Rooting Interests

Can you watch a sporting event dispassionately, without rooting for one side or another at all? I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. To some extent, I always end up picking sides. For me, it’s impossible to remain objective.

The curious thing is that I can’t help it. I don’t decide that I need to pick a team. I don’t go through some conscious, analytic process to choose a side. It just happens. Even if I try not to pick a side, I still pick a side. It’s subconscious, outside my willpower, and fully automatic.

Few of us choose our sports allegiances through some rational process. Does anyone believe that there exists some objectively “correct” team to root for? While one could probably invent some formula to calculate the “optimal” team to support, most of us would consider such a process silly and beside the point. The emotions, the pure irrationality of our fandom, is the whole point of the exercise.

On the other hand, philosophy feels different to us. We suspect that there exists, if not a single “correct” philosophy, a scale in which some philosophies are better than others. While we have no objections to letting our subconscious passions decide our rooting interests in sports, there’s a sense that when it comes to religion, politics or other types of philosophy, this same decision-making process is flawed.

And yet, can there be any doubt that for the vast, vast majority of people, the decision-making process for picking sides in both sports and philosophy is exactly the same? A large majority of us end up choosing the same religion as our parents, and the same political party. If we chose them by a purely objective process, you’d probably see a far weaker correlation between the people around us and the philosophies we choose.

Suppose we did want to choose a philosophy using some objective method. We’d need to avoid taking sides in advance, in order to avoid letting our prejudgments cloud our analysis. But when it came to sports, we found we usually can’t really help who we choose to root for. It just happens, subconsciously, automatically.

So here’s the big question: even if we want to avoid prematurely picking a philosophy to root for, can we? Is it humanly possible at all? We’ll explore that question next time.

Share This Post
Share on Twitter     Share on Facebook     Share via email
How to email Ken
Take the domain name of this web site. Replace the first period with an @ sign. That's the email address.
  • justinbenson

    Well what’s interesting to me is that we didn’t really originally have much choice in the team we rooted for. We followed the teams that represented our towns/regions. You have regional teams like Boston always feeling like an “underdog” to the much flashier regions like NY. Oakland is grittier to SF. So I would wonder how much of that translates into other sports. There’s an ongoing debate in New England about an “identity crisis” New England has had so much sporting success this decade that many fans are accused of becoming overly obnoxious. In short – they don’t know how to handle success – they’re always used to be the heart broken and feel much more comfortable in that role of the underdog/gave their best but not quite good enough.

    Start watching a lacrosse game between a working class school and a Ivy League school and does your selection depend on whether you’re from Boston or New York/Oakland/SF?

    To try and be succinct I think your sports affiliations are probably rooted in your acceptance (80%) or rejection (20%) of your family/community values as they relate to the favorite vs the underdog.

  • Ember Nickel

    I’ve had this discussion before in regards to sports. For me, it’s possible to watch without rooting. As you suggested, it’s not deliberate; I simply can’t be swayed to support either team.

    Have you read the essay anthology “Baseball and Philosophy”? I don’t agree with 100% of what Thomas Senor writes about comparing team allegiance to religious faith, but he makes a lot of good points, including that we can’t really “choose” to suddenly become a Yankees fan any more than we can choose to believe that Franklin Roosevelt was president during the Civil War. Allegiance to a philosophy or sports team is gradually built up during a period of acculturation–hastened along, no doubt, when the environment you grow up in is influenced by your parents’ beliefs.

    I don’t think it makes sense to speak of choosing a philosophy by an objective method, because the criteria you would use to rate philosophies would be consequences of your previous philosophical tendencies. If I look for a philosophy that respects *something*, then I’m already subscribing to a school of thought (even if uncodified) that places value on that something. With sports teams, this problem doesn’t come up; I can actively seek out the team with the coolest ballpark, most attractive uniforms, or most dedicated to sabermetrics if any of those are my priority–these are arbitrary. The only problem would be if I deliberately said “I’m going to objectively rate teams on the health of their outfield ivy” or something such that the only teams that could be considered were the ones I was rooting for already.

  • truegrich

    I just found your blog and even though I hate the Oakland A’s, I have to say, I do like your blog.

    I went to Long Beach State and never understood why other kids going to school there wore USC and UCLA stuff. I thought that if I didn’t go to those schools, why would I wear their gear? For years, I followed Long Beach State Basketball (going back to when Tex Winter was their coach, long before he perfected the Triangle Offense for the Bulls) and once I stopped following my alma mater, I stopped watching college basketball. I guess what I’m trying to say that unless I have a rooting interest, I find it hard to watch any sports.

    I stopped following the NBA when Shaq and Kobe started making more news off the court than on it. Even with the Lakers recent success, I haven’t been able to regain any interest what-so-ever.

    It’s funny how un-interesting sports can be to me when I really don’t care who wins.

    To that point, I really, really hate the A’s. After all, they’ve been the Angels rival for quite a while. Most people hate the Yankees and Red Sox, but I’ve always had this thing about hating the rival more. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the Yankees or Red Sox one bit, but for whatever reason, my passion for rooting agasint the A’s goes deep.

    That passion was the genesis for my first ever post on my blog this past September.

    In any case – I’m glad to have found your blog.

    Mine is at http://truegrich.blogspot.com

  • Ken Arneson

    Good stories. The interesting thing for me here is that whether we are rooting for a team, against a team, or neither, the choice is not consciously made. We don’t deliberately make some mathematical calculation along the lines of something like, “I value loyalty to the local community 50% higher than my preference for underdogs”. We just kinda emotionally make some sort of decision, and then we try to explain it afterwards if asked to.

    This behavior falls in line with my next post.

  • Ember Nickel

    This is true. But I wonder if we could examine people’s preferences (or lack thereof) and retroactively predict a model that would explain them like the calculation you described. Like a line of best fit.

    I also once thought it was a little weird to root for a different college’s sports teams. But the divisional barrier helps with this; if you’re attending a Division III school, you might still root for your hometown Division I team. (In my case, there are extenuating circumstances that explain my support of a team at a college other than my own.)

  • Ken Arneson

    We could explore that direction, as I did with Carson Cistulli in this Fangraphs interview:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/marcel-of-joy-an-etherview-with-ken-arneson/

    But I’m planning to take the other fork in this road.