Are you a real fan of your favorite sports team? A true fan?
If you haven’t heard what it takes to be a real fan, well, then I have some exciting news: there are guidelines! Bill Simmons sets out twenty rules to being a true fan. If that sounds over the top, Paul Taylor at Bleacher Report offers you ten.
Everyone seems to agree that suffering is involved. The real fan identifies with her team. Your team loses, you lose with them. A player does something embarrassing, and you are embarrassed with them. You put in time, money, and emotion, and in return you get disappointment, loss, and a level of tragedy that puts Greek drama to shame.
Most importantly, the defining feature of real fans is that they are almost never allowed to stop rooting for their team—and especially not because the team has been losing lately. Breaches of loyalty are to be met with the strongest sanctions. Cults are easier to exit.
Okay, this is beginning to sound terrible. Let’s start over. I am a real fan. I am also a fan of being a real fan. I think it is a choice-worthy life path to stick with your team regardless of how well they perform. And I think philosophy can help explain why that makes sense even through decades of losing: being a real fan is a runway to a specific kind of beneficial life story.
Let us first hear from the opposition.
Now, “the opposition” does not refer to people who simply do not care about sports at all. Those folks have no quarrel with real fans. Instead, for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, they take no stand on the crucial question of what kind of fan to be.
Nor are our opposites fans of the rival team—their questionable loyalties notwithstanding. Fans of all teams can be real fans.
Instead, since the real fan’s essential commitment is dedication to the team through thick and thin, our opponent is the dreaded bandwagon fan. Bandwagon fans just hop from winner to winner, going with whoever happens to be hot at the moment. As a result, “their” team always wins, and they think that the whole thing is more fun that way. Meanwhile, we real fans endure another season where our team comes up short.
When you ask these fair-weather flitterers how they can switch sides so promiscuously, they sometimes claim to be valuing excellence and rooting for records. They’d rather cheer for the best performance possible. Malcolm Gladwell even claims that the better team’s losing is an injustice.
For a real fan, that kind of thinking is a non-starter. Excellence and record-breaking are things that sports appreciators care about, and appreciation is common to all fans, be they fair-weather or true. I appreciate Michael Jordan’s greatness, even as I despise him for what he and his Chicago Bulls did to the Portland Trail Blazers in the early 1990s. You see, I grew up in Portland, where I am pretty sure there is a law that says you have to be a Blazers fan. When I was a teenager, the Blazers repeatedly closed in on the championship that I so desperately wanted. But the Bad Boy Pistons, then the Showtime Lakers, and then finally Jordan’s Bulls ripped away the title every time it got within reach. Even then, I had no problem acknowledging Jordan’s pure domination, the preposterous way he did things with his body that most of us couldn’t even imagine with our minds. So, fine! He was good, alright?
Sorry, am I being defensive? It still hurts. The Blazers won their—our—only championship when I was three years old.
Anyhow, appreciation of Jordan’s greatness was not the issue. The pressing question for the fan is whether we should also root for the winner, just because the winner is a winner. Why stay loyal to your team when you could pull for a more successful one instead? Should I have rooted for the Bulls instead of sticking with my childhood team?
One answer that bandwagoners give for jumping ship is liberty. Derek Thompson takes this tack in The Atlantic, writing that “Fans should feel free to shop for teams the way they do for any other product.” In particular, fans should head for the exits when the team owner screws up over and over again, on the thinking that if we fans credibly threaten to stop supporting the team, then we can extract more excellent performance from the owner. This is laissez faire fandom, where sports are reduced to commerce and it is the consumer’s job to pressure the service provider to deliver a good piece of entertainment. Love of the game? Try the art of the deal instead
This argument is puzzling when viewed from the bandwagoner’s perspective. Why would fair-weather fans care about improving any one owner’s performance when they can instead just switch their allegiance to a new owner who is already performing better? Meanwhile, for rain-or-shine loyalists, jumping ship to a new team would miss the point that they want their favorite team to be the best.
Now of course, maybe the true fan should not be so loyal. Over the years the Blazers have given me plenty of reason to quit them. There have been losing seasons. Then there are the players who seemed apathetic. Worst of all, there have been arrogant executives of doubtful competency.
