I’ve written previously about the tension I experience between two different types of fandom: the nationalism involved in committing fully to a team (Avalanche), and the desire to seek exciting and novel experiences (like Wimbledon). I wrestle with the pull of the experience – the beauty of a particular play or a classic matchup – vs. the membership in a club – jersey purchases or the shared hatred of that ref who cost us a game. As supporters of teams and disciples of games, we create passionate expressions of our devotion. In my case, this means standing up and screaming obscenities with delight after, say, two strip sacks of Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. Or making an inappropriately large bet over whose statistical memory is correct. Or participating in a heated taproom debate over the relative entertainment value of different styles of play. These behaviors mark me as a sports fan.
But when do our obligations as citizens overshadow our allegiance to a certain team, sport, or experience? How much social damage are we willing to tolerate before we call into question the morality of our own fandom?
Just two months before my beloved Broncos won the Super Bowl, the greed and dishonesty of the $7 billion annual industry that is the NFL was brought to a mainstream audience with the release of Concussion. Americans saw, in dramatized form, doctors’ work to uncover the connection between football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that results in erratic and dangerous behavior and premature death. The film also brought to light the cynical efforts of the NFL to discredit these findings and avoid culpability.
The film was based on an excellent PBS Frontline documentary called “League of Denial.” Two brothers, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, both of whom worked for ESPN, did the majority of the reporting. The New York Times later revealed the appalling cowardice of ESPN, whose leaders severed their partnership with Frontline when it became obvious that the content of the Fainaru brothers’ work would damage the network’s standing with the NFL and thus Bristol’s $15.2 billion contract with the league. The network showed its allegiance to the NFL over the truth.
The NFL acts as a social parasite in other ways too: pilfering millions in public funding for stadia while failing to share the spoils with local citizens based on their investment, and ignoring and minimizing violence perpetrated by its employees, to name just two. NFL-inspired real estate strategies have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro as well. According to a recent article by Alex Cuadros in The Atlantic, preparation for the just-finished Rio games resulted in confiscation of land with no compensation, diversion of funds from essential services to luxury housing developments, and a shitload of good old graft. From the article:
When Brazil won the right to hold this year’s Summer Games back in 2009, it seemed ready to vault into the club of developed nations…
Seven years later, [Brazilian President] Lula’s Olympic dream seems a distant memory. Despite an ambitious government campaign to pacify Rio favelas ruled by violent drug gangs, since last year homicides are on the rise. With sewage lines still lacking, world-class rowers and sailors will compete in waterways tainted by drug-resistant bacteria. Meanwhile, amid Brazil’s deepest recession in decades, Rio’s governor declared a “state of public calamity” last month because—thanks in part to the Olympics—his administration had run out of money to pay for public security and healthcare. Cops and firemen have taken to camping out at the international airport, holding banners that read “Welcome to Hell.”
Not everyone, however, has emerged a loser. Contracts for everything from stadium and train-line construction to port renovations have funneled billions of dollars in taxpayer-subsidized revenues to a handful of Brazil’s most powerful, well-connected families and their companies. This disconnect—between populist promise and the uneven benefits that followed—is emblematic of the failed Olympic ambition to remake Rio, and a slew of questionable priorities that have brought Brazil to its knees.
Sadly, this is not the only recent example of sport-related injustice in Brazil. In 2014, on the eve of the World Cup hosted by soccer crazy Brazil, John Oliver hilariously applied the “sausage principle” to the tournaments run by soccer’s international governing body: “If you love something, don’t watch it being made… The World Cup starts this week, and I am both excited and extremely conflicted about it. Now, I know, in America, soccer is something you pick your ten-year-old daughter up from, but for me and everyone else, it’s a little more important.”
He went on to explain how soccer is seen as a religion in most places, and then he catalogued widespread corruption in FIFA that would make the Vatican blush. Oliver discusses egregiously expensive stadium projects with a useful lifespan of four matches and mocked the arrogant (and successful) lobbying FIFA did to ensure Budweiser could sell beer at the tournament, despite the existence of a Brazialian law that banned beer sales to ensure spectator safety. Oliver also explored Sepp Blatter’s misogyny, bribery among the FIFA elite, and slave-like working arrangements in Qatar as the country prepares for the 2022 World Cup. Ultimately, however, before the ugliness of FIFA could defeat his own worship of soccer, he retreated: “FIFA is just appalling, and yet, here’s their power: I am still so excited about the World Cup next week!”
A strictly rational person’s stance on a fan’s ethical responsibilities would ultimately depend on their valuation of sport’s many moving parts: community, entertainment value, commerce, and human well-being. Approached with reason, the morality of following a given sport or team could be reduced to a consideration of which of a person’s obligations – fan or citizen – matters the most to him or her.
But sports have a tendency to dull the powers of reason. Witness smart people unable to bring themselves to admit that a ref got a call against their team right. Consider that the Browns still have a fan base. A socially critical view reveals sport to be yet another vehicle for economic exploitation.
And yet, we follow nonetheless. For the citizen, sport offers an incomplete escape. It is a manmade island, seemingly an ocean apart from problems in the real world, but which nonetheless was created by the same hands as the rest of our civil institutions. And so, we avoid looking down and instead gaze across our sporting temples at the players, plays, and victories.