Stoicism, Sports, And Packers Fandom by Greg Sadler

Growing up as I did in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 1980s, you might think it a foregone conclusion that I would become a Packers fan.  For those readers unfamiliar with the American context, that’s our NFL football team, based in the small city of Green Bay (though playing some games in Milwaukee during my teenage years).  And I have indeed been a fan of our home team since my childhood.  During Fall and Winter, my wife and I watch as many of the games as we can – much easier to do, since we moved back to Milwaukee from where we were working in New York – and we engage in considerable conversation about the various aspects of the sport with our friends, neighbors, and family.  I even recently joined the “NFC North Trash Talk Division” Facebook Group (where I generally don’t post or comment, but do check out what members are saying).
Because of my commitments to and work with Stoic philosophy and practice, I get quite a few questions about being a sports fan in general, and more specifically about being a fan of NFL football.  To some people, sports just seem a silly or even irresponsible waste of time, unworthy of the attention of anyone with serious intellectual or practical pursuits.  Among them are the commenters who make the now-stale jibes about “sporting sports hard today, while we watch sportsball” and the like.  Others wonder how someone who studies and applies Stoicism –I don’t claim myself to be a Stoic, but I do draw heavily on their thought – could possibly get anything out of watching the Packers play, let alone care enough to engage in discussions about the team, their prospects, and the sport of football.
Let’s put the question bluntly. Aren’t these two things basically incompatible – a serious commitment to Stoicism, on the one hand, and being a genuine, committed fan of a sports team, on the other?  This is a topic to which I found myself devoting a considerable amount of reflection – particularly over the course of our now-losing 2017 season – and my answer is No.
In fact, as I’ll explain a bit later, since incorporating Stoic insights and practices into my own life, I’ve found watching my home team play a much more enjoyable experience, and I’d even say that I’ve become a better fan in the process.