But for the true fan, allegiance is to the uniform, not the people, and that goes all the way to the owner. If we care most of all about the team—this abstract object that persists across players, coaches, front offices, and owners alike—then we can’t leave the team to spite the owner, since the only reason we care about the owner’s performance is that we care about the team. In this scheme of values, the only place for the true fan to disincentivize bad ownership is in the theater of public shame. We can embarrass the errant owner. (After all, they have embarrassed us!) But we cannot simply trade that dysfunctional relationship for a better team.
Thompson also argues that if fanhood were flexible, then it wouldn’t be so easy for owners to extract revenues from loyal cities in the form of taxpayer-funded stadium deals that divert ordinary citizens’ tax dollars into billionaire owners’ bank accounts. He points to London soccer clubs as an alternative: because sports fandom there is not, he reports, tied to civic passions, owners cannot fleece the public in the same way that American team owners do.
But being a real fan is not the same as being a local fan. What puts the city budget on the hook is not that the local team’s fans are too loyal; it’s that those fans are themselves local: the fan base and the tax base coincide. Freeing the fortunes of the city from the fortunes of the team requires only a population of real but cosmopolitan fans.
I believe that we should take a different tack to manage owners who show a fondness for civic abuse. The ability to relocate their teams is what allows owners to dominate taxpayers: with the threat of leaving the city, an owner can force policy-makers to choose between keeping the city’s beloved team and serving the city’s kids with the funds not lavished on a shiny new stadium. This kind of power is the enemy of meaningful liberty. Your right to enjoy your team should not depend on the whims of the mega-rich, and this is true even if your team has a good owner. As the vaunted republican strain of political theory emphasizes, we should be troubled when outsize powers allow one person to dominate others. A sympathetic and capable tyrant is a tyrant all the same.
Which makes the solution clear. Owners should not be able to do whatever they want with their civic toys. Legally speaking, team ownership should be seen more like a right to steward a public good. This stewardship can be paired with the right to take profits, but only under certain conditions that respect the fan’s contributions to the health (financial and otherwise) of the team. One of those conditions: owners are allowed to sell the team but not move it.
Thus in our current environment, the true fan’s only tools, when a bad owner is driving the franchise off a cliff, are shame and legal reform. You might call on the league to banish the feckless owner, as happens from time to time. And you might try to limit the owner’s powers. In the end, the only decisive option, the truly nuclear option in reaction to terrible stewardship, is that you, the true fan, simply stop watching the league entirely. Sometimes in America today, freedom’s just another word for no team left to lose.
However we manage the incompetent owner, it is evident that neither liberty nor appreciation is at stake in the battle between the real and the bandwagon fan. Both can reject bad ownership, just as both can appreciate athletic excellence. Thus, some different value must cleave the space between the two camps. In my estimation, that value is nothing less than the age-old question of what makes our lives go well.
Jeremy Gordon in The New York Times gets to the heart of the issue when he proclaims that real fans have improperly ordered priorities. Don’t we simply care too much about what is, at the end of the day, a trivial concern? Why care so much about who can put the ball in the hoop?
Now to my eyes, that criticism looks excessive. I mean, sure, I have known people who engineered their wedding schedule to avoid conflict with the playoffs; who moved back to the United States from living overseas partly to be able to watch more of their team’s games; who bailed out of their work responsibilities during a championship run. But is that so bad?
When we reflect on the quality of our lives, we must acknowledge that if devoting resources to seemingly trivial endeavors were objectionable, then we would need to reject not just real fandom but sports and games altogether (Dixon 2016: 245), along with most other leisure activities—including (ahem) recreational reading. As I said, that seems extreme. Pursuits with little import can still contribute meaning to our lives, so long as they have some value. And anyway, the true fan’s sport is no more trivial than the fair-weather fan’s sport—it is, after all, the same sport. So as with liberty and appreciating value, the triviality point won’t answer the question of what kind of fan to be, once we’ve decided to occupy our time, one way or another, with silly games.
At the end of the day, all the high-minded arguments about priorities and liberty seem like window dressing for the real motivation for bandwagoning: if you always switch allegiances to the leader, then you don’t have to suffer through the losing. There’s more pleasure if your team always wins. You perpetually occupy the sunniest spot on the sports landscape.
