Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

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I’ve known serially unfaithful men who were also among the most loyal and devoted people on the planet. A contradiction? They were untrue to their spouses but lifetime cheerleaders for a different “one and only”: a sports team. Please follow along as I consider this paradox. Perhaps we can learn both a bit about romance and about being a dedicated male fan in the process. I’ll use baseball as my example, but you are free to substitute the competitive team physical activity of your choice.

Most of us fall in love for the first time with a ball team. One of our parents, usually the dad, leads the way. We bond with him, try to please him, want to become him. He takes us out to the home field and we are dazzled by the immensity of the stadium/stage for the physical theater about to unfold. Our innocent devotion to the parent leaches into an attachment to the team he also loves. Virtually every die-hard fan can remember the first time he went to the ball yard and with whom. The experience, like meeting a first-love romantic partner, is unforgettable.

Before long we join our playmates in some version of the same game, all the more to identify with our fathers, older brothers, and the players on TV. We bond to friends through shared love for the sport and being on the same team, pulling together, praying to the same baseball god. Sports is like a civic religion, as many have written: something bigger than yourself, outside yourself.

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The crowd’s roar is intoxicating. Goose bumps. When we play the game, the full-bodied effort of running, stretching, leaping, diving, sliding, and swinging is as “in the moment” as life gets, as love gets. The day is warm, the wind is cool. The physicality of the in-person experience, whether on the field or in the stands, is not sex, but consumes the body and enlivens us, as sex does. They both involve a sweaty intensity.

Fandom and romantic love put us in jeopardy, as well. We give our heart to someone or something else. In a sense, we have no control, certainly none in the case of our team’s performance. Well, at least if you are in love with a person you can sometimes influence the destiny of your affair or marriage. Ecstasy and agony are part of the standard rations of fans and lovers.

Remember those early dates with your heart-throb — the anticipation and the preparation, the clock-watching as the time came closer? Not so different from a fan’s mental state before a big game. The urgency of seeing the hero, being next to the young gods, hoping to get an autograph or a photo proves the preoccupation.

Unlike love, however, the worshiped participants on the playing field are forever young. Even when fan favorites age and retire we transfer our loyalty to a replacement, but still a member of the same squad. Our spouses, however, are not ageless. Nor are we, of course, yet we delude ourselves into thinking so. Listen to the out-of-shape, middle-aged fan saying, “Oh, I could have made that play!” somewhat indignantly.

You take your children to the park and bond with them, as you did with your father. We display pride in carrying the multi-generational torch, either to repeated visits to the Promised Land of World Championship or, for the long-suffering fans of forever losing teams, toward a first time experience of becoming vicarious champions.

Material objects take the place of a genuine fiery beacon. I once had a baseball caught by my grandfather in the Wrigley Field stands, just as I own a scorecard dad got signed by the legendary Rogers Hornsby. There is more shared energy and positive emotion and identification among the united Chicago Cubs Nation than the fraught relations within the United States or the United Nations.

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How interesting that we never betray the multi-generational pact we have with our relatives, friends, and fans by quitting the “team,” but some do cheat on a spouse. Where else in the world can you be #1 except by identifying with a team of élite magic-makers? Not at home, where our foibles are on display and beg forgiveness. The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.

Perhaps part of the reason some flee the spouse is that we can do all the complaining we want about the men on the field, quite unlike an actual mate. Criticizing a beloved human is more costly. The partner tends to push back, the players don’t. You can berate the young men, they don’t berate you. The only cost is the price of a ticket.

Where else can you tell someone he isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe at home with your kids, but you will easily alienate and injure them. Rarely is the boss or the spouse fair game unless you want to corrode the relationship, lose your job, or sleep elsewhere.

Another difference: baseball, whether playing or watching, is recreation: the “Great American Pastime.” Marriage is not. Marriage takes work if there is to be ongoing reward.

A relationship, of course, offers many benefits not provided by fandom. Requited love, sex, offspring, consolation, trust, understanding, and shared intimacy. A sports team will not reject you (unless it moves to another city), but it provides no meaningful looks, tender embraces, quiet confidences and shoulders on which to cry. Most fans would not give up on the idea of ever having a partner, despite the complications. A sports team, by comparison, is like making love to a blow-up, plastic woman. Put differently, sports — in this fan’s opinion — should be taken for what they are, not the dearest thing on earth: a good and loving woman.

There is no escape from heartbreak as a fan or a spouse, however. Indeed, athletics, particularly if you are on a Little League losing team or simply the youthful fan of the Major League variety, is a preparation for life. Yet we seem to mate for eternity with a uniformed bunch of men, not necessarily with a spouse. An able-bodied squad, significantly, is a sometimes thing, an observed entity, not a person you live with in-season and out. Ballplayers go home for the winter. Fans, in a sense, do too. Partners don’t.

