The Ethics of Choosing a Team

In the latest issue of the Journal
of Applied Philosophy
, Nicholas Dixon discusses the ethics of
supporting various sporting teams. The main thesis was that it is (a) morally
acceptable to pick a team for arbitrary reasons and stick to them through at
least some turmoil (that is, to be a partisan
fan), and that (b) this is morally preferable to picking a property F of teams and supporting whatever team
is F (that is, being a puritan fan). The qualification to (a)
was that if the team starts to engage in indefensible practices, then you
should stop supporting the team. Well, I suppose this is right: you shouldn’t
defend the indefensible!

main argument for both (a) and (b) was an analogy between supporting a sporting
team and being in love. I guess there are some
analogies here; though as a Red Sox fan I’m not too sure I want to stress them.
The point is meant to be that (a) it is morally permissible to love a
particular person for somewhat arbitrary reasons and (b) this is preferable to
picking some property F and loving
whatever person you know best instantiates that property. So the analogy is
meant to ground both the permissibility of arbitrariness in team selection, and
the impermissibility of being principled in a certain way about changing teams.
It is also meant to ground the kinds of considerations that lead to justifiably
abandoning (dumping?) teams, though here things get a little murky.

analogy is a little strained in one pretty important dimension. If supporting a
team is like being in love, it is like being in love with someone who doesn’t
love you in return, and who indeed does not know of your existence, and whom
you know does not love you in return, or even know of your existence. The team
does know about, and even care about, a class of people to which you belong in
virtue of supporting the team, but if the analogy here is romantic love, then I
don’t think that’s much of a consolation. Given that important disanalogy, we
might wonder how much of the argument falls apart.

main argument that disappears is the argument for (b). It is not, I think,
impermissible to abandon a love that is so dramatically unrequited if the
initial basis for the love disappears. Anyone who organised their human
relationships this way would lack a crucial virtue. But the important point
here is that there is no relationship with
the team, since the team does not even know of your existence, or care about
you de re. (Since most teams care about their fans de dicto, this qualification is needed.)
So why keep loving them once they cease to be lovable?

have a little interest in this because in some sports, particularly American
football, I am somewhat of a puritan fan. I don’t really understand American
football, so when I watch it I really want to see two things: trick plays and
long passes. And I will quite happily support a team that promises lots of
those plays and then cease supporting them when they cease providing. I’m
probably missing out on something here, the special kind of qualia one gets
from genuinely being committed to a team, but I get quite enough of that as a
Red Sox fan to go on with. So I think purism is morally defensible, and feel
perfectly happy being a purist about the strange game they call ‘football’ in
this country.

another stage, Dixon compares supporting a team to supporting certain artistic
performers. But here any kind of partisan behaviour is absurd. I mean, I liked
Kevin Spacey’s mid-90s work about as much as I liked any artistic work in that
time period. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to even pretend to like his more
recent work. The purist can jump to the next good actor to come along, the
partisan is stuck watching K-Pax all the way to the hidden scenes.

a different point, but I also didn’t like the grounds Dixon endorsed for
abandoning teams as a partisan. Without going into too much detail, he
basically held that the grounds for this should be the on-field behaviour of a
team. He even said that you should dump a team that engages in ‘verbal
intimidation’. I don’t buy this. I wouldn’t like the Australian cricket team
near as much as I do if they didn’t engage in a little verbal intimidation from
time to time. I think a much better ground for abandoning a team is the off
field behaviour of their players. Or, a little more generally, it is the kind
of off-field behaviour that they endorse in virtue of who they sign. So I think
the otherwise superlative season the Seattle Mariners had last year was
tarnished by the fact that they signed Al Martin just after he’d been indicted
on charges of assaulting one of his wives. And whatever the Cubbies do this
year will be tarnished by their using their first draft pick on alleged human Ben Christensen. (See link
for the gruesome details.) Aside that, the odd gratuitous foul or questioning
of one’s opponent’s parentage is entirely acceptable.

was one amusing error in the article: Michael Jordan did play for the Chicago
White Sox (and I guess the Bulls too), but not the Cubbies!

and the Red Sox just beat the Rangers despite an A-Rod home run.