One way to run this rationale for being a bandwagon fan puts it in a Buddhist or Stoic frame, where the point is to avoid any attachments that cause sadness and pain. In fact, according to Randolph Feezell (2013: 89), the risk of suffering is a reason to altogether detach your concern from who wins and loses. That is, we should not root for a team in either the fair-weather or the more committed, real-fan way. Avoiding the pain of losing is a reason to be a fan of the sport rather than any particular team, so just appreciate the play itself.
In that way, the suffering-avoidance view contrasts with a more hedonistic approach that counsels us to maximize pleasure by moving our allegiances from winner to winner—a form of rooting with a greater risk of suffering than mere appreciation, but also the reward of extra fun when the team you are rooting for wins. But on both of these arguments, you avoid the kind of suffering that happens when your team has it all ripped away, again, by the goddamned L. A. Lakers.
This way of thinking has an impressive pedigree. The ancient Stoic Epictetus advised that you not grow attached to a particular cup or to your particular child. Instead, just be into cups in general, or kids in general. That way, he reasoned, you won’t be upset if your cup breaks or your daughter dies. You can just replace them with a new one!
While we can agree that suffering is bad, true fans (like most parents) insist that some allegiances are not transferrable. Against the Stoic, we see the price paid in suffering as an acceptable cost to risk in order to win the potential of a particular love’s rewards. And as for hedonism, the way true fans see things, it is not your team if you like them only when they are winning. We remain through good times and bad, dancing with the one that brought us, even if our feet get stomped on.
I have put about four decades into rooting for the Blazers. I remember my dad teaching me how to decode a box score’s statistics back when ORB meant more than VORP. I bet half of my life’s free time, relationship compromises, and cable television bills. When it comes to my particular team, I have followed every player, every game, every season. I have read every news article and all the Blazers blog posts. I haven’t TikTokked anything yet. Do I need to? That’s a thing now, right? Sigh: I am aging.
Anyway, the point is that I am all-in. But that just brings the question of suffering back into painful relief. Why invest so much, why tether my own well-being to the team’s, when that means choosing a life with more losing than winning? Why be attracted to a lifetime of frustrated hope, when we could instead settle for a kind of attraction that is engineered to find success?
I once thought that the answer was the community, the bonds we form with other real fans. And to be sure, there is an element of truth in this rationale for real fandom. Blazermaniacs share emotional ups and downs in a way that bandwagon fans will never experience. But I have come to accept that sharing community is mostly fool’s gold for the true fan. When the crowd thunders with excitement or urges the team to tighten up the defense, there is no distinguishing between real and fair-weather fans. Come championship time, we will all get together for the party and we’ll all go to the parade. The fact is, even fair-weather fans are included in the community when they want to be—when the team is winning.
Making things worse, the fair-weather fans will even enjoy winning. As a proud bandwagoner, Jeremy Gordon abandoned his hometown Chicago Cubs for a down-stretch during their epic, century-long World Series drought. As bandwagoners do, he returned to the fold when the Cubbies eventually arrived at the precipice of a championship in 2016. And then, when they finally closed the deal and won it all:
There were fireworks, giddy whoops. I walked through the streets of Chicago, taking part in all the reverie. My body was suffused with inexplicable warmth, the dopamine spreading with each step.Jeremy Gordon
This is how being part of some special community is a mirage for the true fan: bandwagon fans also get the fun part of community, the celebration. Apparently they even get to feel something called “inexplicable warmth.” There is an injustice here, suggesting that Kant may have been right that the summum bonum is the proportional assignment of happiness to the good and misery to the wicked. We true fans take the risk, and the bandwagon fans get the reward. I want inexplicable warmth! Instead, Thompson reports research showing that “self-esteem, mood, and even testosterone levels plummet in male fans after a loss.” Jeez. Gordon has a chance for a dopamine fix while a true fan risks Low-T.
That’s the best—the only—viable case for being a fair-weather fan. Just hitch your wagon to the champ every year and rip open that dopamine spigot. According to this hedonistic approach, any rationale for choosing which team to root for ought to be based on that choice making us feel good.
The reply always given to hedonists is that feeling good is not the only good that counts. Among other things, we prefer to live out certain stories, too. Our relationships, our careers, and even our recreational pursuits can take various narrative forms.
