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 √©lite 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.

Social Anxiety Disorder: The Next Therapeutic Step

There is a popular stereotype of the socially anxious man finding companionship with a “blow-up” woman. You know, an inflatable balloon-shaped likeness of the real thing. But science fiction, at least as far back as “The Twilight Zone,” has suggested something different: a robot. We are certainly closer to this possibility than ever. And I think it has some interesting ramifications for those among us, both male and female, who are socially anxious.

Imagine a time when you will be able to purchase such a being over the Internet. And let’s further assume that this creature will be capable of doing everything — everything — that a real-life companion can do. These entities would be customized: hair color, complexion, body type, height, sense of humor, level of intelligence, range of interests — you name it, literally, and your imitation mate would be so designed to your specifications.

Now imagine yourself as a socially anxious person staring at your computer screen, preparing to order such a “device.” And let’s further assume that the creature will not immediately seem like a robot to passers-by. That is, there will be little reason to expect that strangers will see you with your new friend and conclude that he or she is a fraud, not the real thing. What will your future be like? And how will society’s future be changed?

First, I suspect that this will be pretty delightful for the lonely and the anxious among us. Moreover, by virtue of having the possibility of regular interaction with the robot, the socially anxious may well discover that they improve their social skills and reduce their anxiety: the repeated “human” contact that they have previously avoided would prove therapeutic. Indeed, there will doubtless be programs for these devices to take the owner through gradually increasing social challenges with built-in therapeutic tips coming from the machine. It will be like having a lover and a doctor all in the same package, one that is available 24/7.

At the same time, however, your new friend just might reduce your incentive to work hard at the process of changing yourself. Your robot won’t require you to face your social challenges unless you want to. She or he won’t be therapeutically programmed unless you desire it. And if you are rude or clumsy in your contact with this machine, you won’t be rejected or criticized unless you want that feature built-in to the range of possible responses from your faux mate.

Even more, now that you have a friend who can be everything you want — a tennis partner, a movie reviewer, a drinking buddy at the ball game — your incentive to make new relationships will be diminished. Why worry about having other friends when your lover can be Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe one day and Einstein the next?

It is likely that we are already seeing the effects of virtual friends and lovers, only on a less dramatic scale than what I’ve described here. From one vantage point, the Internet has been a boon to those whose social anxieties present an obstacle to face-to-face contact, not to mention intimacy. From behind the keyboard, life seems more in control and less dangerous. It provides a place of safety, free from the anticipated humiliation and rejection in situations that others consider manageable.

Those with Social Anxiety Disorder tend to magnify the probability of the worst-case-scenario actually occurring, and assume it would cause a devastation from which recovery would be impossible. But virtual mates might provide a defense against that discomfort at a price: that one now needn’t take on the real-life risk of conventional human contact; and that therefore, the anxious person never would overcome his/her fear.

In this scenario, the world would be full of people who were less solitary, but not necessarily any more socially capable. Those who might go to see a therapist today could well choose to stay at home with their Internet-ordered companion in Tomorrowland. Moreover, to the extent that the World Wide Web has permitted people to be rude behind the cloak of their keyboard¬† — to type or text things that they might not have thought to communicate back in the pre-Internet days — it is possible that we will see a coarsening of daily human interaction and an increase in the incivility that seems to have grown malignantly in the Internet age. Indeed, the Web may be one of the causes of the impatience and frank rudeness that are manifest even waiting in line at the store on a bad day.

A very different unintended consequence of a world of computerized companions would be their impact on the dating marketplace. Real people have flaws — emotional, physical, and intellectual. Given sufficient advancement in science, the programmable companion will be virtually perfect. Even for those of us who have made a good romantic match, the new product would be tough for a real person to beat. Pity the average man or woman trying to outshine the machine-crafted competition! It would make the contestants on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” not worth a second look.

Wait! What about children? Would you want a “perfect,” albeit inhuman mate or a flawed spouse of the conventional kind who is capable of generating offspring? I suspect that the adoption marketplace would change dramatically if even a few people who chose a robotic lover were to seek a real-life child to complete their happy home.

The future I’m envisioning has at least one more feature: it is a world without loss, without grief, without the heartbreak of rejection or divorce or death. Those who choose robotic companions will worry and suffer less because of this escape hatch from the transitory nature of the human condition. The machine will always be there, never suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, never even think of infidelity, and never become infirm.

Pretty terrific, right? I’m not so sure. If you think about falling in love, part of what makes it special is the initial uncertainty — the time discovering who this new person is and what they do and say that is impossible to predict but dazzling. Would we react the same way to a device programmed to be emotionally attached to us that arrives in a box via UPS delivery? A “man” or “woman” who comes with a money-back guarantee of fidelity?

And isn’t the possibility of loss part of what makes us love more strongly? Isn’t the concern we have for the other’s vulnerability — be it our child, spouse, or parent — part of what constitutes love and causes us to feel it in the first place? Isn’t sacrifice — doing for the other — part of what gives the other value? Would we ever feel this kind of concern for an indestructible or fully replaceable machine?

For my part, I think I will take the world as it is, heartbreak and anxiety included, as miserable as those experiences are. There usually is no free lunch in life. Hurdles, be they social anxiety or fear of loss must be overcome. Goals too easily achieved rarely are highly valued. As with many things, Shakespeare put it best, knowing that the anticipation of loss is part of what is expressed in a love song, “… to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”*

For more on Social Anxiety Disorder: Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment.

*The quotation is the last line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII.

The source of the bottom two images is Dark Roasted Blend.