I have a coworker named Laura, who is a truly compelling person. She recently graduated with an MBA, is exceptionally gregarious, comes from a large Irish Catholic family, and is brilliant with children. She taught me the phrase and mindset, “set the child up for success.” She is also (perhaps ironically considering the mantra that she gave me) a Cleveland Browns fan. There are untold numbers of otherwise unique and complete people who also spend their time and energy following, supporting, and watching bottom-dwelling franchises.
This is a topic that has confounded me for some time: why do people invest their energy in teams that disappoint them? I had my own hypothesis, but I also asked Laura why she roots for the Browns. “It’s part of my identity,” she said. “Cleveland is my hometown, I’m not going to root for anyone else, and I want to have pride in where I come from. Even if the team is bad, the Browns are still a part of me.”
This sentiment about maintaining a sense of pride in one’s hometown through local sports was echoed by my friend Doug, a Redskins fan. I asked him why he stayed a Redskins fan despite their franchise problems. “I’m very much still a DC-first person at heart…. A lot of it just ties to the fact that I’m a native of the city and I always want to see the teams of this area win. And get the people from here some good times. Especially when we have such a unique status and culture between a predominantly black city and a city with no congressional representation.”
I think of myself, as a Jets fan. I was born in upstate New York, and my father was a Jets fan. We moved to Maryland when I was young, just as I was starting to become interested in sports. And despite the franchise’s incompetence over the past 45 years or so, I can look to the bond I have with my family, galvanized by our shared fandoms, as a source of pride. We feel that our fandom is a special relationship. And it is. It sets me apart, in a smaller minority, from all the Redskins fans and Giants fans and Cowboys fans and Steelers fans in the DC intake of people from all across America. I have a tie to a team with a smaller portion of the fandom market. It allows the failings of the Jets to get overlooked, when compared to the failings of the bigger teams.
I look at the way the Redskins treat their fans and the media, and think, “well, at least my team isn’t THAT bad.” My friend Doug put his relationship to the Redskins’ management woes succinctly: “I root for them to more and more begrudging levels when we consider the racist name, abhorrent owner, and incompetent management. It’s to the point where I root from them with a little more distance between myself and them.” But if I am honest with myself, I have no knowledge if the Jets’ management on a day-to-day level are as bad as the Redskins, since I get to keep their failings at a distance. I root for the team, but I need not consume all the information about them. I get to maintain the sense of loyalty and identity from a safe distance, at an intensity level that is comfortable for me. That is a relatively low intensity level, as I have little expectation of the Jets winning a Super Bowl in the near future. But it does not hurt to dream.
If fandom is, at its most extreme, about identity (and not necessarily about the team and its success) then one’s fandom, as a byproduct of where an individual comes from, is a core part of one’s identity. Moreover, if one’s team is bad, then all the fans of that team who remain are compelled by a sense of loyalty. To leave when the team is at its most vulnerable would be disloyalty, and a departure from the fanbase. One would lose a small part of their identity. And those who stay, may generate the benefits of loyalty through difficult times: a sense of superiority over those fans who have left, and over those fans who bandwagon upon other teams. This sense of moral superiority is only bolstered by a Messianic hope of a change in fortune for the team.
But this is just my thought experiment about the possibilities of what Laura told me. I’m not sure any fan would tell anyone else, to their face, that they possess a moral superiority because they are loyal. However, in light of our political times, we must be keen upon the depths to which identity affects us as individuals. How we hold these aspects of identity so dear, how they are expressed in our values. Fandom, increasingly, is a representation of our identity, alongside religion, race, and class, because it can reflect all of these markers of identity, as well as where we come from and where we live.
I would not overstate the role of fandom within identity- fandom is not universal to everyone. But to be a fan of a bad team, just as being a bandwagon fan, is an action related to an expression of a particular set of values. If we think critically about the way we support our teams, about our relationship to them from the point of view as fans, I believe that we can learn much more about ourselves in the process.