Stoicism, Sports, and Fandom – An Exchange by Tim Lebon and Greg Sadler

My friend and colleague, Tim Lebon and I had a recent exchange of emails over the last several weeks – we’re going to call them “letters” here – having to do with a topic that some portion of our readers will easily relate to, that is, being a sports fan and trying to reconcile that with practicing Stoicism. We plan (fate willing) to pick this exchange back up and continue it in the coming months as well, since there’s likely a good bit more to be said about the matters we discuss below.

Letter 1

Hi Greg

I remember you wrote about Stoicism and sport a while ago and something happened that made me think we might usefully dialogue about  it.

My soccer team, Spurs, suffered a humiliating defeat last night. They were 2-0 up and in the second leg lost 3-0 away to Dynamo Zagrieb, a team they would be expected to beat. This means they are out of the Europa Cup and their season effectively over. To make matters worse, the opposition manager was put in prison for fraud a couple of days before the match,  so we should really have had the upper hand!

I wasn’t quite as upset as usual, and I am wondering if my Stoicism helped. But I am still somewhat affected.
What would Marcus Aurelius say about this?

  • That it is just 11 grown men kicking a piece of dead animal (or whatever) around for 90 minutes?
  • That the match will all be forgotten in a few years?
  • That at that very time people are starving, getting tortured, dying and so it really isn’t important?
  • That the result doesn’t really affect me, because it doesn’t affect my ability to be virtuous?
  • That the result  might even be good as it is a Stoic challenge, for me to respond with magnanimity – the better team did win on the night, and for them it must be a miracle night!

All of this. 

I like the magnanimity idea best – through Croatian eyes, the performance must be wonderful!

So maybe I should stop watching sports? Isn’t it a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t I be better off reading Marcus, or talking to my friends or family? Or doing the gardening or dishes? Maybe.

But sports happens to be the way I bond with a lot of male friends – and my son too – even though he supports a different team!

How does a Stoic bond with others? Maybe they bond with other Stoics through Stoicism? Maybe I should just bond with other Stoics? The Epicureans had their Garden, maybe we should have one?

What about family then, do they come second?  Isn’t it good to connect with Non-Stoics so we connect with alternative views and the “real world?”

Perhaps the best policy is to treating my team winning as a preferred indifferent and to be  moderate in my watching of sports.

So maybe as a good Stoic my policy should be as follows: “I prefer my team to win, but even if they don’t I ecan njoy the spectacle and see the big picture – such as genuinely being pleased for the opposition’s joy. I watch my sports in moderation.”

I am sure this is very wise. But it goes against the tribal aspect of watching sports. Would I change allegiance just because a team had a more ethical policy or a more attractive style of play? My sporting friends would be aghast if I made such a switch.

Won’t  I enjoy the highs less if I take this rational approach to watching sports? Maybe, but the counter-argument that is all for the best. The highs aren’t worth the risk of reducing my tranquillity and leading me astray in the pursuit of virtue – watching sports is in this way like getting addicted to a drug.

So the discipline of desire requires me to adjust my attitude and behaviour with regards to sports. Any thoughts?

Kind regards,

Letter 2

Dear Tim,

I can definitely commiserate with you.  One of the characteristics of the “classic” Green Bay Packers team that I grew up rooting for as a kid in the 70s and 80s is managing to lose to teams that one would think they ought to beat!  That happened again this year in the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl.  The Packers had home field advantage, hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau field in the middle of a Wisconsin Winter.  They were given about 66% odds of winning the game, and had they done so, we would have seen a historic repeat of the very first Super Bowl, when the Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs.  The Packers managed to lose 31-26.

These sorts of outcomes can be galling.  But I suppose they really ought to be expected.  There’s rarely any sure things, and any given game, where there are multiple players on a team, there’s so many things outside of the control of any given player, right?  And as fans, we’re really just along for the ride, watching, perhaps cheering, most likely allowing our desires and aversions, a wide range of our emotions, perhaps even a sense of duties (we’re fans after all) get involved with the outcome of a game.  And, as the game progresses, with each part and portion of the game as well.

