Scruples with Fandom: The First of a Semester Fandom Series
Preface: Shortly after returning from Rwanda this December, Haley Fahrner approached me and asked me to become the Sports Section editor of the Papyrus and henceforth, I have been attempting to think of possible ideas for articles. Consequently, I have a long and now irrelevant list of ramblings or “possible articles.” However, in review of this list of ramblings in early January, I realized that at the core of every idea was either the state of being a fan (fandom) or competition. Thus, we as a section have since decided to make these keystones of my lists the theme of this semester.
This very article is the first of a semester-long series that will examine the stages of, approaches to, and effects of Fandom in our lives. In doing so, we as a section hope to demonstrate how our western lives are influenced by sport and vice versa. This is because sport is not merely sport, but rather, it is symbolic of something much more. What this ‘something more’ varies from one individual to the next. Thus, each week one will be writing how they became a fan, why they are a fan, and how it has redefined their lives. Enjoy.
Scruples with Fandom: My experiences as a sports fan have been rather limited thus far in life. To be honest, I don’t enjoy American football, have no regional loyalties in any sport, and generally do not appreciate the extremes to which fans go to support their respective teams. The fans of the Oakland Raiders and the Green Street Hooligans are cases in point. Although I grew up in Seattle listening to Mariners baseball games every week on the radio with my family and accompanying my dad to games in the Kingdome, we were fair-weather fans and unabashedly so. As the Mariners deteriorated following the record breaking 2001 season in which they won some ridiculous number of games, I gradually stopped paying attention with each passing season. On the up side of that childhood stint, I have a formidable body of knowledge concerning the Seattle Mariners of the late 1990’s, which comes in handy maybe twice a decade, at best. Not many people know or care about Joey Cora or John Olerud. That being said, I do not mean that I hate sportive activities, but only that while I may be a fan of soccer in general in that I love watching the beautiful game played well by any old team, I have not really attached myself to a specific team in the manner of most fans. This generalized interest in soccer has sustained me through two World Cups and three European Championships, and made possible conversations with other avid soccer aficionados, in places as far flung as Rwanda, England, Italy, or the Upper Union.
Strangely enough, this all changed when I moved to Norway after graduating from GC last spring. Upon arriving in Oslo, I found myself rooting for Arsenal, a North London soccer team. Frankly, they are a mediocre/pretty good English team with a shoddy defense, an inconsistent attack, and a maddening tendency to fail to live up to their potential. For some reason, however, I have kept with them and continued watching their matches with timid hope. This change in fandom status might have been totally fine had it not been for the subtle, nagging dissatisfaction that plagued the back of my conscience. It may be associated with the residual pain of each Arsenal loss, but after struggling with it for a while, I realize now that I feel uncomfortable with myself as a fan. I do not like having my moods dictated by the outcome of a game (aren’t games supposed to be fun?) nor do I like existing underneath the arbitrary control of an authority that is ambivalent to my well-being. I do not really have any good reason to like Arsenal in particular and rarely do the joys of a win outweigh the heaviness of heart that accompanies a loss. So this whole experience with fandom has left me wondering, why have I become a fan? Why am I still a fan despite its inherent dissatisfaction? Why now?
Fanaticism has often provided individuals with the feeling of belonging, the comfort of fitting in and finding acceptance amongst others. One soccer club’s motto, “You’ll never walk alone,” (Liverpool) testifies to the power that soccer culture wields in welcoming people to something that binds them together. Pondering this over for a while, I recognized that this theory of fandom does have some explanatory power for my experience. In moving to a foreign country without family or friends nearby besides a loving wife, I became socially vulnerable and in need of friends and a support system. In this sense, fandom works as the provider of a social stability in my life by giving me the opportunity to engage meaningfully with others. Although this explanation does capture a part of my experience, it leaves me ultimately dissatisfied because it does not capture it all. In reality, a feeling of isolation has often marked my bout with fandom. Even in pubs surrounded by likeminded individuals all cheering on that tantalizingly fickle Arsenal squad, I have felt alone and unable to reach out in conversation to others. Furthermore, I am not sure I even want to join that kind of monocultural community, characterized as it is by a shallow common commitment and the propensity towards alcoholism.
Ultimately, I believe that my experience as an Arsenal fan is similar in kind to an addiction. I do not think that being a sports fan necessarily entails addictive behavior, nor do I want to diminish the gravity and power of the experiences of those individuals who have struggled with drug or alcohol addictions. But, I do think that both experiences, fandom and addiction, are often borne out of a similar desire. Kent Dunnington asserts in his book, Addiction and Virtue, that addiction is a habit that springs directly from the innate human longing for a single end in life, an all-consuming purpose that puts everything else in order. Both those with addictions and those without share this natural craving for an ordering telos, though they attempt to satiate it in different ways. Some try drugs, shopping, or food. Though it surprises me to admit, soccer has served as that ordering function for me this past semester (though it has performed poorly, like a tiny band-aid applied to a deep, internal wound). Arsenal has given me something to look forward to each week as I have tried to fill the gaping St. Paul’s-sized hole I carry around since leaving the church community I’ve come to know and love.
In years past, I attempted to order my week with Morning Prayer, Compline, meals with friends that seem now to have resembled the Lord’s Supper, and the Sabbath. I now miss the rhythms of common prayer and the delight of Christian fellowship. Distanced from those close friends and without those liturgical markers, I have turned to soccer to try to make sense of life. Though soccer is surely a beautiful and exciting game, I realize that neither Arsenal nor soccer can order my life in any meaningful sense. Now that I am aware of this longing in me, I think I will keep watching soccer, even Arsenal with some regularity, while slowly trying to withdraw my personal investment in it. I want to be able to enjoy soccer without constructing the liturgy of my life around it. In this way, I can free soccer from my unreasonable expectation that it provide what it cannot and free myself to pursue God even while in diaspora. So, pray for me, brothers and sisters, as I begin again in my own life of prayer, searching for a fulfilling and fitting liturgy for life in this foreign country.