When structured properly, these stories can add value to your life, making it better than it otherwise would have been, independently of the pleasure and suffering involved. In fact, sometimes living out the right narrative can add value to your life even when it costs you pleasure. Martin Luther King, Jr., no doubt sacrificed pleasure while locked up in the Birmingham jail, but converting that painful experience into an opportunity to offer up one of our most poignant reflections on the value of protest surely added meaning to his life.
On a strong reading of the value of narrative, it literally forms your self-understanding, your practical identity. On this view, if I had changed allegiances from the Blazers to the Bulls, I would have become a different person, practically speaking. A weaker view simply says that living out some narratives (like being a civil rights leader) add value to your life whether or not you identify your self with the narrative. Perhaps there are merits to both interpretations of the value of narrative, but notice that either way, we have good reason to seek these narratives for ourselves.
In this tradition of valuing certain stories regardless of the pleasure and pain involved, Dixon and J.S. Russell have pointed out that with all the stories there are in sports, there is added narrative value in being a fan of a team, as opposed to merely being a fan of the sport. The team’s story becomes the fan’s story, and this can enhance our lives. I think that a similar analysis is available for our separate question of what kind of team fan to be—fair-weather or true.
Narrative value is open to bandwagon and real fans alike. They just participate in different stories: bandwagoners attach themselves to relatively short-term endeavors and successes, while the real fan signs up to be a character in a fuller range of stories—those short-term arcs as well as longer, more complex, and more dynamic trajectories that can span decades. If we dig deeper into that bag of stories, I think we find a special reward that only the real fan can attain: only we can enjoy living out a distinctive kind of story—a specific narrative of redemption.
Consider a thought experiment adapted from David Velleman (1991). Imagine two men, each of whom had a marriage that ended in painful failure. Moe uses the lessons he learned from that experience to work hard at his second marriage, and his effort is instrumental in making the second marriage a success. Joe does not fix his prior mistakes, but he lucks into a good second marriage anyway, just by pairing up with someone who happens to be more adapted to his shortcomings. Moe’s life contains something important that Joe’s life lacks, even though both have bad first marriages and good second marriages and, let’s also assume, equal pleasures and pains along the way. Moe’s efforts at self-improvement paid off, validating his work and to some extent compensating for his earlier missteps; his story contains the element of redemption. Joe, by contrast, simply lucked out. His life gets no added value for being a story of redemption and successful sacrifice. Though their experiences are hedonically parallel, the value of those experiences is different, and that difference in value seems to trace to their distinctive narratives.
Lucking out is still good, of course: Moe and Joe get equal doses of pleasure and pain. It’s just that the lucky life is not as good. Other things equal, a million dollars you earn is richer than the million you win in a lottery. The meal you prepare yourself is more rewarding than buying the same meal. Sure, you have to clean up the mess when you cook up your own reward, but the commitment and redemption more than compensate for having to tackle a few chores.
Of course, even our deepest attachments initially enter our lives arbitrarily. We randomly met our life-partner in a bar rather than meeting someone else at the coffee shop across the street; a friend introduced us to Texas Hold ‘Em rather than Bridge; we were born in Portland rather than Los Angeles. What is weird is how the attachments that come from these unplanned accidents of fate can be so resistant to reexamination. Attachments stick. Why do we not instead abandon our attachments every time we see that we can trade up to something better? When I could choose a set of pathways where I can consistently win, how is it rational to instead choose an alternative narrative where I sometimes commit to a loser?
In her analysis of commitment, Cheshire Calhoun (2009) points out that some of us just find ourselves attracted to the kind of life where the future is well-defined and less surprising or amorphous. Perhaps we could build out that logic to allow with the strong reading of narrative value that changing a commitment with which one identifies amounts to a change of self, and the stakes get high with such changes. But whether or not those two values of lasting commitment are in play, I think we can add a third and universal benefit to long-term commitment: the truly committed seek the kind of value that Moe finds, value in the narrative of investments that pay off. Secure, committed attachment lets us enjoy that specific kind of good life. It is good to allow some of our stories be narratives of redemption, even though opening oneself up to such stories can bring considerable amounts of suffering.
