Signaling – and Sharing – your Sports Fandom

Posted on August 28, 2010


Here are a few more reflections inspired by the discussion over at Overcoming Bias of nerds using game-playing to signal social messages to the world outside the game. (Robin Hanson’s original post was here, my first extrapolation to the situation of sports fans was here, and his brief comment on that is here.)

This Sporting Life is largely about making sense of the connoisseur fan’s experience of sports. In what ways is appreciating a great sporting performance in the same league, so to speak, with other valued human experiences — especially of the arts? Hanson’s post made me realize that I’d talked very little (during the 60,000 words racked up here in the past 6 months) about the way fans use sports more-or-less instrumentally as a way of seeking communion with others.

As I suggested in that last post, I do think that “social communion” will play a part in even the most sophisticated sports fan’s experience. But it is also something she will play down if asked, say, why she watches so much sports on TV. One wants to distinguish the intricate engagement with the strategies, the skills, the drama, and the beauty of sporting events — and with what they teach us about institutions, rule-making, moral character, and the human condition — on the one hand, from the most overtly boorish sports-fan behavior, on the other.

It’s not about the male bonding, the Super Bowl party, or the nationalistic or pseudo-nationalist (read: hooligan) identification with a group that just happens to be represented by a sports team. It really is about the knowledge and appreciation of what happens on the field of play, along with the tactics and mental/physical preparations for the contest.

The bonders, hooligans, and nationalists are using their sports fandom to signal like crazy to others that they are one of the gang. One is tempted to pun about the high signal-to-noise ratio here, except that this kind of fan is also more likely to make a lot of noise — since that is a good way to signal how important the game is to them. Preferably with a vuvuzela. It takes virtually no knowledge of a sport to be a fanatical sports fan of this type. In fact, good face-paint in the right colors is much more important. [Click on the button below to read more…] :

And it is hard not to come to the conclusion that most sports spectators don’t know a lot about what’s really going on: after all, as I’ve noted specifically about a few sports, the broadcasters generally don’t teach them much (baseball and American football are exceptions here), and don’t perceive much demand for in-depth explanations of what is really going on in the game. The most successful mass sports generally provide a simple focus for the casual fans’ attention (say, a ball), and these fans are encouraged to keep their eyes on it until it scores. (For more, click on this “broadcasting” category link for this blog.) This is not to deny, by any stretch, that casual fans can have genuinely thrilling experiences watching a great match.

Is that just snobbery? I hope not. It’s not a discussion I particularly seek out. In other words, I have no particular interest in signaling that I am a more sophisticated fan than others — I merely try to articulate why the appreciation of sports can be at least as sophisticated as the appreciation of other valued human endeavors.

I know many people who are not attracted to spectator sports precisely because they cannot see beyond the identity-signaling kind of fandom. I will dig up quotes from a recent book on sports by the great contemporary British philosopher Colin McGuinn that categorically dismisses the worthiness of sports spectatorship for precisely those reasons.

The true connoisseur of an art form or of fine wine, say, wants to distinguish herself from posers, “mere” snobs, rich collectors, and folks who claim they like the same thing but can’t distinguish good from mediocre examples without external cues like price tags. But she does this only because of how ridiculous these pseudo-connoisseurs can be, and because they make all connoisseurs look similarly phony. That’s snobbery only if she makes a big deal about signaling she is better than the riff-raff (say, by tilting her nose skyward). Ditto for the true sports connoisseur.

The fact that he or she demonstrably enjoys celebrating his or her team’s victories — or mourning their defeats — with “ordinary” fans is icing on the cake (and rather delicious icing at that).