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It Takes Faith to be a Fan

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It Takes Faith to be a Fan
by William T. Cloake IV
June 13, 2010

The Cambridge International Dictionary defines a fan as: "Someone who admires and supports a person, sport, sports team, etc.". Of course, pretty much everyone knows that the word "fan" was derived from the word "fanatic", which is defined as: "a person motivated by irrational enthusiasm (as for a cause)". In short, a fan may be paraphrased to represent an individual who continually supports and admires their team, often in spite of any good rational evidence to do so.

As the Chiefs move through OTA's, fans have different opinions on the potential outcomes for the 2010 Chiefs. This obviously isn't just a Kansas City phenomenon, as fans of teams across the nation are all doing the same thing. As such, it is an interesting time to take a moment and consider this word: "fan".

One notices that the word "fan" says nothing about agreement with a team's decisions, coaching, personnel or otherwise. Nor, does it say anything about any perception about the team's outcomes for the coming season. A fan simply "supports and admires". To me, this is an apt definition of a fan. If you don't support and admire your team then you are simply someone who watches them and keeps track of their results. In short, you "follow" that team.

Now, I am not here to say that there is anything wrong with being a "fan" or a "follower" of a team. I am just here to point out the difference, because I think it is a huge one. Fans are "all in", so to speak. It takes faith to be a fan.

Yes, it takes faith.

Why does it take faith? It takes faith because even the perceived best teams in the NFL have only a small chance to win the Superbowl. Purely statistically, any team has a 1 in 32 chance of winning the Superbowl. Not much better than the odds of your lucky number coming up on a roulette wheel. There have been 44 Superbowls, yet 14 teams have still never won one. Some of the best teams in NFL history have fallen short of even making – let alone winning – the big game. The New England Patriots went undefeated in 2007, only to be labelled a loser by falling to the Giants in Superbowl 42.

Even looking at the Superbowl in terms of the most successful teams, the odds are pretty steep. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won the most Superbowls with 6. However, this means that even they have only won the Superbowl 13.6% of the time or about once every 7 years. I certainly wouldn't put the pink slip to my car up with odds like that. Further, most teams have one the majority of their Superbowls in one or two short spans. The aforementioned Steelers won 4 of their 6 in a 6-year span in the 1970's. Even the New England Patriots have won only 6.7% of all Superbowls (or one every 14 years). Frankly, the Patriots only became a "historically great" franchise recently. Older fans remember the days of Steve Grogan and Harold Jackson, when the Pats were exciting losers and perennial also-rans. The point is – and I don't care who your team is – any NFL franchise has a pretty small chance of winning a Superbowl any given year.
Yet, in spite of the odds, spring is a magic time of year in the NFL. True fans from Detroit to Kansas City to San Francisco will tell you why their team has a chance to be good and even win the Superbowl. It is as if everyone is suddenly from Lake Woebegone and their players are above average and their team is up-and-coming. To me, this where the faith comes in. Faith, by definition is the belief in something in spite of the lack of any real or physical evidence. Given what we have explored about the relative chance of any team winning the Superbowl, it is safe to say that every true fan in the NFL has to operate on a lot of faith. Indeed, there is an element of "irrationality" to fanaticism, just as the definition of fanatic would suggest! Frankly, it is irrational that anyone would believe that it is likely that their team will win the Superbowl.

Importantly, faith is truly where the fan and follower digress. Perhaps, it is why that many fans seem to resent followers and why there is commonly sharp words and dissention among fans and followers in bars, offices and on internet boards across the nation. Since fans are "all in", they bear the brunt of the criticism and rejection when; inevitably, for literally 97% of them, their team fails to win the Superbowl. For the follower, it is a much easier path. Followers are able to sit on the sidelines; criticizing, beleaguring and doubting their team. While many followers call themselves fans, in reality they are not. Remember, fans "admire and support" their team. If someone doesn't do this then they are, by definition, not a fan.

Perhaps, what frustrates most fans about followers, is that followers will often appear to convert to fans once the team starts to win and it begins to look as if they might make the Superbowl. However, they quickly convert back to followers once the dream has been dashed. Followers are commonly heard to say things like: "I knew they'd mess it up" or "See, I shouldn't have gotten excited because I told you they would choke". For fans, followers get to enjoy the fruits of victory, without ever enduring the spoils. Frankly, it is about as frustrating for them as working hard all week to prepare a party, only to have somone else show up and take all the credit.

Of course, inevetibly, followers get frustrated with fans, as well. Followers cannot understand why fans would believe in their team in spite of its obvious short comings. Conversations often began to take on the sound of an believer arguing with an athiest in a college bar. One has faith and the other just can't understand how you can believe in something without physical evidence. Of course, the follower can generally win the debate, since even if the team is successful he can always fall back on the argument that the team was somehow lucky and that they won't due it again. Since no team is going to win Superbowl on and on for infinity, the follower always winds up being "right", in the end.

It isn't merely about rooting for a team but how you root for the team. Followers root for the team but they aren't invested the same way as fans. It is the difference between being married to someone and dating / breaking up all the time. When you are married you are all in and you generally don't spend all your time criticizing your spouse because it makes you look like a jerk. However, when you aren't married you can criticize all you want since you can just dump the person tomorrow, anyway. It is in this way that fans identify with their teams. For a true fan, their team is part of them and they a part of the team. It is like marriage and in marriage you don't just dump on your spouse all the time (at least not if you plan to stay married!).

Followers don't have this sort of commitment to their teams. It is easy for them to criticize because they don't feel attached. So, instead of supporting they sit on the sidelines and pick and nitpick waiting for the inevitable moment when they can say: "I told you so". Often followers seem to follow a team just simply to enjoy the feelings of "being right". Since they will – even in the best case – be right over 85% of the time. I don't know that there is anything insidious here, it may just be a less passionate way to look at the sport.

Of course, I am not saying that individuals can't move from one camp to the other and vice-versa. Being born and raised in southern California, I grew up a die-hard Rams fan. When the Rams made the decision to move to St. Louis, I stopped being a fan because I didn't agree with the team switching towns. Frankly, I stopped even being a follower. Likewise, my father had been a Lakers fan for years but stopped being a fan because he doesn't like Kobe Bryant. Now, my father - when watching the Lakers - will tell you why the Lakers are going to lose because Kobe "isn't a winner, is self-centered", etc. The change is undeniable. In spite of "rooting" for the Lakers, my father beamed when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, as he told me, "See I told you, the Lakers will never win with Kobe". Who knows, when Kobe leaves or retires someday, I imagine he may come back to the fold. Either way, it is clear my dad has gone from being a Laker fan to being a Laker follower.

When all the smoke and dust clears, I think we need something of a revolution in the terminology of sport. Given the clear difference between fans and followers, I think it would be easier and more appropriate if everyone stopped using the same term: "fan". At least then, you would know when what you are getting into when you sit down at your local sports bar and someone says; " Oh yeah, I am a Chiefs fan"

The next question should really be: "Really, are you a fan? Or are you a follower?"

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