When I was nine I lay in my parent’s bed for days struggling with red measles. Through fever and pain, I vaguely remember mom’s cool hand and wet clothes and clutching a rosary Above all I recall the Kansas City Athletics lose 12 games in a row while listening to my parent’s red bakelite radio. Predictable as humidity in high Missouri summer, the cast offs and mishaps who made up the Athletics plodded to the plate, struck out and erred their way to defeat, again and again and again. They were simply the worst team of their era. I grew up a fan.The Athletics built several Yankee championship teams by giving away Art Ditmar, Bobbyy Schantz, Clete Boyer, Roger Maris and others. This team drafted Reggie Jackson, Blue Moon Odum, Dave Duncan, Catfish Hunter and then stole away to Oakland to win championships. This team anchored my identity—my children trace my putative nutsiness to this.
Growing older I met Red Sox and Cubs fans who proudly wore losing. They bragged on their losing. Puffed up with a Nietzschean resentment again the rest of the world, these fans embraced the romance of rooting for the lost cause. Their pain grounded a hopeless chivalry and proudly handed on this legacy to their children. These fans formed a community in adversity and pride born of resentment against the unfairness and inequality of the world. The Athletics, refugees from Philadelphia, offered no glamor and no mystic. They were flat out the worst team of their era with NO REDEEMING FEATURES.
I can understand the resentment theory of community by resentment. This resentment flips into a populist hatred for the successful endless winners who are usually unjustly rich or cheaters to boot. It carries some weight and can drive revolutions.
I believe other wider and deeper reasons exist to support losing teams. These reasons answer a common attack on sports fans whom are accused of seeking psychological compensation by participating vicariously with winners. This identification supposedly compensates for brittle male egos and feeds a sense of superiority and domination that encourages arrogance and glorification of dominating the weak. This may apply to Yankee fans. However we who support teams that win and lose or just simply lose demonstrate integrity and loyalty in our loserhood.
Good fans support losing teams from loyalty and identity. Sport loyalty can help anchor or refine a personal self-narrative. Many, like myself, stay connected to their hometown roots or youth through following teams. College teams epitomize how mobile Americans thread links to hometowns or awakening to adulthood. These memories of home or college burn bright by following a team that reignites affiliation through winning and losing, although, honestly, winning feels better.
American immigrants traditionally adopt teams as signal of identifying with their new country. Similarly we can adapt to a new city or location by attending to the local teams. I still consider Kansas City my home teams, but after 25 years root for the Mariners and Seahawks. My children are northwest born and raised and identify with their Seattle teams.
Identity, community, and affiliation augment simple joy for a sport. I like many others will watch a sports game where I have not favorites but watch to enjoy the game.
Rooting for a team, especially a losing team proves to myself I am capable of enduring loyalty and unrequited love. It teaches and models loyalty to our family and friends. I am not referring to the bandwagon and good-times followers, but real fans staying true through good and bad times.
Staying loyal to a losing team proves our capacity for integrity to ourselves. If not driven by resentment, this commitment to the team reminds us and teaches friends and children that loyalty is not a calculation. Loyalty and community do not grow from cost benefit analyses of value and pain. Loyalty to a team tests and grows our capacity for loyalty (and perhaps masochism). It imparts how love endures though good and bad. This matters even more when it turns out that rooting for a losing team can impact health, I mean really and do I care?!!!
This type of loyalty and commitment endures through ups and downs of winning and losing of joy and sorrow of exasperation and elation. It proves our capacity for integrity even when we may find it under assault in so many areas of modern life.
Honest fans know that in the end their loyalty resides to a dream of community and its ideals. Every sports team exists as an institutional shell with rotating members who embody a vision of place and sport. The reality of a sport team encompasses flawed humanity and becomes erratic, messier and uglier than the aspiration. Every institution whether country, church, corporation or family exists as this dialogue between reality and possibility.
In the end team loyalty has a spiritual dimension as much tied to the dream of who we are and can be as well as the dream of our connection to our home. Often those hopes get crushed or deferred, but every now and then a glorious moment occurs when it comes so close to the dream’s ideal as to renew faith and commitment when verging on losing its heart.
Like friendship or marriage loyalty to a team obligates a person to stay through good and bad. We reserve the right to criticize and quit and leave but return. I can turn off games in disgust and vow never to care again, but I know, even if the team does not that I will eventually cave and return. Team loyalty is not a one-season stand. Team loyalty elicits loyalty and commitment for good and bad.
Supporting a losing team reminds me of Pascal’s secret, “the heart has reasons the mind does not understand.”