The Psychology (Soul-ology?) of Professional Sports Fandom

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I’m pretty excited for the AFC Championship game this Sunday afternoon. I started watching football in 2016 after a 9-season hiatus. Although I was born in Denver and, naturally, was a Broncos fan, my family moved to Wisconsin in 2000, and Brett Favre was a delight to watch. I don’t think that I was ever really a Packers fan, but I was a Favre fan, even though I still can’t figure out why his last name is pronounced Farve. I also don’t understand why we all pronounce February and Wednesday as we do.

Note: While I’m making confessions, here is another one. My friend Aaron and I were once walking around the mall in Green Bay and we saw a life-size cardboard cutout of Aaron Rodgers. We thought it would be funny for us to stand on either side of the cutout holding his hands. So there is a picture somewhere with three Aarons holding hands. I’m embarrassed about that photo because I really don’t appreciate the Aaron Rodgers vibe.

In any case, I started watching football again because I realized that the Vikings were a big deal, at least for people living in the Twin Cities. Kate and I were living Downtown, just a couple blocks away from the new U.S. Bank Stadium—the home of the Minnesota Vikings. In 2016 I didn’t watch many games, but I did try to watch every Vikings game. It wasn’t until 2017 that I started paying for a streaming service during football season. That year, I tried to watch every single preseason and regular season game. I always cheered for the Vikings and was finally rewarded with the Minneapolis Miracle in 2018, followed by deep disappointment when they (we?) ended their (our?) season with a loss. Of course, the Vikings ending the season on a loss is really normal, and it seems that Vikings fans kind of like talking about how bad their team is, so, in the end, maybe everyone is happy. I’m also unsure how the shared identity with a sports team works, theologically or otherwise.

In 2018, I was impressed by the number of rookie quarterbacks. Nearly all of them were my age or at least within a couple of years in either direction. I was especially impressed with Patrick Mahomes. Pretty soon, I couldn’t wait to watch him play. Eventually, I identified the Chiefs as my favorite AFC team as the counterpart to the Vikings as my favorite NFC team. Every week, I could expect to be let down by the Vikings. And every week, I could be reasonably sure that the Chiefs would win. That was nice, but this season has been even better. The Chiefs have maintained their standard of excellence. The Vikings have had an extraordinary year, even if they did lose to a lower seed in the playoffs.

The Vikings are out, but the Chiefs are in. Of course, the Chiefs are at a disadvantage, not least because of the sprained ankle that Mahomes sustained against the Jags in the divisional playoff. More than that, the Chiefs have lost the last three games they have played against the Bengals—each by three points. Even when Mahomes is in top-notch shape, the Bengals are a formidable foe.

One thing that irritates me, though, is that virtually every sports announcer, YouTuber, and podcaster is framing the game as Mahomes vs. Burrow. I kind of get it because these two teams are facing each other, and the quarterbacks facilitate the scoring, and the team with the most points wins. But what I don’t get is why the quarterbacks are pictured as facing off against each other when they actually face off against the other team’s defense. Whether the Bengals or the Chiefs win doesn’t necessarily reflect that one quarterback is better than another. Instead, it reflects that one quarterback was successful or not against the other team’s defense.

I suspect that the Chiefs will lose this game, largely because Mahomes has several limitations due to his ankle sprain. I hope that they will win, and I will cheer them all along the way. But I don’t think the game’s outcome says anything about who is the “better’ quarterback, whatever that might mean.

In any case, all of the hype about who the “better” quarterback is, and which team will win under said quarterback’s prowess, has made me think a little bit more about why people become fans (aka fanatics) of various sports teams. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is a fan of a team or the star representative of that team. I’m unsure if I’m a Chiefs fan, an Andy Reid (the head coach) fan, or a Patrick Mahomes fan. This is the conundrum that Patriots fans had to consider when Tom Brady (or the powers that be) broke up the Brady-Belichick powerhouse. Even if a fan is unable to determine who (or what) they are actually a fan of, some people’s fanaticism makes sense. A long family history of loyalty to a particular team. A geographical locale (e.g., a Minnesotan-born-and-raised kid rooting for the Minnesota Vikings). So why am I a fan of a sports teams without a family history of fandom or geographic connection? (See below).

Another reason that I started questioning the psych-ology (soul-ology?) behind sports fandom is that in their game against the Raiders a couple of weeks ago, the Chiefs went into formation from a spinning-ring-around-the-Rosie huddle. Maybe they were just having fun. But ordinarily, I would be irritated with a team would do something so cocky. The only reason that the refs didn’t throw a flag was probably because of the novelty of the whole thing. In the moment, though, I thought it was awesome. Later, I hated myself for thinking it was awesome. So why do I like a team that took the field in such a braggadocios way that I have no real connection to at all?

In the end, it’s probably because professional sports fandom has a lot to do with finding some level of identity and value in connection with the success of a sports team. When I started becoming a Chiefs fan, I was working as a pastoral assistant (read: secretary). We also had some major car trouble and the pastoral assistant job wasn’t going to cut it. So I started throwing boxes for UPS from 2–8 AM before heading to the office. Although sweating it out unloading semi-trucks helped me lose some of the requisite seminary pudge, it was a hard job with few rewards. I was also transferring from a tiny, fundamentalist seminary to one of the fastest-growing seminaries in the United States. Becoming a Chiefs fan, probably, had something to do with wanting to be connected to something big and impressive, just like transferring from the tiny seminary to the well-known seminary with well-known professors had something to do with wanting a diploma from an impressive seminary that I would take pride in rather than from the small seminary that I was embarrassed and apologetic about attending.

Like the decision to transfer seminaries, the unconscious becoming a fan had multiple factors. Some of those factors were probably virtuous or, at least, sensible. One of the sensible factors was that the seminary I transferred to is in Kansas City, so it kind of made sense to cheer for the team that would later shut down the entire city for a post-Super Bowl win parade. The less-than-virtuous reality was that Kansas City became a place of exciting and impressive things that could be the greener grass for my otherwise mundane and unimpressive life. I valued (at least in part) these two connections to Kansas City because they made me feel like I was winning at life.

This attaching-identity-to-a-sports-team phenomena is really just a microcosm of finding identity in something or someone other than God that humans have been doing from shortly after the very beginning. The biblical way of terming this identity detachment from Christ and identity attachment to something other is idolatry. Of course, there is the standard kind of idolatry where temples are built, and idols are fashioned, but maybe that’s what happens with stadiums and million-dollar contracts and perfectly designed uniforms, and 4k flying cameras. The Bible has a lot to say about the first kind of idolatry, but I think it applies to the second kind of idolatry, too.

I’m still going to cheer for the Kansas City Chiefs, even though I think that they might lose. I’m going to enjoy all of the reasons that it is fun to watch them play like the emotionless face of Andy Reid, the clever play designs, and Patrick Mahomes’s insanely weird yet successful maneuvering of the football. But I’m also going to try to be conscious that the Chiefs can’t give me a meaningful existence, regardless of how successful or impressive they are on the field. That will come from the Christ that I worship with fellow church members earlier that day. It will come from the times spend with friends watching the game and from my wife who (says that she) enjoys watching football with me. It will come from waking up on Monday morning, going to the office, and trying to be a faithful pastor at the small church that I love. 

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