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A brief inquiry into the nature of sports fandom

Why the home team doesn't deserve your loyalty

By Samuel Arbesman
March 22, 2009
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SPRING IS IN the air, and soon millions of people will begin streaming through turnstiles, flicking on the television, and gluing themselves to the radio to follow their beloved baseball teams. Possibly this includes you, gripped with anticipation as the Red Sox prepare for a new season. You might harbor a fondness for the good old days of Ted Williams; you might have warm feelings for the team you watched win the World Series a scant couple of seasons ago. Either way, you're throwing your loyalty and your energy behind the 2009 team.

In doing so, you're not just joining millions in the classic American fan experience. You're also staking out a position on an ancient philosophical problem, that of identity over time. And, if you're a real hometown loyalist, I'm sorry to say your position in this debate is not good.

Taking the other side in the debate is a motley array of spineless creatures. There are the fair-weather fans, those Johnny-come-latelies derided throughout the sports world for their disloyalty and penchant for leaving games early to beat the traffic. Even more despicable are the bandwagon jumpers, those fans who adopt whichever team is successful at the moment. They liked the Yankees in the 1990s; since then they might have rooted for the Angels, the Marlins, or the White Sox. They're mercenaries of the spectator world, reviled by all hard-core fans.

Well, hard-core fans, I have news for you: These spineless creatures are the only rational ones around.

To understand why fair-weather fandom makes more sense, we'll need to apply a bit of logic, classical philosophy, and reason. These tools might be foreign to many sports fans, but if you've read this far, I'm not concerned about alienating you. (You might want to scrub that red "B" off your chest before continuing, though.) Hold onto your commemorative hats and get ready to question everything you hold dear.

Very much back in the day, Theseus was the mythical king of Athens. And among his many possessions, he had a ship that he used to return from slaying the Minotaur. After his death, this ship was preserved for hundreds of years in the harbor of Athens. Or was it? Whenever a wooden plank rotted out, it was replaced. If a beam fell apart, a new one was fashioned in its stead. After enough time had passed, every part had been replaced. So now it was a boat that looked very much like the ship of Theseus, and occupied the same spot in the harbor, but not a single piece of it had existed when Theseus sailed. Essentially, it was a replica. And yet people persisted in referring to this ship as the ship of Theseus. In philosophy, this problem of identity has become known as the Ship of Theseus paradox.

To make the analogy abundantly clear: sports teams change from year to year. These days, they change a lot. You might hold a great attachment to the 2004 Red Sox World Series champions, but only around 10 percent of this year's roster consists of players from that team (actual fact!). And if you have been rooting for the Sox for more than 14 years, you're rooting for a fully replaced team - different players are playing the game, different owners get your ticket money. You can see why this is an absurdity. It is in no way the same team, and you are rooting for it out of inertia. You might as well root for any totally different team - the Oakland A's, the Tokyo Giants. At least you'd be making an informed decision.

Of course, there are those ontologists who say that my position does not comport with common sense. These philosophers rely on ideas such as the identity of indiscernibles and perdurance theory to argue that the ship of Theseus, or sports team of choice, is actually the same over time. You know what I say to these: bushwa. They're as rational as Keith Moon's approach to a hotel room.

But sports fandom gets less rational still. When the Baltimore Colts skipped town under the cover of darkness and began playing in Indianapolis, it was essentially the same team! No Ship of Theseus nonsense here. The players who took the field for Indianapolis were, with a few exceptions, the same ones who Baltimore had just been rooting for. In philosophical terms, the team's mereological structure was preserved. The rational position for a fan, naturally, would have been to keep cheering for them. But if you, a Baltimorean, were to ever voice support for the Colts post-1984, you would be worse than irrational. You'd be the golfing buddy of Lucifer, and possibly living under police protection.

So essentially, to say you are a "real" sports fan - the kind of red-blooded American who lives and dies for your team - is to admit that you throw your heart and soul behind a constantly shifting amorphous blob that has no persistent identity. And those fair-weather fans you look down on? They're the rational ones. It's time they got some credit. Think about it: They get to root for teams when it's actually fun, sampling disappointment only as often as they like. They get to choose teams based on color scheme, or mascot. The sky's the limit.

So walk with your held high, you fair-weather fan! If someone besmirches your team of choice simply because your family has not been wearing its merchandise for generations, you may unleash the full force of impeccable logic upon them, starting with your fists. Mine are named Plato and Aristotle.

But let's reach a reasonable understanding. Simply recognize that when you root for a team, you are not just dressing up and getting into arguments with fellow drunken spectators. You are also taking an important stance in a long-standing discussion within the realm of philosophy. And, if you actually care deeply about your team, you are probably wrong.

Samuel Arbesman is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. Unaccountably, he is a longtime fan of the Buffalo Bills.

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