Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Puzzling Partisanship

There was a faculty meeting today. Every year, at the first faculty meeting of the fall semester, new faculty are introduced and invited to say something about themselves. There was a recurring theme of faculty briefly promoting their favorite sports team in some way. In some cases the team was that of their undergraduate school, or their graduate school. In other cases it was the team of a school from their home town.

I must confess that this mystifies me. I am almost completely unable to understand partisan support for sports teams. I say "almost" because there is one circumstance in which I can understand such support, and that is when someone I know is playing on the team. I might cheer for them if I am at the game, in case they see or hear me and are encouraged by it (assuming that there isn't too big a crowd--if the crowd is really big, there's no point in cheering). I would prefer to let that person know individually that I wished them luck. The outpouring of support for people I don't know (and in some cases, the hatred for their traditional rivals) simply doesn't make sense to me. It's not as though your local favorite sports team has just survived an earthquake and needs donations and cheering to avoid starvation.

I felt a similar way in high school. On occasion we had to attend ridiculous pep rallies instead of going to class. I would gladly tell a friend "good luck in the game" on an individual basis, but the attempt to get everyone to cheer, as a group, for the collective success of a sports team, was of no interest to me (and nowadays, upon reflection, I find it somewhat disturbing and collectivist). We cheered for the football team and the basketball team, but not, say, the band, or the chess team, or the Latin club. I was similarly unsupportive of sports in college. On the other hand, I do have some affection for my undergraduate school, though that is in part because of my affection for the faculty from whom I took courses, and who remain there. If all of them were to depart, I do not think I would feel so fond of the school.

People like to feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves. Maybe this explains why people like to support a sports team--they feel like they're making some kind of difference. Yet this is still puzzling to me. Is a sports team a worthy cause? It's not "save the whales" or "protect private property" or a political cause of any kind. "Go Braves" is not a courageous statement indicative of one's moral fiber. I can understand someone who goes to great lengths to "cheer" for their favorite political cause. I just can't understand devotion to a sports franchise. I support various changes in economic policy because I think they will lead to people being happier. I vote Libertarian when I can because they tend to be closer in line with my views than anyone else. Yet I am first and foremost a libertarian, not a Libertarian, and I don't support just any Libertarian candidate. I'm not sure I can bring myself to vote for Bob Barr, the 2008 Libertarian presidential candidate, for example (primarily due to his political past). For that matter, I can't say that I'm especially patriotic. As I've gotten older I've become increasingly uncomfortable with rah-rah flag-waving "America is the best" rhetoric and sentiment. I'm much more comfortable saying "America is pretty great in some ways and not so great in others".

None of this is to say that I do not enjoy watching sports (although I do, for the most part, despise watching political coverage on television). Well, actually, I usually don't enjoy watching sports. I do enjoy watching professional soccer players, although not enough to make any effort to seek it out (if I happen to catch it on by chance, I may sit and watch some of it). When I watch World Cup games, I'm not really cheering for any particular team--not even the U.S. team. I really just want to see skilled athletes play a beautiful game. Soccer is the sport I can enjoy watching because it's a sport about which I know enough to recognize the subtleties of the game. I'm sure if I knew more about baseball and football I would enjoy watching them more. I still don't think I would care who won, though.

So, back to the faculty meeting. I wonder what would happen if one of the new faculty were to say "...and I'm cheering for the people who live on the cul-de-sac at the end of Henderson Street! Let's get those property values up! Go team!" Or perhaps "I'm a big support of the legalization of drugs! Let's all go smoke some dope!" Are those really any weirder than espousing fervant support for people who will run around on a field and hit or kick or carry a ball?

I think David Friedman once argued that a reason people vote might be the same reason people cheer for their favorite team at a big arena. Their cheering, just like their vote, won't affect the outcome--they'll be drowned out by everyone else. Yet they enjoy feeling part of something bigger, supporting the team. People have a taste or preference for partisanship. I feel like this, to some extent, regarding political and social causes I support. My failing is that I just can't understand having the same kind of fervor for a team playing a game.