fan merchandise for free with purchase. Throw together some Orange and Blue for Astro’s day and a kid is ready to go.

A trip to the Dollar Store offseason could stock a wardrobe for local fandom for almost nothing. 

I have spent very little money in relative terms for the amount of pleasure derived through pro-sports fandom. The NFL is a business eager to make money, but I choose the money I give them. If they make money on me at times, other times I consume their product for nothing. We are both content.

If Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers were broke, I would not be richer. As it is, Mr. Rogers, a person whose “ideas” I find silly when I hear them, has demonstrated amazing (if unimportant) skills beautiful to behold  and I (once) received his jersey as a Christmas gift. We seem to have a mutually beneficial “relationship.”

Mr. Rogers will retire, the Packers will go on in the Lambeau neighborhood. I admire the beauty of his athletic prowess and am glad if the jersey made him a few dollars in return.

On the Local and the National 

When I moved to Houston, one way of learning about the town was to “adopt” the local professional sports teams as rooting interests in addition to my personal favorites. This provided easy conversation starters with many, especially outside my professional life. After all, at my work, people are more apt to care about Plato than a pulling guard (though not always!), so professional sports rooting interests gets me out of my “box” of college colleagues and into a bigger world.

I have been in some Fantasy Leagues for years and met some fun folk as a result: cost me nothing!

Pro Sports as Community Icon

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, rooting for the Astros, who won it all, felt good. Of course, this was not a replacement for the hard work (spearheaded by religious groups in Houston) of charity. The Astros wins did not mean Harvey was not hard, but, like a flag, the Astros were a rallying point. Like a flag, one knows jingoistic or fanatical people can mistake the symbol for substance, but when fans wrote #houstonstrong while rooting for the Astros, I never met one who mistook the outer sign as a replacement for an inner reality. When my students spent a day working on houses and then took in a game together, the merriment given by the team was good.

As the much appreciated public advocacy and charity by professional football player JJ Watt of the Texans shows, winning was not even necessary. The Texans did not win the Super Bowl and Mr. Watt is on the downside of his career, but is an entertainer, athlete of great artistry, and a decent man, Watt took our minds (briefly) off our problems, served as a rallying point for good works, and used his fame to point to less well known folk.

Baughman rebuts the communitarian aspect of sports fandom by pointing out the Packers players in 2019 are not from Green Bay. The players do not have the “warm fuzzies” for Wisconsin. Put succinctly, Baughman claims there is no connection to home when we root, root for the home team.

Baughman forgets that the professional players are hired by Green Bay to play. They (often) move to Green Bay and some retire there. Even when they do not, the team is not the same as the players. Many players are on a team for a time and then move on, a Packer all time great like Brett Favre may end his career beating the Packers in a Vikings jersey!

The team went on and eventually Favre returned to Green Bay to see his number retired. Professional sports subordinates even the greatest talent to the team. The “great” players are often forgotten, the town’s team continues. If you ask most 49ers fans about  John Brodie, you might get a blank stare: the team transcends even the great players.

Owners do move teams at times. Sometimes this is because the community does not want the team!  Sometimes the owner is motivated by greed. When this happens, the bond between the team and the town is severed, but the town copes! Brooklyn did not vanish when the Dodgers went to LA. People find other amusements.

Recall: my point is that professional sports can and often do build community spirit, not that they always do.

The Real Wonder of Professional Sports: They Need Really Us 

Individual players are not the team. By the very professional nature of the sport: the team needs us, we do not need them. We create the team by caring, arbitrarily caring, sustain them by caring, and they would vanish if we ceased to care. The Green Bay Packers are a rarity, owned directly by the fans, but all professional teams by nature depend on the fans. If we stop caring, and we could, they die. Sports like professional boxing have faded in the US, because fans moved to other games. They can try to manipulate and stimulate us: human beings can say “no.”

Ask the Montreal Expos.

A wise player, a Bart Starr, connects with the fans, because he knows he owes the fans. If he gives back enough to the community in charity and good works, as many do, then the community may decide that the player has transcended his sport and becomes a member of the community. JJ Watt with his charitable and relief work in Houston may become a contemporary example.

On Enjoying Professional Anything: the Art of the Game

One might perhaps suggest that sports passion has nothing to do with where the players are from and everything to do with the fact that they are here, now, in our town, playing for a team that bears our name. Fine. But how does that excuse the passion over who carries/kicks/hits the little ball better?

The banal nature of the activity, it is just a game, is used to condemn the passion and that seems sensible. Joy or sorrow over the banal activities does seem disproportionate.

Contra Baughman, however, the very banal nature of the game, that is “just a game” grants pro-sports fandom a potentially positive role. Unless you are perverse, you know this is just a game. When a real world crisis emerges, 9/11 or cancer in the family, the importance of the game recedes, except perhaps as a distraction.

Yet this is only what is true of all merriment. They are not such a much, but over a lifetime, they are such a much. They provided us little joys that add up to a sense of thankfulness. When the Packers beat the Bears, that is nothing compared to my adult children flourishing, but it is something jolly.

Little jollities experienced for free with friends (local television!) in our Super Bowl Party has spurred truly meaningful things: marriages, chats, a conference paper or two.

Why, if pro sports is so unimportant,  all the passion?

I think, in part, for the reason Aristotle suggests for theater: catharsis. We can care about a team like the Packers so much, in part, because it does not “really” matter. If we picked the “wrong” team, we are not damned, voting for the end of the Republic, or making a muck up in our marriage. We can cheer, cry, root, root, root and there is a decision: clean and simple. We win or lose and go home.

Nerdy fifth grade me made some solid friends by learning about professional football, but picked the Packers (for pretty silly reasons) as my team just when they went into a drought of wins. The 1970’s and 1980’s were not kind to Packer Backers. We lost and lost, but I recall a playoff year and all that excitement. Lynn Dickey quarterbacked on Monday Night beating the Redskins while I made metal fasteners to get through college. The game gave me some fun in my (actually) mindless job. They kept losing and I stuck with my team . . .

This was not much of a school for souls, but it helped me. In those years, if you saw someone in a Packer jersey, they were from Wisconsin or very loyal as I was. We would stop, talk, laugh about how bad the Pack was (oh TJ Rubley!). I met Mr. Starr once and learned a good bit from his demeanor, character, and endurance.

If you followed the Packers in the 1980’s, you learned that winning wasn’t everything: a fall day in Wisconsin is nice win or lose. By gad, though, when Favre won that Super Bowl for the Pack after years of not winning that was nice too. I went to work the next day and taught some classics, raised kids with Hope, and tried to be a good citizen under God, but with a spring in my step. Work, family, country, God were the  important things, but along the way, professional sports fandom reminded me of loyalty and patient love. It was a lesser love, a trivial love, but cathartic for meaningful challenges.

Life is, after all, not a game, but Starr battling back from a stroke to honor another quarterback and the fans honoring his years of community service long after he retired in an event at Lambaeau was not a game either. For those of us with friends or family facing strokes, Starr’s real victory, made public by professional sports, was cathartic: more real than any theatrical  play, but detached from our own reality just enough to be helpful.

Sports Fandom a training ground for dictators? 

None of this good effect of professional sports fandom would matter if the professional stadium, the hoop-la, the hype set us up for dictatorship. It is true that the dictator likes his stadium with adoring masses. It is true that reason is hostile to the dictator. As a result, Baughman concludes:

Finally, it is hard to see how this mass ritualistic dispensing with critical thinking is a harmless endeavor. Fans of professional sports cultivate us-versus-them proclivities that are useful to demagogues whenever they need to manufacture a foe, domestic of foreign, to serve or preserve the powers that be.

This is an extraordinary claim, one is tempted to ask for extraordinary evidence that Packer fandom sets one up for an American Mussolini. While it is true that professional sports  is a mass ritual and dictators like mass rituals, the university graduation is also a mass ritual. One does not think at a university graduation, one endures, yet I doubt my Alma Mater’s graduations have set up U of R grads for fascism.

Critical thinking is good, but not the only good. Sometimes thinking is inappropriate. When I am on a moonlit beach with Hope, I am not irrational, but my rational soul has said to my passionate soul: “Carry on, good son.” For a reasonable professional sports fan, the stadium experience is a decent school for the soul.

The rational soul says,  “Get some catharsis. Root, root, root for the home team, but not too much. One less beer, please.”

In fact, the person who has been to many professional sporting events looks at Triumph of the Will, an artistic abomination in celebration of sports and tyranny, and knows the difference between Lambeau and Nuremberg at a visceral level. The minions mindlessly saluting Hitler with arms upraised swearing, seriously swearing, to die for the Leader are not a grandpa with a pot belly, a cheesehead, and a job down at the shop shouting for a Packer touchdown.

We don’t just see the difference, we feel the difference. The fan who takes off his shirt in Buffalo playoff weather, cold, is not serious, but having a lark, usually laughing with a pal. Look at the faces of the Hitler Youth in Triumph: this is serious stuff. The sport is amateur (Olympics) while the tyranny is professional and deadly serious.

As for “us-them,” surely Baughman jests. There are “us-them” situations in a moral world as Baughman’s article proves. Sometimes, after all, they are wrong and we are right. Of course, this is not always true, and so sane people know when to turn the competitive spirt off. If some people cannot grasp “it’s just a game” (and surely some fans do not), then those people were beyond hope in any case.

Anybody who thinks the Yankees are actually “an evil empire” in the same sense as Communist China, is beyond hope in any context. This is the sort  of person that in a different demographic with different dumb delusions thinks winning the vote in the faculty Senate against “them” also matters.

As a Packer fan, I have never once seriously considered the residents of Chicago actually evil. I have joshed a spiritual father about his Bear proclivities, but this did not make me hate . . . Anyone. Or train me to do so.

After all, everyone told me all along it was just a game. When I sat next to a person sent to a concentration camp by the atheists in China for being religious, that was not just a game. I did not think of “them” as bad because my Packer fandom set me up for it, but because from Plato through Jesus to my parents, moral people taught me this.

Pro-sports fandom is what one makes of it, but can be good, a school for a soul, a common ground of conversation for a community, and relatively inexpensive merriment.

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*Apparently Baughman once joined a religious group he liked, though he did not believe the doctrines. This was a bad idea, but this is not relevant to his sport’s argument.


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