By: Leah Steinke
If it’s 2 pm on a Tuesday or Thursday, you can find me sitting quietly in the back corner of a classroom full of sports-crazed guys. They talk and talk and talk about aspects of the game I didn’t even know people analyzed to that level or even cared about. These guys have taught me the rules of the game, which players play for what teams, which players are good or not, but even more than the sports and players themselves, these guys have taught me about sports fans. Sports fans range in degrees of interest, starting with the casual fan transitioning all the way to the intense fan, maybe even self-described as obsessed.
Using my own family as an example, between my dad, my sister, and myself, we represent three different kinds of fans. In this dynamic, I represent the casual side of the spectrum. I enjoy the excitement of sports and the comradery that comes with watching a game with a group of people but I don’t have any specific team that I consistently root for or make the time/effort to go see. My sister Sarah is a Virginia Tech graduate and loyal Hokie fan; she represents the middle ground fan in the spectrum from casual to obsessed. Sarah is a proud Hokie fan and makes a point to cheer them on to success, but does so without going to many games or allowing the results to dictate her mood for the remainder of the day. Finally, my dad represents the extreme end of the spectrum of fandom, pledging allegiance to his alma mater, the Wolverines – Go Blue! While my dad’s level of dedication has dwindled in the last few years, he has demonstrated the characteristics of an obsessed fan for most of my life. He is a Michigan grad, season ticket holder, and if it’s Saturday in October and he isn’t in Ann Arbor, you can find him parked in front of the TV cheering for his team. To put his love of Michigan sports in perspective for readers, we used to have a room in our house decorated EXCLUSIVELY in Michigan colors, including bean bags, pillows, blankets, wall décor, wallpaper, and the infamously tacky maize and blue feather duster paint splash – something I think my mom would like to permanently erase from her memory.
In my sports comm class, there are fans from all parts of that spectrum, but what I see the most are fans who feel a sense of possession over “their” team. In the few minutes we are given to chat before class gets started, I can count on hearing sports teams being discussed through the use of possessive nouns. I hear “we,” “you guys,” my,” “yours,” “theirs,” they go back and forth discussing the ins and outs of “their” teams.
As someone who could honestly care less about sports (yes, I am THAT girl taking the sports class who doesn’t care about sports), I really don’t understand the sense of ownership that comes with being a fan of a sports team. I’m not in the locker room, I’m not on the field/sideline, I don’t play any kind of role in who gets drafted where, and I certainly have no control over whether a play goes well and leads to points/a win or flops completely, so why tie my emotions to it? What sounds like common sense to me is actually the unpopular opinion, at least in this class, so I challenged myself to see the other side. I sat down with three of the most outspoken men in our class, Peter Mallett, Evan Thorpe, and Kyle Douty, and asked them to help me see the light. After talking to each of them, there were two themes that really resonated with me, that being unity and identity.
Peter Mallett is a Virginian that comes from a family of Texans. When I asked him who his team was, he said without hesitation, “The Cowboys. The Redskins are filth.” Peter is a very outspoken Cowboys fan, playing into the long-standing rivalry between the Redskins and the Cowboys and their respective fan bases. Because he is from Virginia, Peter is used to having to explain his allegiance to the Cowboys. When I asked him why he was Cowboys fan, and such a die-hard fan at that, he gave me a brief glimpse into his extended family. Peter’s father was not, and still is not, a big sports fan, but that didn’t stop Peter from falling in love with football. With the help of his uncle and grandfather, both having grown up in Dallas, Peter grew up watching the Cowboys and receiving Cowboys jerseys and gifts throughout his childhood. For Peter, rooting for the Cowboys unites him with extended family and gives them something in common to enjoy.
Similarly, Kyle Douty, a die-hard DC sports fan, credits some of his allegiance to his teams because of the way his family has always come together to cheer them on. Kyle explained, “growing up 30 minutes outside of DC my entire life, my family and I have always cheered for the DC sports. We can get to each stadium in under an hour, and we all live close enough that we can do it together pretty easily.” Kyle and I spoke at length about what sharing his teams and the experience with his entire family means to him. To him, these sports teams have become what he calls “a central focal point for everyone to rally around,” and that when you love the people you’re rallying with, it becomes more fun.
Evan, a supporter of all Philadelphia area teams, doesn’t fit into the same theme of unity that Peter and Kyle have found through their time as sports fan. In fact, for Evan it wasn’t about unity at all, it was about independent identity. To me, a guy growing up in Richmond and choosing to root for Philadelphia area teams over the Washington D.C. area teams is a little random, but to Evan it makes complete sense. Evan grew up watching and idolizing players like Donovan McNabb and Allen Iverson, vowing that he would root for the teams they played for, and the rest was history. I asked Evan why, outside of McNabb and Iverson, he felt especially connected to the Philly area teams, and he answered, “I went out picked those teams myself, it wasn’t just that they were passed down through my family. I found them and said, ‘yup, those are my teams,’ and that was it.” When I hear Evan talk about this teams in class, it seems to me that he enjoys being different than the rest of the class. He likes to be an individual in a room full of DC sports fans.
