The Spiritual Grace of Fandom

What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness.

You can learn something important in front of a TV on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late October. You can learn about the value of leadership as a veteran quarterback calmly and surgically leads his team to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter. If you see a silly penalty completely change a game, you might learn what Rudyard Kipling knew, that victory usually begins with “keeping your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” You may reflect on the dangers of arrogance as a haughty celebration gives way minutes later to a devastating injury, or on the beauty of the perseverance of an undrafted, un-heralded player who dazzles. Football, often scorned by its cosmopolitan cultured despisers, has much to say if we will listen.

“Lessons,” though, are not the primary reason to be a fan of sports. Viewing a football game as a microcosm of cooperation and personal virtue is helpful, but it’s a bit like opening the Bible and never reading anything but Proverbs. The truth is that fandom has a spiritual value all its own. Watching sports for the pleasure of the contest, and even more, investing oneself emotionally in the triumphs and defeats of a particular team, is a valuable moral discipline.

Sports fandom is rarely talked about positively, and for reason. Like we do so many other things, Americans often worship sports. Sport is a seductive idol, not least because its competitive nature offers an intoxicating short hand for measuring one’s self-worth. We tend to accept radical and unhealthy commitment to sports in a way we don’t accept for hobbies, relationships, even work; a man who ignores his family so he can broker more stocks and buy a bigger house is a deadbeat, but an athlete who ignores his family to train for the Olympics simply knows what it takes. (Why athletic victory in this context is purer than money is not clear.)

Granting that we ought not worship sports, can’t we admit that, given the choice between cheering on a team and spending 3 hours thumbing through Instagram, measuring ourselves against immaculate “influencers,” the former is a better option? What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness, the opportunity to let our own personalities be swallowed up, just for a moment, in the drama of something objective, outside, and bigger.

For a social media generation, one worries that we are losing the simple practice of actually being a fan. Ours is a curated, algorithmic, selfie age, where our inner lives are constantly being farmed out by technologies that encourage us to think about ourselves more, to look at ourselves more, to compare our ourselves more. We say that digital distraction is a serious epidemic. Have we asked what it is we are so distracted by? Answer: We’re distracted by ourselves—our Likes, our Retweets, our FOMO, our image to others.

If we think in terms of cultural liturgies, we must conclude that the dominant liturgy of our Western life is one of constant attention to ourselves. Everything around us encourages us, either explicitly or implicitly, to bend inwardly on ourselves a little more, to be a little more attuned to our own emotional or psychological state. The discipline of letting ourselves get lost in something, of losing track of ourselves so that we forget to log-in and make sure that what we’re doing compares favorably to others, is a discipline that directly assaults the advertising-soaked liturgies of late capitalism. Some have suggested that in the social media era our attention spans are shortening. This may be somewhat true. Yet perhaps it’s also true that our attention spans are actually shortening when they’re directed toward offline life, but flourishing when we’re logged in. In other words, maybe we’re not losing the ability to focus on analog realities, but the desire.

There’s a spiritual cost to all of this. Screwtape understood how valuable keeping people wrapped up in a suffocating liturgy of “Look at me” can be. Self-forgetfulness fosters authentic desire, and authentic desires are vulnerable to being turned toward God.

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fandom, for all its potential to be absurd and obsessive, is a “still stronger taste” that can help discipline the soul against the temptation to shape our hearts in the image of the fads and opinions of the world. A fan is a fan first and foremost because he’s having fun. He’s a fan whether he’s surrounded by fellow fans or whether he’s alone (though of course it’s more fun to be with other fans). Sports fandom can look awfully silly, but fans don’t care. Foam fingers and body paint are the artifacts of an authentic enjoyment that resists, often without even conscious awareness, the need to see if such an activity will play well with my “followers.” In this way, fandom is humble: a confession that what I’m loving is lovable on its own terms and not because it may win me approval from the internet’s marketplace of the Self.

As a fan, a little sliver of my joy is outsourced to someone and something outside myself. My favorite sports team can thrill me by playing well, winning games and exciting me throughout the season with their skill. My fandom unites me to my favorite team through the emotional investment I make in their well-being, so that my team’s wins feel like my wins. This is why you often hear sports fans say words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” under the apparent delusion that they are part of the team.

It’s this outsourcing of joy that contains spiritual grace. It’s the same grace we need in worship, to acknowledge that God doesn’t need us but we need him. It’s the same grace we need in fellowship, to (really, authentically) rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s the same grace we need in acts of mercy and love, especially when we know those acts will go unnoticed and un-thanked. And it’s the same grace we need to hold fast in a world that doesn’t think highly of this grace. Enjoying sports probably won’t curry favor with the fashionable people we admire or win us more clout, and that’s precisely why it’s so valuable.

Of course, it’s not just sports fandom that offers the spiritual grace of self-forgetfulness. Other things do too. When our attention is toward little pleasures that don’t get us noticed but do help us love, we find that these little pleasures refresh us infinitely more than comparison, or outrage, or constant connectivity. And we get a valuable, increasingly rare reminder that life is bigger than our pocket, and that God’s world needs to be lived in, not just talked about.

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Three Reasons Not to Gamble on Sports

In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court effectively struck down federal laws against sports gambling. While the full implications of the ruling will probably take time to realize, most states in the US will likely sanction and promote (though, according to this ruling, they wouldn’t have to) betting on professional sports, such as NFL, NBA, baseball, etc. It’s a major ruling for every professional sporting organization and for millions of Americans—mostly men—who gamble on their favorite sports.

I should be honest: This is the only type of gambling that’s ever slightly appealed to me. I’ve never taken the lottery seriously. I’ve never ever been to a horse race. For reasons that have to do with my personality more than my piety, I’ve just never really had any inclination to try my hand at slot machines or stuff like that. But my personality does like sports, and I’ve thought more than once that my knowledge of pro football might make me some easy money. I’ve never done it…but I’ve thought about it.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that God doesn’t want this for me. I’ve never been able to mine anything out of Scripture resembling encouragement or even permission to gamble my money on sports. I don’t want to be heavy handed or legalistic here. I know that not all “gambling” is alike, and that not every Christian will see things the same way on this. There’s no chapter-and-verse proof text. But in my own life, every time I’ve felt the appeal of sports gambling, I’ve felt it wither next to my conscience.

Let me offer three reasons I think Christians are better off without sports gambling.

1) The Christian attitude toward money is not easy. If you’re not careful, words like “stewardship” can become meaningless platitudes that merely serve to disguise what’s being talked about. The reality is that Scripture has some difficult things to say about our money, and not just how we use it, but how we feel toward it (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The desire to make money apart from honest labor (and here I mean both physical and intellectual labor, the latter of which would include things like investing) is not a desire that gets an easy time from the Bible (Proverbs 10:2).

In Ephesians 4:28, Paul gives a somewhat counter-intuitive command: He tells the one who steals to stop stealing and work for money instead. Makes sense. But then he says that the purpose of such work is to make money that can be shared with others in need. In other words, it’s not just honesty that matters when it comes to money, it’s intentionality. Money that’s honestly gained does not thus become autonomously mine. There are moral obligations attached even to money honestly gained.

I don’t think sports gambling fits this bill. At least in my own heart, I feel the temptation to sports betting most powerfully when I am wanting some money to protect from God. My job and my writing gives me money that I use to pay bills, tithe, buy groceries, etc. Where is my money for MY stuff? Rather than either indulge this impulse or stiffly condemn it (after all, having a little spending money isn’t a bad thing), I try to bring this desire to Jesus and tell him what’s going on in my heart, what I think I need, and ask him to align me with his kingdom.

Often, these prayers have been met with unexpected opportunities to earn. Sometimes my lack of generosity has been exposed, and what I thought would be good fun money turns into money I need to give away. I think this dynamic honors the purpose of money more than the raw logic of sports gambling.

2) Sports gambling is foolish risk. Sometimes people respond to this point by saying that investing is risk, or hobbies like football cards are a risk (aren’t you paying for the chance to pull a really valuable card?). But not all risk is the same. There is inherent risk to even holding down a job—I might get injured, or miss out on an opportunity, or be fired. Those risks are real but they are not foolish risks.

The risk of sports gambling is unlike those risks because it demands far more than it gives. The rewards of sports gambling are rare, but the costs are plenteous. In fact, it’s the high degree of risk and the high probability of losing that makes sports gambling fun and intense. Addiction is a real threat in sports gambling precisely because there is so much loss and so little victory. Does that sound like an institution whose economics make kingdom sense?

There are better ways to spend my money. What if I took the 50 bucks I want to put on an NFL game and took my wife out to a special dinner? What if I gave it to friends who are raising money for an adoption? What if I simply invested it in a company whose values I believed in? All of those options carry inherent risk, but the rewards easily outweigh them. This is the path of wisdom, not to mention love.

3) I think there’s something about sports gambling that would sully my enjoyment of the game. As a Los Angeles Rams fan, I watch football each week in hopes that the Rams win, their rivals lose, and my team eventually wins the championship. While fandom can be taken out of hand and sports become an idol, there is something inherently healthy in the coming out of myself that happens when I cheer on a team. Cultivating this private pleasure can be a sanctifying way of learning to love things because they are lovely, not because I want people to like me for the things I love.

I wonder if people who regularly gamble on sports really can enjoy sports this way. Isn’t there something pure about being a fan that being a speculator would take away? If my money is on the line, so, in a way, is my sense of peace, joy, and security. A big day of losses for me as a gambler is devastating and potentially life changing, while a day of losses for me as a fan is unfortunate but nothing that a better week can’t fix. That football is unpredictable is good news for a fan but the worst news for a gambler. I want to take the fullest joy possible in the game, not my cash.

So there you are, three reasons to avoid sports gambling. Again, some Christians may not agree, or may not agree completely. That’s fine. These are just the reasons that operate in my own life, and I commend them to you.

3 Kinds of Patriotism

A quick taxonomy:

  1. The patriotism of duty is the patriotism that involves material acts of fidelity to one’s country. This is the patriotism of military service and other varieties of selfless sacrifice. This is where patriotism becomes embodied, and its ideals take on specific actions worthy of praise.
  2. The patriotism of affection is the patriotism of the heart. It concerns one’s inner desire for the well-being of his country. The patriotism of affection can be seen in the patriotism of duty, but it does not necessarily result in it; one can genuinely love his country and yet be a coward, just like one could theoretically perform a patriotic duty and yet feel apathetic about the welfare of the country.
  3. The patriotism of manners is the patriotism of customs, written and unwritten. Placing one’s hand over the heart during the national anthem is the patriotism of manners. It can be done by anyone without requiring real patriotism of affection or of duty. Whereas the above forms of patriotism reveal, at least partially, a person’s true beliefs and hopes, the patriotism of manners is mostly establishing a set of protocols.

The problem with modern American conservatism is that it has reversed the order of this taxonomy. Whereas the patriotism of duty is the highest and noblest form of patriotism, American conservatism, intellectually crippled by talk radio and mass media, constantly fixates on the patriotism of manners, and makes it the true test of one’s “Americanness.” This is why most cable-news watching conservatives are vastly more offended at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem than they are at a sports league that routinely takes advantage of taxpayers in building enormous stadiums. The latter may be unfortunate, but it’s just politics as usual in the Real World. Kneeling during the national anthem? Traitors.

The fixation on the patriotism of manners is symptomatic of a conservatism for whom patriotism is constantly detached from reality. David Barton’s success among evangelical conservatives owes almost entirely to the fact that his revisionism is “patriotic.” It promulgates the “God and country” narrative of the American founding. Never mind that calling Thomas Jefferson a true Christian is an aggressive insult to Christian doctrine. That’s not what matters. It’s patriotic to think so. That’s what matters.

A friend told me yesterday that President Trump’s insult to NFL players would likely work in his favor politically, by eliciting hysterical reactions from the progressive media. Maybe. For my money, though, the most hysterical reactions I’ve seen to Trump’s comments have come from conservatives cheering him on. This is where we are right now.

Capitalism and the Cleveland Browns

Stakeholders in the NFL cannot lose—at least not under the league’s current structure. Owners split money from the league’s massive TV deals and other media revenue streams. That stream is so dependable, so huge, and so guaranteed that it’s done what large, intractable pools of cash have done since the invention of markets. It has altered and distorted the very thing that created it, and broken the basic exchange between consumer and seller that made the NFL successful in the first place…

That approach towards maximizing your dollar with the bare minimum of effort became more sophisticated over time. As the league’s revenues boomed, they became something less like points of civic pride run as passion projects by the locally wealthy, and something more like attractive investment properties with a promising rate of return for billionaires — particularly those billionaires who entered the NFL as strangers to the league, but as intimate familiars of a corporate culture dependent on squeezing every profitable dollar, and trimming every wasteful one from the budget.

For instance: The legend of [Washington Redskins owner] Dan Snyder tells a story of someone who was “passionate” about the Washington franchise on a personal level. It sometimes leaves out his ruthless economizing of the franchise, a focus on the bottom line interrupted periodically by splashing free agent signings to keep fans semi-interested in the team. That he keeps them in the worst stadium in the league, charges for everything short of oxygen, and rolls out a consistently mediocre product doesn’t matter: His great gift as an NFL owner, after nearly 20 years, has turned out to be a deep understanding of knowing exactly how little actual quality he could slip into the product without breaking the customer’s dependence completely.

This is, I think, a good example of why some younger Christians are questioning capitalism right now. In the standard conservative Christian political pedagogy, competition is the most important factor in mitigating the greed and avarice of wealthy corporations. But the stagnation of the NFL illustrates the problem with this idea. What if corporations can still get filthy rich without having to compete? What if the rules are actually drawn up so that a bad product, bad services, and bad faith don’t cost you anything?

I mean, in pro football, “competition” is literally the core value, the chief good. But that hasn’t stopped franchises like the Redskins, Browns, Jaguars, and Rams (sniff) from trotting out bad products year after year, while their owners still profit enormously. These teams don’t just become bad. They stay bad, year after year, then decade after decade. And why not? If someone told you you could make $50 million by being excellent at your job, $45 million by being OK, and $40 million by being lousy, how motivated are you going to be to be consistently excellent?

The NFL is a case study in the skepticism toward capitalism. Capitalism’s conceit is that the way to create a quality and equitable market is to let consumers reward excellence and shun non-excellence. But in the NFL, the guys making the rules (eg, Roger Goodell) are answerable only to the guys looking to make the money (the owners). The rules favor the owners, not the consumers. And that dynamic persists year in, year out, because the money is locked up in a closed system. Is it really that far fetched to think this is basically how it all works in America, not just pro sports?

Colin Kaepernick and Our Dysfunctional Public Square

The NAACP’s boycott of the NFL over Colin Kaepernick’s lack of a contract exemplifies in vivid focus the many ways that the American conversation about race and culture is dysfunctional. Admittedly, the stakes in this particular drama are low; whether a professional athlete is paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game or just a few million dollars is not especially rich ground for serious cultural critiques. But the omnipresence of the Kaepernick story on national sports media, and now the official response from a respected cultural institution, means that it might be time to start asking what this whole ordeal means in a tender cultural moment.

Don’t misunderstand me. The NFL deserves its fair share of animus. We know now that it almost certainly withheld important information about concussions and CTE from players for decades. The league has also taken an astonishingly capricious and hypocritical approach to players’ domestic abuse cases, and engaged in pathetic political posturing itself. If one wants to boycott the National Football League, there are good reasons to do so.

But the unemployment of Colin Kaepernick is not one of them. Nor is it an illustration of systemic injustice and institutional racism. Rather, Kaepernick’s drama has everything to do with the powerful role that media narrative plays in shaping public discourse, especially about race, and about the dispiriting lack of good faith from both whites and blacks. Contrary to what some of my white friends think, Kaepernick is not a traitor or “ungrateful.” And contrary to what some of my black friends believe, I don’t think Kaepernick is a political martyr or victim. He’s a football player, an American, and a black man, whose three identities, combustible as they might appear from reading ESPN, are completely compatible.

When Kaepernick began sitting out the national anthem during last year’s NFL season, many white fans interpreted it as a sign of disrespect for the country, for the game, and (presumably) for them. At the time that his actions began, remember, the 2016 election was still slouching toward Mar-A-Lago. Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling had both been killed by police officers, their deaths circulated on video through social media. Racial tensions were (and are) real. Thus, Kaepernick explained in a press conference after a 49ers preseason game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Whether Kaepernick was right or wrong in his historical judgment on the United States, it would be wrong to not empathize with his perspective. Christians who believe in sinful human natures are obliged to affirm that such sinfulness can and does seep into the political and cultural superstructures that we create. To deny this would be to embrace a civic gnosticism that denies the role of individual human wills in society. White football fans who angrily dismissed Kaepernick as anti-American fail to respond to his claim. Additionally, there’s an unmissable irony in the assertions of some whites that people like Kaepernick are wrong to think about history and cultural context when they themselves are wealthy athletes. Aren’t these the same people who insist that confederate monuments ought to be protected in the name of “heritage”? If “it’s history” is why we ought not rename Jefferson Davis Highway, why should history suddenly not matter for a black quarterback who wants to talk about justice and racial equality?

This is a valuable example of the failures of the modern American conservative movement on race. It’s an unthinking tribalism that creates hypocrites out of supposedly small-government conservatives who suddenly think any questioning of law enforcement is by definition not “patriotism.” Count me out.

So does that make Kaepernick a true victim of a racist sports league? Hardly. Again, this whole episode is nothing if not a dramatic presentation of the dysfunctional public conversation about race. On the one hand are white football fans preoccupied with vacuous (and vaguely anti-free speech) notions of patriotism. But on the other hand, we see a political and media class that drives home, day after day, week after week, a conspiracy theory about a black quarterback in a black-dominated sports league.

Why is Colin Kaepernick unemployed? Lets answer that question with another question: Why do most NFL players go from active roster to free agent? There are several causes, but two are primary. The first is that they do not perform well enough to make a team’s final 53-man roster. This happens to hundreds of players in the NFL every year, many of whom were highly coveted as draft picks but for various reasons could not rise to the level that professional football demanded. The second reason is that a player can be released because he no longer wants to play under his current contract or for his current team. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates the existence of “opt-outs” in certain contracts, where a player can choose not to return for the final year of a contract. Sometimes players do this because they are tired of playing for the team. More often they choose to do so because they believe another team would be willing to pay them more money.

Why recite these? Well, it turns out that Kaepernick actually made a fair case for meeting both of these benchmarks. Since going to a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s performance with the 49ers slowly but surely declined. After Harbaugh left, the bottom fell out of Kaepernick’s play, with many analysts wondering if it had been the coach’s offensive system that allowed Kaepernick to flourish. In 2015, well before Kaepernick’s anthem protests, he lost his starting job with the 49ers and was benched. He did, however, get a second chance in 2016, being named the starter to replace a woeful Blaine Gabbert.

Which brings me to the second point. At the end of the 2016 season Kaepernick “opted-out” of his contract with the 49ers in order to hit the free agent market. Why? Presumably, he wanted to play for a team that would pay him more money than the 49ers. This is completely understandable for a professional athlete. It does mean however that Kaepernick wasn’t “cut” or disciplined for his anthem protests. Kaepernick is unemployed chiefly and most immediately because he didn’t want to play on the 49ers anymore. In other words, Kaepernick could be and most likely would be an NFL roster right now had he wanted to finish his contract with his previous team. If the NFL is determined not to allow a woke Kaepernick to play, why wasn’t he cut during the season, or prevented from playing, or cut after the season?

Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated from making Kaepernick’s unemployment the dominant story in all of pro sports for a year. Never mind that players like Marshawn Lynch also do not stand for the anthem, but are currently on active rosters. Never mind that league heroes like Adrian Peterson (also on an active roster) have gone so far as to compare life in pro football to chattel slavery. Those obnoxious facts are worthless in promoting a juicy and politically powerful narrative, a narrative of corporate oppression and athletic McCarthyism. Meanwhile, sports media sits back and enjoys web traffic and headline-omnipresence as its narrative becomes stronger and stronger and polarizes more and more people.

There’s a final point that needs to be addressed. Even with all these mitigating factors, isn’t it possible that Kaepernick is a valuable symbolic figure for the struggles of African-Americans? But here’s where we should be cautious. To dismiss facts and good faith because the alternative narrative serves a valuable social purpose is precisely the kind of “post-truth” culture that generated a Trump White House. The anger that black NFL fans feel toward the NFL is rooted in misinformation and misrepresentation, both of which have been proffered by a sports media culture desperate to politicize its internal drama for maximum clickage. On the other hand, the resentment that white football fans feel toward Kaepernick and others like him is likewise often fueled by political myths and culturally convenient jargon. The result is that both of these factions scream past one another, each taking the other’s hostility as evidence they are acting in racist or anti-American bad faith. A vicious, almost impenetrable cycle of distrust, cynicism, and anger.

This is, sadly, the cultural moment we find ourselves in. It can, and must, be transcended. Our national racial wounds are deep and are in the shape of the slaveholder’s whip. Reckoning with a sinful past is never easy, either individually or corporately, but it must be done for God’s sake. And it cannot be done while seeds of hostility are sown by peddlers of narrative instead of truth.