To be a sports fan in academia is to be a little out of place. There simply aren’t that many of us (particularly once you take out the soccer fans). Sports like baseball and American football are either ignored or dismissed. So, against the prevailing prejudice of my peers, I would like to propose, if not a full moral and intellectual justification of sports fandom, at least something in the way of an apologia. I do so with a special sense of urgency, counting the few days that remain before my favorite National Football League team, the Carolina Panthers, enters Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California to play in the Super Bowl.
Writing in The Atlantic three years ago on the eve of the forty-seventh Super Bowl, Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of Communication at Fairfield University, observed that “if you look hard at sports, you can’t help but see contours of religion.” Serazio had no pretensions of original insight. He cited the early sociologist Émile Durkheim, for whom religion was of interest not so much as a body of scripture or doctrines but as a means of social solidarity and common purpose. When people come together to worship, whether the ostensible object of their worship is a religious totem or a battalion of athletes, they are affirming themselves as a community.
But a complete self-portrait of sports fandom requires me to call upon another pioneering sociologist, Max Weber. In his famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber took note of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which holds that only some souls are chosen (“predetermined”) by God to be spared damnation, and that such selection can be neither earned nor altered through one’s own efforts. As Weber writes of Calvinism, “God’s grace is, since His decrees cannot change, as impossible for those to whom He has granted it to lose as it is unattainable for those to whom He has denied it.”
The inability to alter one’s eternal destination did not forestall curiosity regarding that fate and the search for indications as to what that fate might be. It was thought to be necessary to present to the world a certain confidence that one had been chosen to be among the saved. What interested Weber was the degree to which this search for assurance of one’s salvation led to the growth of those disposition and habits many consider indispensable to success in capitalist enterprise. To find one’s calling and to be successful in pursuing it signified that one was destined for salvation. In Weber’s telling, Protestant society’s emphasis on industriousness and efficiency, and its stigmatization of sloth and self-indulgence, owed much to the pursuit of salvific assurance.
Eventually, capitalism became a powerful institution in its own right. Its connection to religious salvation has largely been jettisoned. This process has been part of a larger rejection of the sort of fatalism that predestination exemplifies. In our own ways, these days, we believe in our power to bring about our vision of the good, whether by bootstrapping or by constructing better institutions.
The sports fan, however, is in an uncommonly powerless position: No fan can change the outcome of a game. So why devote so much attention and passion to a process whose outcome one cannot hope to influence? Such misplaced devotion can seem meaningless, or worse, a renunciation of the obligation to continuously better ourselves.
Furthermore, unlike a seventeenth-century Calvinist, we don't think we face the ultimate possibilities of salvation and damnation. The outcomes of our pursuits in life are far less circumscribed. Instead, we grapple with many, smaller potential outcomes: that automation or government budget cuts might render our jobs obsolete or that nuclear terrorism could disrupt civilization as we know it. Life is in many ways easier today, but it is also much more uncertain.
Sports, on the other hand, offer a way to travel back to a bygone age. The Super Bowl allows me to adopt a standpoint of utter moral certainty, whereby the Panthers represent all that is good and virtuous and the opposing Denver Broncos are manifestations of evil. Sports are an arena in which I can take up this fantasy for a brief time and revel in the richness and completeness of the emotions that it brings. I’m also offered the benefit of knowing that the outcome of the contest won’t require me to analyze subtext or trace out extenuating circumstances; the game offers only the joy of victory or the agony of defeat.
Sports provide the rarest of experiences in modern society—an escape into clear-cut-ness. Contemporary life offers little in the way of the explicit contrast between two starkly opposing outcomes that predestination provided. We are tasked with building meaning in our own lives, but we lack the cultural tools to accomplish this. The dichotomies between good and evil, between honorable and shameful conduct, have eroded in the wake of our (legitimate) attention to context and circumstance in assessing other people and the world around us.
Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but I believe that the brief detours into dichotomy and moral certainty that sports provide help to bring the complexity of the world beyond sports—full, as we know it is, of seemingly intractable social problems—into sharper relief. After watching the Panthers play the Broncos through a simple “heroes and villains” lens, I can appreciate how much more nuanced the world is. I would rather my fellow citizens find moral certainty in an escapist domain like sports that in the halls of government, where the potential for such zealotry to turn oppressive and deadly is infinitely greater. In the world beyond sports, an appreciation of complexity and nuance might serve us well. But, until then—Go Panthers.
Matthew Braswell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia.