On Caring About Sports

Co-bloggers Sasha Volokh and Ken Anderson express puzzlement as to why anyone would care about the outcome of professional sports competitions. By the same logic, why would anyone care about any kind of entertainment? Why, for example, do people care about and identify with fictional characters in the Harry Potter novels or in Jane Austen’s works?

Harry Potter is not a real person. Why should anyone care whether or not he manages to defeat Lord Voldemort? Elizabeth Bennet is not a real person either. Why should anyone care whether she gets married, and to whom? The answer, of course, is that vicarious identification with fictional characters is fun. Occasionally, it even has some educational value. The same, of course, goes for vicarious identification with sports teams. It’s fun to root for your team and hate its rivals, even if your initial reasons for identifying with Team A rather than Team B are essentially arbitrary (usually that you grew up in City A rather than City B). Though I hasten to add that there are excellent nonarbitrary reasons to hate the New York Yankees, even if you’re not a Red Sox fan like me!

Some literati will argue that they only read novels for their aesthetic value and don’t get invested in the fates of the characters. I suspect that such people are very much in the minority among avid readers of literature. How many people read and enjoy Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace without caring at all what happens to the characters? Similarly, there are some sports fans who claim that they don’t care which team wins, but just want to see impressive athletic feats. They too are a small minority.

Not everyone enjoys vicarious identification, of course. And among those who do, some prefer to satisfy their craving by means other than rooting for sports teams. But vicarious identification is a common and deeply rooted emotion – one that probably has biological roots. And it’s not really that surprising that it leads some people to root for sports teams in much the same way as it leads others to identify with fictional characters.

UPDATE: Upon rereading Ken’s and Sasha’s posts, it’s not clear to me whether they meant to suggest that there is no good reason for anyone to care about sports outcomes, or whether they merely mean to say that they themselves don’t care (a point made by a couple of commenters). I think I was too quick to assume they meant the former, in part because such attitudes are widespread among intellectuals and academics who don’t like spectator sports. I therefore apologize to Ken and Sasha if I have misinterpreted their views.

Some other commenters suggest that our supposed dislike of spectator sports says something profound about the VC bloggers or about libertarians in general. In reality, however, several VC bloggers are big sports fans, including Jonathan Adler, David Post, and myself. I know a great many libertarians, and my overall impression is that they are no less likely to be sports fans than adherents of other ideologies with similar backgrounds and jobs. So these speculations, interesting as they are, are based on a false premise.