In this first weekly article, we propose some explanations for one of the basest common traits among sports fans. At the core of fandom lies a contradiction; sports are at once a central part of our lives, but something we as fans have almost no effect on. Why, then, do we watch sports to begin with? Surely, it’s not merely to annoy our spouses! As an introduction to how we do things at The Tattered Pennant, we take on that massive subject, with (hopefully) thought-provoking results. Enjoy, keep watching, and join our fanatical, fun-loving group of critical sports observers.
Why We Watch
by The Tattered Pennant Staff
Problems in the sports world are more visible now than ever before. Athletes’ off the field indiscretions, issues surrounding athlete safety, and the economic mal-effects of sports criticized by social critics all suggest that sports are bad medicine. And honestly, there is enough fodder in tracking problems in sports to support an entire news channel.
And yet, we watch sports in increasingly record numbers. In the same year the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice was suspended for domestic violence, a record number of fans watched the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. In the same year that attention toward alleged abuse of college athletes and their right to be paid for play reached an all-time high, the 2015 NCAA basketball tournament grabbed its highest viewer tally in two decades.
It has been said that sports fandom is “irrational.” Our viewership and support has no bearing on the outcome of a contest. We spend inordinate amounts of money to attend and remotely view these contests every week. Regardless of the ugliness in the sports world, we watch, fixated on the exploits of individuals we will never meet, pulling for them to win rings we will never get to own ourselves.
One reason we continue to watch sports is that sports has become a very central part of our identity. We are linked to our favorite teams by geography or university allegiance, and we carry that association everywhere. Often, sports allegiances trump other facets of our identity. Although you may identify as a Republican, Asian-American, or an accountant, you may more visibly identify as a Braves or Longhorns fan (1). Where else can you find a stock broker hugging a construction worker but at a sports arena after a big win? Identity is what buoys sports across all economic waves and troughs, through geopolitical instability, and when things in the sports world itself get dicey. Sports is among the most resilient institutions humanity has. Because they become a part of our being, sports will continue to capture our passion and attention as long as they are played.
Perhaps even more than our sense of identity, we watch because we want to feel. Sports make us feel happiness and dejection on levels we rarely would experience otherwise. For those who have witnessed a favorite team win a championship, you know the overwhelming euphoria that follows. And, if we are true to ourselves, we know that sort of euphoria is almost never experienced in a non-sports context (2). For example, a particular Ohio State fan on our staff will forever remember Ohio State defeating the Miami Hurricanes in January 2003 as one of the greatest moments of his life, regardless of whatever success he achieves down the road. Most of you reading this have a moment like this yourselves, and can relate.
On the other hand, the sense of loss that can follow on-field defeat is perhaps exceeded only by life’s true tragedies (3). The hope pinned on a favorite team brings with it the risk of disappointment- a feeling that in a word, sucks. And, as we know, that feeling is often followed by evasive maneuvers; whether that means ignoring sports news outlets for a period of time, or diving headlong into other pursuits, a feeling of loss in sports does in some ways end up controlling our actions.
Sports also allows us to feel a connection with something bigger than us. However imagined the idea of “Raider Nation” may be, individual Oakland Raiders fans nevertheless are uniquely connected to one another, even if they share no other common characteristics. A feeling of connection with a larger group of like-minded people draws out our emotions in unique ways. We become communally enmeshed in euphoria and disappointment, which both alleviates and heightens those feelings in ways we rarely get to feel in daily life. The euphoria of a big win is a feeling shared, then amplified, among thousands of individuals who care about your team like you do.
In defeat, the feeling of loss is equally felt by supporters, thereby making the coping experience a shared one in ways impossible in one’s daily life. After all, when is the last time strangers told you “I feel your pain” regarding getting fired or dumped? Lose a big game, and you have thousands of fellow supporters who understand exactly what you are going through at the exact same time. In other words, sports fan bases are profound coping mechanisms (4).
To be sure, none of these reasons for watching sports are logically sound. Positive feelings toward our favorite teams still don’t lead us to actually joining in on the competition, or sharing in a team’s riches. Emotion is inherently the opposite of logic, however. As fans we thrive on the visceral above all else. In that sense, sports fandom needs no defense or explanation. Sports become a part of our identities and life experience in ways that only make sense to those inside the fan bubble. Maybe in the end, the question “why do we watch sports” is missing the point. Considering how sports pervade our lives, fans should more appropriately ask “what else is even worth watching?”
As this article argues, we watch sports because sports stick with us…and don’t leave. Similarly, it is our hope that The Tattered Pennant becomes a part of your sports watching experience, allowing you to delve deeper into what sports is and means. Each week, we will ask a new sports question, like "how does extracurricular fighting affect games?" and "what is the deal with predictions taking over sports media?" By asking these and other deeper questions, we are able to see more of how sports works in a broad sense.
Our analysis does not always attempt to give answers. Sometimes we offer explanations, or simply frame questions and allow discussion to unfold on our moderated forums. Just as we have been trained to do in our classes, we invite debate across all topics, and we hope that our forums allow robust discussion to occur over the issues raised.
So, pull us up on your lunch break, read our articles on your commute, and join in next –level sports conversation on the The Tattered Pennant. It is time to watch sports better. Welcome to the show.
(1) We can see how important sports identities are by how we advertise ourselves. I certainly don’t have a “Historian on Board” bumper sticker on my car, but you better believe there’s a sports team decal on its rear window.
(2) Of course, births, marriages, and lottery winning are exceptions. I was going to insert job promotions, but I’ve had that happen, and it didn’t register.
(3) And here, of course, I am talking about deaths, family trouble, and illness/accidents.
(4) This is most true for those of us who prefer watching sports with other people. To hedge against group commiseration, some of us actually prefer solitary viewing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that...