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“Supporting a team is often like romantic love: it involves a lot of emotions”

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Published on 20 June 2022

Football fans
Football fans

From stadium bans to pitch invasions - major sporting tournaments in recent months have been attracting headlines for all the wrong reasons.

University of Sunderland academic Dr Paul Davis, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Sport, unpicks the volatile relationship between sport and fandom, and asks questions around identity, expression and ethics which signify any spectator of sport.

“Being a sport fan is often a tough gig. It involves a lot of emotions, including excitement, joy, wonder, gratitude, pride, anticipation, anxiety, fear, hope, sadness, exasperation, frustration, depression, resignation, grief, indignation, anger and loathing.

Anguished introspection is also commonplace: sport fans sometimes wonder, ‘Why do I do it? Why do I (for instance) spend so much time, money and emotion watching this mediocre team, when I could be learning a foreign language, doing voluntary work, or improving my knowledge of the classical world?’

Sport fandom is diverse. Modern-day philosophers and sociologists of sport have written a lot on watching sport. There is no unique explanation for fans’ involvement and no unique way of being a fan. One might support a team (such as Sunderland) or an individual (such as Lewis Hamilton); one might in all sports support the underdog; and one might desist from ever supporting anyone, hoping for merely (say) a tactically interesting or beautiful game or tournament.

It has been said that supporting a team is like romantic love. For instance, one continues to support the team through changes and downturns in fortune; one’s commitment is lasting; in each case, there are social practices that signal and strengthen attachment (compare holding hands in public and wearing ‘the colours’); one’s support is an aspect of one’s identity; and one pays close attention to one’s team (compare one’s beloved) and significantly less to others.

All the above paragraph sounds morally positive. But there are moral dangers, too. One might condone or ‘soft soap’ in one’s idols transgressions, such as cheating, violence and sexual misconduct, that one would condemn in others. One might ‘see’ only one’s team by never acknowledging their failings, by never seeing merit in the opposition and by angry or sour explanation of any defeat in terms of some combination of poor officiating, injustice and bad luck. One might, again, never entertain any faults in those who support one’s team, whilst freely criticising those who support other teams. Again, sport is (unlike romantic love) essentially competitive and often a site for the celebration of identities of (for instance) town, nation, ethnicity, class, religion, gender and sexuality. This courts fan denigration of the identities affirmed by opposing performers and fans. And if the fan culture is bound up (as many football cultures have been) with excess alcohol and a dubious masculinity, such denigration becomes more likely as part of an atmosphere of machismo and spiteful triumphalism. Violence can be the culmination of this atmosphere.  

At the same time, supporting a team continues to ground opportunities for morally positive experience and response. In addition to romantic love-like loyalty, the special concern typically extends to former players of one’s club, who are likely to receive a warm welcome when they return with a later club. Partisanship, again, offers opportunities for desistance from gloating in victory, grace and honesty in defeat, and patience during spells of disappointment. Supporting a team, again, can provide one narrative thread in a life: the narrative of the team becomes our narrative; it becomes a deeply woven part of us, which can be shared with others (who might be met through shared partisanship). It is a site of stability amid the instability and sometime chaos that characterise many a human life.

Sport fandom also offers the opportunity to challenge morally negative elements within one’s fan culture and sometimes broader society. For instance, the racist abuse that black England footballers suffered for missing penalties in the final of Euro 2021 was vigorously challenged by many other England fans. Again, one former female football fan grouping, the Ladies of Besiktas, visibly and audibly challenged – with some positive results - the toxically masculine repertoires (for instance, sexist slurs and foul language) of male fans of Turkey’s Besiktas F.C. More incremental illustration of how sport fandom can both reflect and recreate processes of social change is tennis’s Wimbledon fortnight: the democratisation of British culture, which arguably began in the 1960s, is illustrated in the increasingly raucous Centre Court atmosphere from the late 1970s. Again, the eventual fan acceptance of, then respect and finally affection for Martina Navratilova reflected and gave significant reinforcement to the increased social acceptance of lesbians.

Sport fandom, like society at large, is fluid. Forms of fan expression change. Social media and online chat rooms have in the 21st Century become a central part of sport fandom. The effects of this are inevitably ambiguous. While social media and chat rooms offer a precious site for much that is positive about sport fandom, they also offer a site for the preceding underbelly of sexism, racism and broader spite and poison. Social media has also helped blur the boundaries between fan and performer, with some fans, again, carefree in their online abuse of performers. Such boundary-blurring is arguably implicated in the recent incidence of football fans verbally abusing and even assaulting players on the pitch after matches.  

Any hope of a wholly hygienic sport fandom is probably illusory. Sport fandom, like sport itself (and like love), probably has a certain inherent volatility. The trick is not to eliminate the volatility, but to channel it with imagination and respect.”

This article is adapted from Dr Davis’s Paper: Philosophical Theories of Sport Fan and Spectator Behaviour, and appears in the latest edition of Routledge Encyclopedia of Sport Studies.

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