Growing Up Green And Gold

The Packers were a spectacularly bad team during my formative years as a child, then a teenager, and then a young man.  They had won the first two Super Bowls, in 1966 and 1967, under the legendary coach Vince Lombardi, and all of the adults remembered those “glory years” quite well.  I was born in 1970, and that decade was not a good one for the Packers.  They had two winning seasons, one in 1972 and the other in 1978.  To their credit, they never dipped below winning four games in any of those seasons, but my most consistent memory of those days involves a lot of disappointment, frustration, and nostalgia.  Not just felt by the adults, but especially by us kids.  We would watch game after game, with the adults talking up how great the Packers had been, hoping that “this will be the year”, and see them lose more often than not.  They exemplified the quip about “managing to snatch defeat out of the mouth of victory.”
The 1980s were a little bit better in certain respects, since there were not just two winning seasons – 1982 and 1989 – but also (from 1981-1985) four seasons where the Packers managed to break even, winning as many games as they lost.  Comparatively, that felt like progress.  But that was also the decade when our closest rival, the Chicago Bears, were hot – they won the 1985 Super Bowl – and routinely pushed the hapless Packers all over the gridiron.  You’d see quite a lot of Blue and Orange (the Bears’ colors) up here in Wisconsin.  There were even more fair-weather-fans up here who switched to the much more successful Dallas Cowboys.
Looking back on it, growing up as a “Packer backer” in the 1970s and 1980s – not to mention growing up in Wisconsin at that time in general – functioned as an induction to what gets called “lower-case-s” stoicism.  This is that overall attitude of toughness, overcoming obstacles, enduring, stuffing down emotions, not displaying pain.  It is quite commonly referenced in the present as a “personality trait.”  That comportment was what the ball-players displayed on the field, and – particularly (though not exclusively) for us boys – it was what adults often demanded of us.  It actually served one well for the weekly ritual of watching the game together.  If you just expected the Packers to probably lose, the palpable disappointment in the air (and sometimes even rage) wouldn’t get to you as much.
The lower-case-s version of “stoicism” is something quite different from the actual ancient philosophy of Stoicism.  Although in certain contexts it may prove a useful disposition, it often hinders or prevents personal growth, productive and rich relationships, or even a cheerful engagement with life.  As far as sports and fandom go, while stoicism might be useful when sitting on a cold bench and cheering the team through inclement weather, a stoic attitude seems almost the antithesis of fun.  And quite honestly, quite often being a Packers fan – which was what was expected – back in those years was anything but enjoyable. It sometimes felt more like a never-ending obligation that, by virtue of growing up in this state, and within a family that stuck with the home team, you were just stuck with.
From 1992 on – my junior year in college – things changed, and the Packers developed into a powerhouse team.  There were a number of reasons for that, but I’m less interested in looking at those, and much more interested in the effects that success had.  From 1992 to 2004 – with the exception of 1999 –  the Packers racked up one winning season after another.  They went to the playoffs ten times, and won the Super Bowl in 1997.  There was a bit of a rough patch, with losing seasons in 2005 and 2008, and then from 2009 up to this year, the Packers have not only had winning seasons, but went to the playoffs every year, and even won yet another Super Bowl in 2010.
2017 has been a very rough year for the team, and consequently for their fans.  Our star quarterback, Aaron Rogers, had his collarbone broken during a rough sack, and that seriously handicapped the team. His replacement, Brett Hundley – who had been mentored by Rogers to step in for precisely this sort of situation – proved a major disappointment when given the opportunity. There have been a number of other issues as well.  The once impressive Packers defense has been weak, giving up far too many points, failing to stop passes and runs, and missing tackles.  The offensive line failed to protect the quarterback and to open up lines for the run game.  The rosters have been decimated by injuries.  One could go on and on.
What’s particularly interesting to see – from a Stoic perspective – are the reactions exhibited by many of the fans.  After two decades, they have become accustomed to seeing the Packers dominating their division rivals, consistently winning games and seasons, and going on yearly to participate in the playoffs.  Expectations have been raised, and when – as is the case this year – they cannot be met, the fans experience and exhibit all manner of negative emotions.
Each of these emotional responses – and the judgements typically associated with them – are familiar to students of Stoic philosophy.  I’ll just mention one example.  The Stoics distinguished a number of distinct sorts or modalities of anger (see for example, the discussions in Diogenes Laertes, Cicero, and Arius Didymus), and all of those show up in the reactions of Packers fans in the present.
“We deserve a team that goes to the playoffs every year!” is the judgement.   As strange as that may sound, I do hear quite a few people saying that.  Since we are definitely not making the playoffs – and might even have a losing season – this leads to anger, and then settling on targets for their outrage.  That often takes the form of demanding that someone be fired – the head coach, for instance, or the defensive coordinator, or the general manager.
Fear is another emotion that arises while watching the very game itself, and for many fans this interferes with their enjoyment that should be their prime reason to view it.  I have known some usually quite rational people who lapse into strange (and sometimes, I suspect, made up on the spot) superstitious behavior and attitudes while a football game is on.  Some get upset if you to speculate about the score, or what the teams might do next, fearing you might “jinx” the game.
Packer games are serious business for many people here in Wisconsin.  But it is possible to maintain perspective and equanimity while participating in this communal sports-watching. For me, a game remains just a game – even if I allow myself to get drawn into the general excitement in years when the Packers move from success to success.  And when current fans start complaining loudly about lackluster performance, I remember back to those years of my youth, when we dutifully watched a team that we hoped might do better than their usual, but fully expected not only to lose the game but to play poorly at points as well.  I remind myself that the very nature of the sport is that teams rise and fall.  After all, I grew up during one of those long periods when the Packers did poorly.  That lends a certain, very useful, perspective.

Should A Stoic Be A Sports Fan?

