I’ve lately been thinking about why there is so much emotion wrapped up in sports teams, prompted particularly by the 2014 NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. I have not followed sports closely for quite a few years, and even in my most ardent of sports-watching seasons, you probably wouldn’t catch me watching more than a handful of entire football or soccer games. So I’ve never really had that sense of emotional engagement with the performance of my favored teams. I don’t really favor any teams. I used to self-identify as a Rams fan, and the Kurt Warner years were absolutely fantastic especially having just come away from the 49er dynasty, but that’s also the point in time when the Rams moved to St. Louis, thus removing any sense of local-ish attachment I may have had (Fresno, my home town, being pretty much the middle-point between Los Angeles and San Francisco). Anyway, all of this is to say that for the most part, if you catch me watching a sporting event of any sort, I’m not generally rooting for any particular teams. If I’m in the mood for a game, I watch it simply to enjoy watching the competition and athleticism. The clear exception to this trend is of course my university’s football team where I do experience a very tangible sense of pride because, hey, that’s my university and my football team. Here, I do not feel odd using personal and possessive pronouns when I refer to the Fresno State Bulldogs: I have a clear and tangible connection to them. But why do so many of us use personal pronouns for teams in professional leagues? Why do we say “We gave that game to you guys— you did not earn it” or “We are making it to the Super Bowl this year”? These teams are somehow “our” teams.
It’s as though at the level of language itself, sports teams become extensions of ourselves, and I think that happens—at least in part—through the mechanism in which we choose our sports teams, and that’s primarily through no choice at all but through inheritance. I am/was a Rams fan simply because that’s what I grew up with. My dad wore blue and yellow on plenty of Sundays. I remember my first wind-breaker was Rams-branded (and I got teased plenty for wearing it—recall that the Rams didn’t do so well when I was a kid in the 80s). A large chunk of my extended family are ardent San Francisco fans, and though I may be mistaken, I’m fairly certain that that’s a product of inheritance from my grandfather who was the San Francisco fan of San Francisco fans. So I wonder how much of our emotional attachment to “our” teams is connected to the collection of personal narratives that somehow link far away fields and family. When I consider how sports become representative of family narratives, it makes perfect sense why we use personal and possessive pronouns to refer to those teams and why we have such an emotional attachment to our teams. So while many of us might be tempted to respond by saying, “Don’t be so upset – it’s just a game,” well, no, it’s not just a game.