We should not underestimate that risk. When commitment binds us to the arbitrary, it also exposes us to love’s harms—the marriage that fails, the career that sputters, and contrary to Epictetus and worst of all possibilities I can imagine, the loss of one’s child. When we invest in a lifelong narrative that has neither a happy trajectory nor an arc of redemption, despondency makes sense. But this vulnerability to loss is balanced by the dividend of living through stories like redemption and mutual sacrifice. Our lovers, friends, children, pastimes, and endeavors don’t just enable us to have something to count on, if counting on things is what you’re into. And it’s not just that they form us, that we identify with them, that they become us. More than that, they offer a specific kind of life-story to everyone who chooses them, and this goes even for those who prefer futures with more spontaneous flexibility. That is love’s promise: while it can bring pain and loss, in exchange we also get the stability that some prefer, the identities that structure our lives, and crucially for our purposes, wonderful narratives like long-term success and redemption. I believe that we open ourselves to attachments that are initially arbitrary just so that we may live a life with these stories. The alchemy of commitment turns randomness into reward.
As we have seen, the risk of being a real fan, as opposed to a fair-weather fan, is that you commit to a loser. But as a result you get to hope that your struggle and sacrifice will one day be redeemed by the team’s winning it all. This aspiration is what keeps real fans up at night, it is what keeps us throwing good money after bad, and it is what our discussion boards cling to with drippy desperation: the prospect of a championship that makes all the pain worthwhile. This is where the true fan profits. We are the only ones who get a shot at living out a lifelong narrative of redemption. If you root through the losing, then you get redemption; if you don’t, then while you might get pleasure, you will not get to enjoy a life with that kind of story.
When the Blazers’ second championship finally happens, I will celebrate with the bandwagon fans. But I and the other real fans, we the truly devoted, will have extra reason to celebrate a little harder. Like the couple that stays married through tough times and finds themselves happily together at the end of life, we true fans will get our arc of redemption. For staying true to the team through the ups and the many downs, for not playing the field when a more attractive team came along, our earlier sacrifices—the painful rebuilding seasons and playoff disappointments, the incomprehensible management decisions, the head-scratching shots and the mind-boggling errors—all of it will be given a new meaning. If we make it to Titletown, all of that will suddenly mean that we now get to enjoy the narrative of struggle and persistence paying off.
Landmines lie waiting on this journey to redemption. Beyond the misery of watching your team lose, if you either (nobly) die before the team wins a title or (shamefully, spinelessly) hop on another team’s more successful coattails, then you will not cash in the value of redemption. But that is a trade-off worth risking. And so I will plod through next season knowing that the Blazers are again unlikely to win it all but hoping to catch a glimmer of a title somewhere on the horizon, a lighthouse signaling a shore that could someday wrap Blazermaniacs in the warm comfort of all that is wonderful and true.
When that championship finally comes, it will be glorious, and many lives will be better for it. It’s not that we real fans will experience some added pleasure from redeeming our sacrifice, or not just that anyway. Perhaps we will, but perhaps we will not. Having no memory of the Blazers’ only championship, I am in no position to say. But pleasure-bursts aside, real fans alone still get to pine for a special benefit. When we finally get that title, and when the dust settles and the bandwagon fans move on to the latest fad, the true fans will reinvest for the next season. As we do, we will cherish our distinctive good: in that sport, during that year, we and we alone will be the ones who get to enjoy The Redemption.
Calhoun, Cheshire. “What Good Is Commitment?” Ethics, 119 (2009), pp. 613-641.
Dixon, Nicholas. “In Praise of Partisanship,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 43 (2016), pp. 233-249.
Epictetus, The Enchiridion, 135.
Feezell, Randolph. Sport, Philosophy, and Good Lives. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Gordon, Jeremy. “Letter of Recommendation: Fair-Weather Fandom,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, Jan. 14, 2017, p. 28.
Russell, J.S. “The Ideal Fan or Good Fans?” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 6 (2012), pp. 16-30.
Simmons, Bill. 2002. “Rules for Being a True Fan,” ESPN Page 2, Feb. 27, 2002. (Last accessed on August 30, 2018.)
Taylor, Paul. “The 10 Rules of Being a True Sports Fan,” Bleacher Report, May 1, 2010. (Last accessed on August 30, 2018.)
Thompson, Derek. “In Praise of Fair-Weather Fandom,” The Atlantic, May 2018.
Velleman, J. David. “Well-Being and Time,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72 (1991), pp. 48-77.