I don’t know that – if we are really fans and intend to remain so – the Marcus “breakdown” or “deconstruction” is really going to be all that helpful.  Analogous to the examples he chooses – a nice and well plated meal is just dead stuff, sex is just rubbing with some fluids – telling ourselves that the game our favorite teams play is “just. . . .”, well that’s more a strategy for someone who needs to break an addiction, an obsession, a weakness for something.  It strikes me as the sort of thing the people who ostentatiously display themselves as above it all by calling things “sportsball” might find more congenial.

The reality is that, yes, we can break these sporting events down into less meaningful components that are less likely to suck us in or lure us with temptations into the wrong sorts of emotional attachments and investments.  That could be useful for some aspects.  But there can be some positive aspects to sports fandom, understood and managed in the right Stoic manners, and we don’t want to throw those away.

I think that one of the key features of the other potential Marcus-responses you suggest is maintaining a sense of proportion. And that, to me, seems like something very closely connected with the virtue of prudence, as well as with justice.  So that seems a productive line to explore. 

  • How much value ought we to assign to sports, and to what aspects of it precisely? 
  • How much time should we take away from other things, like reading, gardening, or spending time with (not-interested-in-sports) family? 
  • How emotionally invested ought we to be? 

These are just a few of the questions this matter raises – and those strike me as in no way unique to sports for the Stoic, but rather the same sorts of questions that can be asked of any interest or activity.

I think the magnanimity aspect is well worth exploring, and I see that as tied into the approach you suggest of treating winning – or even just playing well – as a preferred indifferent.  I’d also point out that for the classical Stoics, magnanimity is one main sub-virtue of the virtue of courage or fortitude, and that seems like an area full of potential.

There is a lot more that could be said about all of this, and I’m hoping in our dialogue we’ll explore a good bit more of that ground that can be covered (or uncovered) – maybe get up the field into scoring position, eh!  Thanks very much for writing me about this, and spurring me to think a bit more about this interesting, frustrating, and perhaps paradoxical commitment we both share with respect to our favorite teams.

Sincerely, Greg

Letter 3

Hi Greg

Thank you for your commiserations. Anyone out there with knowledge of both American and English football and our respective teams (Green Bay Packers and Spurs) to let us know who deserves the most sympathy?

To recap: After my team (Spurs) were humiliated last week, I suggested a number of things that might help:

  • Marcus Aurelius’s deconstruction (“it’s only a game”)
  • magnanimity (“well played the opposition”)
  • treating the result as a preferred indifferent (“I would like my team to win but it’s not the end of the world if they do not”)
  • and understanding that this is a signal that I need to do more work on the discipline of desire and aversion (“let’s get my priorities in life straight ….”).

You agreed with many of my concerns – stressing that we sports fans need to keep a sense of proportion but that we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which perhaps might be the result of taking Marcus’s method of  deconstruction too far.

One way of approaching this is by us exploring the attitudes and behaviours of the Stoic sage.  Would the sage take any interest in sports? 

Marcus has this to say 

From my governor, [I learnt] to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.

Meditations, 1.5  translated by George Long

The sage would, I take it,  be concerned with higher things. He (or she) would support neither Spurs nor the Packers.  But now I worry that the sage might be a little over-serious, a little dull. What do you think, Greg?

Finally for today, I would like  to return to your suggestions regarding the way forward. I think we are agreed that some kind of Stoic Values Clarification -which is clearly related to the discipline of desire and to the theory of preferred indifferent- is a good idea so we can get our priorities right. So too is the cultivation of Stoic virtues, including all of the cardinal virtues as well as magnanimity. 

Over the next week I will be especially mindful of how I invest my time and how virtuous (or otherwise) I am when watching or taking part in sports and games. So the next time  I watch Spurs play, I could set myself the task of admiring every example of good play, regardless of who makes it, being particularly appreciative of sporting behaviour.  In this way I could use my interest in sports as an opportunity both to prioritise my time well and to progress in my development of the virtues – “the obstacle is the way”.

Spurs aren’t playing for a week or two, so I may have to try this out with a different activity.

Whilst I am “in the dock” I would also like to confess to a strong interest in the game of contract bridge. I am playing on-line with my partner in a tournament tonight.  I will report back on how I get on – not in the tournament itself, but in my attempt to be a good Stoic.

Do you face any such Stoic challenges – or opportunities – in the next week, Greg?

I hope you have a good week

Kind regards

Letter 4

Dear Tim,

I don’t know that the sage would not be a fan of any team.  It would depend very much on what “being a fan” means, wouldn’t it?  Certainly the rabid, partisan, violence-prone fanaticism that was apparently characteristic of the gladiatorial games and chariot races in ancient Rome – that kind of fandom would be incompatible with sagehood. But I don’t see why a well-proportioned perspective of rational fandom – supporting one’s team as part of a community – wouldn’t be compatible with sagehood. 

After all, we read in summaries of Stoic doctrines (like that of Arius Didymus) that the legendary sage is erotikos  (“a lover”) and sumpotikos (convivial – literally someone who you can drink with), among other things. So it would seem that there ought to be a properly Stoic way to be both a sage and a sports fan.  Or even – since I’m not remotely close to sagehood! – just to be a decent prokopton while also remaining a fan of my teams and of their sports.

There are some questions that this does open up for us.

One of the questions we could ask is what a rational fan should do in relation to the largely irrational words, actions, desires, and decisions of other fans, particularly when these involve something like injustice towards others. 

For example, while the Packers have on the whole a decently-behaved fanbase, let’s say I’m at Lambeau Field for a late-season game against their division rivals, the Bears – a game that matters – and let’s say that after a hard-played game that the Bears win in the last minutes, some of the frustrated (and likely drunk) Packers fans get aggressive with some of the the Bears fans, pushing them around, calling them names, trying to “start stuff”. 

Should I say “well, not within the sphere of my concern!”?  Should I jump right in and intervene within a conflict between people I don’t know at all?  Or should I perhaps say something – if this is possible – to my fellow fans, reminding them of our longstanding reputation for and commitment to hospitality? (Of course, I would probably phrase it in a more earthy manner!)

Or what should we do when we see our fellow fans – perhaps friends, family, co-workers, neighbors – making some heavy emotional investments in matters that are by their very nature entirely out of their control?  Should we remind them that despite all the pageantry surrounding professional sports, the massive amounts of money being spent on them in myriad ways, the flood of information about every aspect of the team, the sport, and so on. . . it’s just a game?  Or while it’s going on, should we take the advice Epictetus gives about what to do during festivals – when the children come clapping their hands, clap your hands as well, rather than being a spoilsport? 

As I think about it, many other questions come to mind, but in the interests of continuing the exchange, and sticking a bit more closely to the topics you’ve brought up, let me steer myself over to those!

I wonder if there isn’t an important distinction to be made, between watching someone else engage in playing a game, and playing a game oneself.  Watching your Spurs play is you as a spectator, perhaps involving some actions on your part – cheering, for instance – but it’s really their game to play, for better or for worse.  Actually being the participant in the game – you being the player in the bridge tournament – that’s much more active, right?  Some of the same basic Stoic principles would be involved, but you do have a lot more, if not control, at least influence or involvement in what happens in the game you’re playing.

Your suggestion about deliberately refocusing upon instances of “good play” and “sporting behavior” – that’s an excellent one, I think.  I can say that for [my wife] Andi and I, as we’ve gradually done more of that in recent years, it has made watching the game more enjoyable for both of us. And it’s a good lesson on the multi-sidedness of events  (or as the Stoics would say, “appearances” or “impressions”).  A play can result in a touchdown for the other team, which might wake winning the game that much harder for ours, or even render it impossible for our team to win, and we can feel disappointment about that.  But that same play might also display the athleticism of the other team’s players, the strategy of their coaches, the cohesiveness of their team – and we can appreciate that regardless of which team fosters those.

I’ll close by saying that my “Stoic challenges” in this week and in the weeks ahead don’t have too much to do with sports.  Instead they have to do with juggling my academic classes (I’m teaching a heavy load this term), my work with clients (I’ve got more than usual), my content production (videos, podcast episodes, etc.), and all my other commitments. One of the aspects of Stoic courage is perseverance – sticking to and seeing through work – and that’s my biggest struggle right now.  I’m trying to do enough work day-in day-out each day, so that I can get myself to the point when I can taper off a bit!

Sincerely, Greg

Letter 5

Dear Greg

Thank you for your latest.. I agree with your thoughts the idea of how to spend our time wisely is broader than just indulging in “trivial pursuits”. Of course Seneca had some wise things to say on all this in On the Shortness of Life. He definitely would have cautioned me to not fritter my life away playing bridge or watching football.   I think too the Victorians, for all our complaints of their distorting Stoicism, are to be commended for their attempts to inculcate virtue into young people through sport – notably cricket.  Kipling’s If is also a good example of the Victorian attempt to adopt this Stoic attitude to life in general  this, as in

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

This conversation has brought up many interesting points. For me, perhaps the main lesson is that Stoicism isn’t just something we do when reading books or making big moral decisions – Stoicism is for all of life.

I have just re-read your Stoicism, Sports, And Packers Fandom and find myself agreeing with most everything you say there. I am still concerned that  watching sports is a gateway to a misuse of time and a contamination of virtue. Yet it can also be viewed as part of a rounded, good life, and an opportunity for plenty of Stoic Tests. Especially if you are a Spurs fan!

Kind regards

Tim LeBon is part of the Modern Stoicism team, focusing on research and assessment. He is also a senior CBT psychotherapist in the NHS and a CBT therapist and  Stoic Life Coach in private practice.

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 teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

6 thoughts on Stoicism, Sports, and Fandom – An Exchange by Tim Lebon and Greg Sadler

  1. Ian Faulkner says:

    Hi to both of you,
    The need for humans (seemingly proportionally men more than women) to watch sport and become emotionally involved has also fascinated me. Your dialogue via letters prompted me to return to a first principle level question.
    Why do some humans feel the need to practice any ideology/philosophy?
    Perhaps several reasons. They are unhappy with their current life, they feel there could be more, or they are just curious where it could lead.
    But, underneath that question is the eternal battle between primal sub-conscious programming and humans ability to consciously think using reason. Reason asks – is there a better path?
    As you both discuss, spectating sport, like all moments in life, can be used as a teacher. However, underlying it is the ‘eternal battle’, primal (in this case via the aspect of tribalism) versus rational.
    Which leads to the question(s) – how else should I live my life, or is there no meaning in any path I take (is everything a ‘trivial pursuit’, even self development – you do eventually die and take that learning with you)?
    Perhaps this is a false question.
    We can ask how to live life or is there meaning, but maybe we need to accept our situation that we were born and exist with all the human frailties, in this era etc. and merely ask how best to cope while we are living.
    Stoicism offers one way of coping. You can view nearly everything as indifferent and still experience joy, love etc. but not allow the positive or negative emotional narratives to take control, and when they do take control, accept you are human and not a fully enlightened being.

  2. JOD says:

    I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan. If your Packers had beaten the Bucs in a game that they should have won, I feel that the Chiefs would have been able to beat the Packers. Of course, we will never know and many will argue this point. I’ll always remember that day and the disappointment that it brought me. I’ll always contrast it with that day one year before when our team raised the trophy.
    I am not as wise as Marcus Aurelius. I’ll be rooting just as hard next year!

  3. William Carter says:

    Can we or should we think the same way about political teams-parties as we do about sports teams? I do think not because politics is more serious than sports.

    • Ian Faulkner says:

      Tribalism was once necessary for survival.
      The primal programming remains, driving the ‘us vs them’ mentality – in politics, nationalism, racism, socioeconomic classes, sport etc.
      Self development/gaining of wisdom is an attempt via reason to reprogram.
      The paradox is that if you spend enough time with another human (e.g. your spouse), you find they have different views and opinions on some or several matters, yet are fundamentally the same as you (they eat, breath, visit the toilet, have fear and joy, are seeking their version of a meaningful life etc.)

    • Isn Faulkner says:

      And I was remiss in not adding democracy is an attempt by reason to overcome tribalism at the macro level.

  4. […] That’s easy – watching sport. But, I hear you object–should a real Stoic get so emotional? I think the answer can be yes! My good friend Greg Sadler and I have discussed this very point here […]

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