Up to this point, as I’ve narrated a bit of Packer history, reflected on my own Wisconsin upbringing, and mentioned a few insights from Stoicism, I haven’t really discussed the main question that I started with – is a commitment to upper-case-S (i.e. the genuine article) Stoicism compatible with being a sports fan?  Or is fandom something that, as a person makes progress along the Stoic path, they would necessarily need to leave behind?
It really depends on what we understand being a “fan” to involve.  The understanding some people have of what it means for them to be a fan clearly does include some elements that are quite frankly not only incompatible with Stoicism, but with other forms of virtue ethics as well.  The term “fan” is believed to derive, as a shortened form, from the longer word “fanatic,” and there certainly are many contemporary fans whose behavior, language, priorities, and attitudes exemplify that original meaning.
If you think about what professional team sports – particularly those that enjoy a massive fan base – entail, then from a capital-S Stoic perspective there are a number of problematic aspects.  Consider just a few, stemming from Epictetus’ teachings about the dichotomy of control and the right use of appearances.
Being a football fan carries the risk of placing undue emphasis on a combination of things that are outside our control.  Our own body is something, strictly speaking outside our control, and that goes all the more for what other people’s – for example those of your own favored team – do or don’t do, suffer or strive for.  Add an opposing team, or weather and field conditions, and you have a prime example of the type of thing Epictetus counsels us against allowing our desire and aversion to reach out to.  Other externals include social status (i.e. bragging rights) the thoughts and feelings of other people, and winning itself – the Greeks had a name, philonikia, for the desire for beating others.
Stoics don’t believe that a person should simply shun externals, or even not care about them at all – that’s not what Stoic “indifference” (adiaphoria) really means.  But it is vitally important to assign them their proper place in the scheme of things.  Whether or not one’s local team wins or loses isn’t something that should really matter for the Stoic, and it definitely should not be assigned a higher value than, for example, spending quality time and developing good relationships with family members and friends, let alone cultivating the virtues – wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.  The “bonding” that people claim occurs through watching games together, or the instant camaraderie available when encountering a fellow fan (as a Packer backer, I can count on finding some fellow fans practically anywhere in the USA) is often very shallow, and can easily become a substitute getting in the way of things that should matter more to the Stoic.
Some fans not only allow their desires and aversions to become deeply entangled with the externals of professional sports, they go beyond this by assenting to a deeply irrational judgement, i.e. that anything they think, say, do, or feel can in some way influence the outcome of a game.  Motivated by hope and fear, they avoid saying certain things – even demand that others don’t say them – or they wear or refrain from wearing some article of clothing.  I’ve even known a family where one member was not allowed to be in the room watching the game with the rest of them, because they had the belief that if he was permitted to join them, the Packers’ play would suffer.  All of this, from a Stoic perspective, represents a sort of low-grade insanity.
Going even further, there are fans who keep themselves “informed” – and get themselves quite worked up – about all sorts of other aspects of the game, their team, its prospects, and its management.  During the off-season, they read, watch, or listen to the plethora of media available about the players and their lives, plans for the coming season, speculations about drafts, trades, and free agency.  Some of them memorize statistics of various sorts.  Those who develop sufficiently strong opinions express them – often contentiously – to whoever will listen, at work and at home, in their social media, and if they really hit the jackpot,
Strictly speaking, from a Stoic perspective everything that happens concerning one’s sports team is really just a vast complex of “appearances” or “impressions” (both of these English terms translate the Greek phantasiai, which can also mean “imaginations”).  Consider what Epictetus says about the drama and epic poetry and performances of his own time.

The Iliad consists of nothing but such appearances and the use [khresis] of appearances. It seemed to Paris that he should carry off the wife of Menelaus. It seemed to Helen that she should follow him. If, then, it had seemed to Menelaus that it was an advantage to be robbed of such a wife, what could have happened? Not only the Iliad had been lost, but the Odyssey too.
And what tragedy has any other origin? The Atreus of Euripides, what is it? Appearance. The Oedipus of Sophocles? Appearance. The Phoenix? The Hippolytus? All appearance. Who then, think you, can escape this influence? What are they called who follow every appearance? Madmen. Yet do we, then, behave otherwise?

This line of reasoning quite arguably applies to football games themselves, along with the constant commentary on them by the sportscasters, and the talk and cheering (or boos, or angry expostulations) of the fans.  But this realization that all of this is just appearances applies equally to everything else concerned with NFL football (or any other sport for that matter), from commercials advertising jerseys and other game wear, to shows on sports talk radio, to “how ‘bout them Packers” small talk chitter-chatter.  Stoic philosophy doesn’t tell us to entirely dissociate ourselves from these complexes of appearances, of course, but it does urge us to use them rightly, as well as to understand them.  And adequate understanding and proper use would seemingly rule out much of what passes for football fandom.
There are a number of other key dimensions of Stoic doctrine that might seem to be incompatible with football fandom.  One that particularly stands out, in my view, is the committment to an attitude of cosmopolitanism.  Being a fan of a team arbitrarily associated with a geographical region, with all of its inherited rivalries and animosities with other teams and their fans, seems highly irrational.  Fan loyalties can last a lifetime, over multiple crosscountry moves, taking on an aspect that almost appears a sort of patriotism.  But, what is one proud of in this?  How well a team plays a game against other teams?  The record they rack up?  Whether they have a legacy of competing in the playoffs or winning the Super Bowl?  The colors associated with them?  The stadium they play in (generally financed by regional taxpayers)?  These don’t seem like the sorts of things a Stoic should really care about or value, do they?

Why Stoicism Makes For Better Fans

There are quite a few discussions bearing upon sports of various sorts, and particularly on those interested in those sports, in classic Stoic texts.  Some of these are quite perjorative.  Marcus Aurelius expresses gratitude towards his first teacher for leading him:

Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games (1.5)

Within his list of injunctions in the Enchiridion, Epictetus advises:

Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things—of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes. . . (33)

Seneca draws an illuminating contrast in his Letters:

For although the body needs many things in order to be strong, yet the mind grows from within, giving to itself nourishment and exercise. Yonder athletes must have copious food, copious drink, copious quantities of oil, and long training besides; but you can acquire virtue without equipment and without expense. All that goes to make you a good man lies within yourself. (Letter 80)

Clearly, engaging in sports and athletic training, let alone spending time focused on watching athletic contests, is something tangential to the good life, and development of good character, as the Stoics conceived of it.  Going too far – and that is easy to do in our contemporary society – in devoting one’s time and attention to professional sports draws one away from the Stoic path.
But perhaps there are multiple ways to be a fan of a football team, or more generally to take an interest in any sport, contest, or team.  After all, we do see Epictetus making analogy after analogy between Stoicism in its practice and both the training and the competition involved in the rough wrestling of his times.  It seems likely that he spent a considerable amount of time observing these athletes, and perhaps even enjoyed watching them.  With a model like that – and mind you, I’m not claiming that Epictetus was a “fan” – there is room for thinking that some sort of fandom would be fully compatible with Stoicism.
Epictetus uses a yet more promising metaphor in book 2 of the Discourses, in a discussion bearing upon the “use of” or “dealing with” (khresis) matters that are externals, indifferent, and outside our control.  He affirms the traditional Stoic doctrine that these sorts of things do not have value in themselves, but reminds us that our use of them – what we make of them, or how we deal with them – is something in our control, and can be good or bad.  Notice what he uses to illustrate this point:
This you may see to be the practice of those who play skillfully at ball. No one strives for the ball itself, as either a good or an evil; but how he may throw and catch it again. Here lies the address, here the art, the nimbleness, the skill; lest I fail to catch it, even when I open my breast for it, while another catches it whenever I throw it. But if we catch or throw it in fear and trembling, what kind of play will this be? How shall we keep ourselves steady, or how see the order of the game? One will say, throw; another, do not throw; a third, you have thrown once already. This is a mere quarrel, not a play. (2.5)
He goes on to tell us that the “ball” in this case can be all sorts of matters.  In the case of Socrates, he played ball skillfully at his trial, maintaining his character when faced with unjust charges and the threat of execution.  He knew that the outcome of that forensic sporting match was not up to him, but he played his part to the best of his ability.  The ball in that case, Epictetus tells us was:

Life, chains, exile, a draught of poison, separation from a wife, and leaving his children orphans.

He concludes that we should exhibit care and attention with respect to the play, but remain indifferent about the ball itself.
What if we turn the metaphor around, and make the ball a literal one, the proverbial pigskin?  What lesson does this then contain for the football fan?  It is possible to root for one’s team, to desire that they play well, even to delight in their play, without getting wrapped up in what the ultimate outcome of the game – not to mention what the record is for the season –  happens to be.
In any contest – barring a tie – one of the teams has to win and the other has to lose. That is the nature of the game and its rules.  And some teams will go on to compete for the championship one year, while others watch from the sidelines.  Again, that is simply the way things are.  If I choose to place my desire and aversion into how my team does, whether in the entire game, or even in a particular moment, I am setting myself up for being troubled, for feeling fear, anger, disappointment, inordinate desire, and other problematic emotions.
Adopting a Stoic perspective, in my own experience, not only makes being a fan much more enjoyable, but arguably allows one to be a better fan in a number of respects.  It induces a much more realistic perspective on the prospects for one’s team, its players, and the events that are going to happen – from injuries to bad calls, to missed tackles and dropped passes – on “any given Sunday”.  Not stressing out over the outcome of the game, or even whether this or that drive will be successful, frees one up to appreciate the play of the game better.  Even watching the Packers lose to a team that, on the day of the game, happens to be a better team (or at least to play well) can feel all right. After all the team that plays better deserves to win. And it is, in the end, just a game.
What is the role of a fan, Epictetus might ask one of his students?  Is it to get upset and curse the referees? To call for the firing of the coach, a player, the general manager?  To demand that one’s own team win all or most of the games, and go on to the playoffs every year?  Or is it rather to show up, tune in, and support the team?  To cheer on the team, and to rejoice when they play well, when they display skill and sportsmanship, when they strive to do difficult things on the field.  Is it to berate and hate the fans of other teams?  Or is it instead to share a common experience, an activity of watching, cheering, and enjoying the game with others, those wearing your colors and those wearing the other team’s?
The last point I will make is that, from a strictly Stoic perspective, it is not only possible to feel emotions while watching one’s team play.  Feeling positive emotions would be an integral part of Stoic fandom.  A desire, a joy, even a cautiousness that remain within the scope of reason – these are what the Stoics called the eupatheia, the “well-felt emotions” – these are what I myself experience these days when we turn on and watch the game.  That certainly feels better than the negative emotions I felt until fairly recently – and works better than the lower-case-s stoicism I learned in my youth – when continuing to partake in our Wisconsin tradition of being a Packers fan.
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

5 thoughts on Stoicism, Sports, And Packers Fandom by Greg Sadler

  1. Tim LeBon says:

    Greg. thanks, really interesting essay on a topic that I don’t think we’ve seen anyone else write about. Growing up in the UK, I have had plenty of opportunity to practise stoicism (small s) on the fate of the English cricket team (currently losing in Australia, our biggest rivals) as well as the soccer team I support (Tottenham, although they are doing quite well at the moment), I have often thought that the extent to which I get worked up about sport is not consistent with Stoicism and agree with your conclusions. My question is – if one is constantly reminding oneself that the result doesn’t really matter, can one get so absorbed in the contest? And if you aren’t constantly reminding yourself that it doesnt really matter, can you avoid getting upset when they lose? Or perhaps its more like, as you suggest, viewing the sporting event more like a good book – you can temporarily get lost in it, without losing perspective. Has that been your experience so far, Greg?

  2. I think you should play and watch games as if the score does matter. It would make little sense not to. But I don’t see how this attitude should lead you to negative emotions. Sports celebrate the beauty of the human body, and through the control of the mind, its ability to acquire and master skills. If you or your team lose, you should be ready to acknowledge and perhaps even celebrate the better skills of the other player or team. As a tennis player and fan, I find this attitude making my hitting sessions and matches much more enjoyable and meaningful. Ready to say and feel ‘nice shot’ to a winner from your opponent, or to applaud a great looking shot from the player opposing your favorite tennis player is a way of making the practicing and watching sports enriching and totally ‘up to us’.

  3. John fleming says:

    I saw this and it touched me. I too am a fan of football team which needs its fans to be stoic. I have rooted for the minnesota Vikings for 40 of my 50 years on this earth.
    For those not familiar with football, the Vikings are one of those teams cursed by the gods to be good but never be a champion. This to me is a far worse faith for a fan than rooting for the long suffering losers. They have no expectations. Me, every year I see a championship team. When I was very young they lost four championship games in 7 years. I do not even live in minnesota, never did. But like the true stoic I stood with them appreciating the good moments and placing the hard moments in a proper context. From an early age I learned from listening to players talk of how they placed losing the big game in a proper context. It was very beneficial. As a young boy I saw failure in a totally different light. I appreciated the idea that some things were 8n my control, others were not. I enjoyed the quality of the game as much as the final score.
    When you stand by a team and root even when others turn their back you are portraying a way of life the ancients stoic would admire. Like Epictetus, I stand with the team seeing the value in sharing a short time with other fans, enjoying the moment.
    I have seen grown men who, facing a devastating loss, go home enjoy life, and come back to play again.
    No one lives or dies here, it’s only a game

  4. Christopher Yoder says:

    I have gotten to the point that the only expectation that I have of my teams is that they play to the best of their ability–which is in their control. If they play well and lose then they play well and lose. If they play well and win then all the better. However, it is mildly frustrating when they play below their abilities and lose because of that but my reaction to that is within my control and I shrug it off.

  5. […] remember you wrote about Stoicism and sport a while ago and something happened that made me think we might usefully dialogue about  […]

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