Through this process, these three guys were real ream players and willing to answer all of my questions. A lot of what I wanted to learn through these conversations stemmed from one question, I wanted to know how each of them justified calling their favorite teams “theirs,” how they justified speaking as if they personally were on the field with the members of team. I really wanted to understand their thought process and why it makes sense to them, since it makes absolutely none to me. I asked each of them, “what do you have to say to someone like me, someone who doesn’t understand your devotion and sees it as unearned entitlement more than anything else?” What each man said was really insightful and helped a little bit in gaining a better understanding of this mindset (or at least trying to, the effort was there on both ends), and interestingly enough, all three were not on the same page.
Peter stressed the word “investment.” To him, he’s entitled to take ownership of “his” teams because of the time, money, and energy they invest into following the franchise throughout the season. For him, it’s the universal atmosphere, and he made a point to tell me he is not the only fan who claims this level of ownership – don’t worry Peter, I know that! He says, “fans devote time, money, energy investing in the team.” He acknowledges that the levels of devotion differ, it could be clearing that amount of time in your schedule to be able to sit down and watch a game, or it could be taking an entire day and spending the money to physically go to the game, but nonetheless, sacrifices are made in order to watch each game. After fans make those sacrifices and investments, in Peter’s opinion, “you feel like you’re part of it.” He acknowledged that “you don’t feel the exact same struggle or loss when they [the team] lose, but you feel it. You don’t know the exact same joy when they win, but you feel it.” When I asked Peter what he’d say to convince someone like me, who doesn’t understand, to see it the same way he does, he asked me, “what do you invest your loyalty to that you call your own?” He brought up my sorority as an example, he said, “you call it [the sorority] yours, you invest time and money into it, what’s the difference?” While I don’t totally agree with that argument, based on involvement level among other things – but that’s a different story, I can kind of see where he was coming from in regards to investing money and time into something that in turn becomes an important aspect of who you are and what you associate yourself with.
Evan’s mindset and answer to the posed question was most similar to Peter’s answer. But instead of focusing on investment and the time/money aspect, Evan stressed the word “value.” Through his own answer, he asked me about things I place value in, he said, “think of anything you really like and hold value to. For me it’s sports and football and I want to keep it as close to me as possible, something I can say is my own.” So for Evan, it seems, his sense of ownership and prides seems to come from how much value he has placed on the sport itself. Identity and value go hand in hand, and for Evan so much of his identity has been based off and around his love of sports, something he values extremely high and takes seriously. An argument based off of values is one I can respect and understand, I could even go so far as to say that I sometimes do not realize how deep the love and passion for sports is for individuals, how seriously it is taken and how much it means to them.
Kyle’s response was a bit unexpected. As stated before, Kyle is a fiercely devoted fan to the DC area teams, and I expected him to be the strongest supporter of claiming the team as his in any and all conversations, but Kyle actually feels the opposite. In response to my question, he said, “I don’t [call the team ‘mine’], I think it’s stupid. I don’t do anything for them except spend money.” Similar to my own mindset, he goes on to say, “It’s different if you’re at the stadium, because then in some ways you are physically a part of it, especially if you’re a season ticket holder. If you’re at home you are not ‘we,’ you are ‘you.’ If you’re a stakeholder, intern, season ticket holder, suite owner, then the team is a part of your life, that’s your brand and company.” I was surprised at how perfectly Kyle’s answer summed up my personal thoughts on the matter, but I could not agree more with all that he said.
Being part of this class has been such an interesting learning process. Each day I remain an active listener instead of participating in much of the conversation, and by doing so I have learned much about what different kinds of sports fans look like. Taking it a step further and having the conversations I’ve had and now shared with Peter, Evan, and Kyle, I’ve been able to take a deeper look into what sports mean to each of them. Sports are way more than being the fan of the winning team. Being a sports fan is about unity, identity, value, something not to be taken lightly, at least for them. While I don’t, and probably will never (you will never find me declaring ownership and possession over a group of grown men or women who don’t even know, and never will, that I am an individual living on the same earth as them), feel the same sense of passion about the topic or any specific franchise that each of these classmates of mine do, having them take the time to explain where their passion comes from left me able to at least appreciate their energy and love for the game in a way I hadn’t before. Whatever the cause, it’s cool to see people get excited about something that makes them happy, and more importantly, it’s cool to hear someone articulate the thoughtful reasons behind that joy and passion.