I met only one faithless sports fan, ever. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the wisest man on the planet. Many of you know that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, when they lost in seven games. Lost, I might add, the World Championship that has eluded them since 1908. My friend was rooting for the Cubbies and was more than disappointed at the result. Soon after he made a major decision: he would never cheer for the Cubs again, never ever.

As a consequence, the gentleman in question enjoyed the ensuing 70-years far more than the rest of the Wrigley loyalists.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight-years-old in 1945.

The top photo displays Maurie and Flaurie (named after the original owners, husband and wife) of Superdawg, a Chicago drive-in and landmark. The W Flag is similar to the one that hangs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a Cubs victory. It is a practice going back many years, before the time we could consult our phones to discover the outcome of the game. Two different elevated train lines passed within visual distance of the flag, thus alerting fans of the day’s happy or sad tidings. The third image was taken by Arturo Pardavila III on October 22, 2016 before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo requires no explanation.

10 thoughts on “Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

  1. “The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.” Isn’t it “Love (between 2 people) means never having to say you’re sorry”? 🙂

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  2. Yes, that is the common expression, but it is a romantic fantasy. In real relationships (not idealized ones) expressions of sorrow at the injuries one has caused are inevitable, as is the need for forgiveness. By contrast, you can scream from the stands at a ballplayer and never have to apologize. Thanks for your comment, Brewdun.

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  3. Perhaps so, but I like the idealized, romantic, fantasy version better. The version of a love so mutual and so deep that unspoken apologies are understood and unspoken forgiveness is the default mode…a love that means never having to say you’re sorry.

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  4. Your choice, Brewdun. But I prefer the human and attainable variety! 😉

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  5. Not being a ‘fandom’ person, I could never understand men’s passion for their sports team. Until now.

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  6. If I enlighten anyone (including myself) my job is done! Thanks, Rosaliene.

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  7. Oh the agony and ecstasy of love and sport. Over here in Oz the national football league grand final was won by a team who hadn’t been in a grand final in 54 years and hadn’t won a grand final in 62 years and spent most of their time sitting near the bottom of the ladder. So you can imagine the delirium of their fans who had stuck with them loyally through the tough times and the years of embarrassment and misery. Tattoo shops all of a sudden had a spike in sales and fans were saying it was the best day of their lives guiltily adding other than their wedding or birth of their children. It was the romance story of the century. Escapism at its finest. We all need abit of relief from the intensity of life.

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  8. We do need the relief, as you say, Claire. One part of these stories I’m always amused by is when someone is interviewed by a TV reporter and talks about how he has waited his whole life for the championship, as if the entire multi-generational legacy of losing his been his personal Waterloo over the entire course of the 25 years he has been alive! Thanks, as always, for your comment, Claire.

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  9. Judy M. Goodman

    An insightful discussion at a most propitious time. This year we not only have the World Series and the last gasp of the of the election running concurrently — sadly, the latter has been, at times, focused on the infidelity of one of the candidates and the spouse of the other. The unfaithful candidate’s supporters who are still holding national office are, like him, serial cheaters and scream the loudest about the husband of the other (who, BTW, is not running for office). At this point, the Series is still exciting. If it were called because of snow (what an odd concept for baseball), the cliffhanger would be unbearable! If they called off the election (GOD FORBID — never want to do that even if we like the incumbents), most people today would have a subtle sense of relief not having to listen to it anymore. Still, when a ballplayer drops the ball in one year screwing up the team’s chances for the pennant or the series, by the time the last snowflake melts, we’ve all but forgotten, and usually we’ve basically forgiven the player even if we still grumble about it when he’s 82, because we’re aware that he’s a great player and he’s executed most plays before and after with great precision. We rarely hear about the marriages in which one player drops the ball, but the ones that do are either epic or the participants each are wise enough about the overall value of their spouses and families to work through the hurt. Or, of course, maybe they’ve just had enough. Marriages, unlike sports teams, are not necessarily populated by known quantities, no matter how much it seems like they are.

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    • Agreed — no marriage is populated by known quantities on either side — one doesn’t know what the marriage will be like (or how oneself will be within the marriage) until we “live” it. As to forgiving athletes, perhaps to whatever extent we forgive them, it is because there is no profit in beating them down once they’ve retired. With politicians still in the public eye, clearly there is profit and perhaps the fear that past will be prologue. In any case, it is an interesting moment to be a fan and a citizen. Unfortunately, there is also that old Chinese curse to consider: “May you live in interesting times.” Thanks, Judy.

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