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Philosophy and pop culture

Making Sense of Football Fandom

Can taking pride in your favorite team's win make rational sense?

Well, it's college football season again—time to root for your favorite team, get upset when they lose, and feel superior to your opponents when they win. I love college football—specifically Oklahoma Sooner football— so I can’t wait. However, recently some of my students have been asking a question that threatens to ruin all my fun: What, if any, rational sense does being a football fan make? It's not like you are on the field. You didn't catch a pass, recover a fumble, or kick a field goal. At best, you were within earshot, screaming from a stadium seat. Most likely, you were miles away sitting on your couch screaming at a flashing box. You, it seems, contributed nothing; even if you had not watched at all, the game would've turned out exactly the same. So how can you gloat? How can you feel proud? What right do you have to taunt your friend who was rooting for the other team? In fact, how could you rationally care at all?

Please realize, I'm not looking for a causal explanation for fandom. I know why we root for our favorite teams. It's part of our tribal instinct. We were glad when our warriors won the battle, and we are glad when our team wins the game. But that is a psychological explanation and I don’t think our tribal instincts are particularly rational—especially since the home team is not actually fighting a war. I am looking for a rational justification for fandom; as a philosopher, I am not a fan of acting irrationally and I’m worried that fandom is something that is inevitably irrational. So, is there a rational excuse for rooting for the home team?

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I believe so and, oddly enough, the answer was given to us by our current presidential candidates. In a 2002 speech to the Olympic athletes of Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney reminded them that their athletic accomplishments were not an individual achievement. “You Olympians, however, know you didn't get here solely on your own power…For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers, encouraged your hopes, coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them.” Of course, the athletes deserve a majority of the credit, but their accomplishments are also a result of the parents, coaches and communities that produced them.

A similar point was made recently by President Obama in a 2012 stump speech in Virginia. When a successful business is built, it is not merely an individual accomplishment. Certainly, just as in the case of Olympic athletes, the entrepreneur deserves most of the credit. S/he took the financial risk and used some elbow grease. However, that person did not educate themselves; they did not invent the internet on which they sell their product; they did not build the roads and bridges used by their customers or to ship their merchandise. “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” Some of the credit must go to the local, state and federal governments that provide the infrastructure in which the business functions. (How much credit, and thus how much payment (if any) in taxes is warranted, is another matter – a philosophical and political one that I will not dive into here.) 

In his speech, Romney called for the Olympians to applaud “the parents, coaches, and communities” that produced them, but he also made sense of why the parents, coaches and communities can rationally cheer for and take pride in the accomplishments of the athletes. They had a hand in those accomplishments. Combine this with Obama’s point, and we can make rational sense of why all Americans can do the same. It is not a coincidence that America always dominates the Olympics, and it’s not because we are genetically superior or more naturally athletic (we’re not). It’s because the nation we have all helped create—with its money, its opportunity for athletic pursuits, etc.—produces superior athletes. And so it makes sense to feel a sense of accomplishment when our women's gymnastics team wins the gold medal. Yes, none of us can do what they can do on the uneven bars, but we all played a role in making their accomplishment possible.

And this is why it is rational for me to root for the Sooners, and for you to root for your team. I am a part of my college community, even the one I attended in the past, and I helped create it. So the team’s accomplishments (and failures) are partly mine. It makes rational sense for me to yell Boomer Sooner, to be glad when they win, be sad when they lose, and to taunt my niece Kanon (a Texas fan) every time we beat Texas in the Red River shootout—which has been most of the time since I became a part of the sooner community in 2000. No more philosophical worries; college football fandom makes sense—although I won’t say anything about body-painted NFL fans in sub-zero temperatures.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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