Tomorrow evening, the football franchise I grew up with, the franchise I lived and died with and rushed home from Hebrew school every Sunday to watch play, will be competing – after decades punctuated almost entirely by failure and futility – for its first world championship. And I really don’t give a damn.
In fact, under normal circumstances, I’d probably be rooting against the Cardinals, sipping on some of that sweet schadenfreude soup, just like I’ve done in the 20-plus years since the franchise bolted from my hometown of St. Louis.
But oddly enough, I will actually be pulling for the Cardinals tomorrow, partly because I have a lot of Cardinals players on my postseason fantasy squad, but mainly because the Cardinals have Kurt Warner as their starting quarterback, the guy with the inspiring backstory who once led the St. Louis Rams, the team I now cheer for, to its own Super Bowl victory nine years ago.
I find the dynamics of fan loyalty fascinating. Sport gets its very meaning from the support of large and loyal fan bases, but what exactly makes us root for (or against) a team?
I mean, I totally understand the appeal of actually participating in athletics and sports, the thrill of competition and personal triumph, but why do we become fans? Why do we root for teams at all?
When you really think about it, it’s rather silly that we get enjoyment – not to even talk about the extreme behavior sports fans like me often engage in, the emotional highs and lows we go through – from watching the successes of a bunch of guys we don’t know, who usually didn’t grow up in the city where they now compete, and who will often switch teams for the allure of a few more dollars. We’ve accomplished nothing when the teams we root for win, and failed at nothing when those same teams lose, but you wouldn’t know that by the reactions from diehard fans. Being a fan is fulfilling and frustrating in ways I don’t even begin to understand.
When the Cardinals left St. Louis, I was bitter. I thought the owner Bill Bidwill was a greedy prick who had no legitimate rationale for abandoning a town that showed a tremendous amount of loyalty, especially considering the team’s rather dismal on-field track record. I thought the move was a lousy thing to do, and I found myself taking delight in the Cardinals’ continued failures – all the losing seasons, the awful draft picks, the half-filled stadiums that still haunted the franchise in Arizona.
And I eagerly and immediately embraced the Rams when they moved to St. Louis, even though that franchise did basically the same thing to LA fans that the Cardinals owner did to us. I started rooting for a team that I had never seen play live, rarely watched on TV, and whose history I knew basically nothing about.
In fact, I was already in college and not even spending much of my time in St. Louis when the Rams made their move. And even if I still lived in St. Louis, why exactly did I automatically get excited about a local sports teams with which I had no real other connection? I have some fond feelings of St. Louis, and who knows, I may one day move back (don’t tell the folks … or the girlfriend!), but it’s not like I’m bursting with civic pride.
And what does a successful sports franchise say about the city where it competes anyway? The answer, of course, is nothing meaningful.
I can kind of understand rooting for one’s countrymen in the Olympics because their successes or failures can say something about the strength or talents of the nation at large. The same goes for teams from one’s chosen schools and colleges.
But in general, fandom is a rather odd phenomenon. Is it just passed on from parent to child, imprinted on our brains at a very young age so that it becomes nearly impossible to view our allegiances rationally? Does it stem from something primal – the need to bond to something larger than oneself, to form communities beyond our families, the same need that drives us to join churches and synagogues, fraternities and sororities, or dare I say, cults?
And what about you? What teams do you root for and why? Do you have any unusual allegiances? Or notable allegiance switches? Discuss…