By Francisco Javier López Frías, Pennsylvania State University
After the U.S. men’s soccer team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the question about which team to root for has become commonplace among American soccer fans. To help them make such a transcendental decision, Fox Sports, the TV channel televising the World Cup, and 23andMe, a genomics and biotechnology company, launched an ingenious commercial. In it, soccer fans are enticed to take a DNA test to discover their ancestral roots and select the national team that best represents them. As the commercial puts it,
“You may not speak the language or have visited the country, you may not know their heroes, but we’re all connected to a World Cup nation through our DNA.”
From my perspective as a philosopher, the commercial raises the following questions: Why do we watch sports? And, what are the consequences of our reasons for supporting one team or another?
Nature of sports spectators
The commercial’s suggestion of selecting a team based on one’s ancestral roots is certainly in line with one of the main reasons why people choose to root for a specific sports team or athlete.
To shed light on this issue, sports philosophers such as Nicholas Dixon and Stephen Mumford, who have long dealt with questions about the nature of sports spectatorship, draw on the distinction between “purist” and “partisan” spectators.
U.S. fans arrive at the stadium to attend a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match between the U.S. and Honduras in 2017.
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
As these scholars explain, purist spectators follow sports for the love of the game, in particular, for the physical skills and virtuous character that teams and athletes display. Purists are attracted to good plays and excellent performances. Because the primary interest of purists is the game, they do not have strong allegiances with any participant or team. Instead, their allegiance varies depending on who exhibits the best style of play.
Consider the fascination with teams such as the 2014 Spain men’s soccer team, FC Barcelona, and the English team Arsenal FC. Sports commentators have linked this fascination to a play style often referred to as “tiki taka,” used by both these teams. For purists this play style embodies excellence related to skillful ball kicking and teamwork. Soccer coach, Johan Cruyff, who is often regarded as the father of the tiki-taka style, once famously said:
“As a coach, my teams might have won more games if we’d played in a less adventurous way. Maybe I’d have earned a little more and the bonuses would have been bigger, but … For the good of football, we need a team of invention, attacking ideas and style to emerge. Even if it doesn’t win, it will inspire footballers of all ages everywhere. That is the greatest reward.”
On the other hand, partisans come to share a strong emotional connection with a team or individual athlete. Through such a connection, partisans regard sports as …read more