I have long viewed sports as being a forgotten relic of ancient heathen religion , a way that we in the contemporary world can understand a little of the mindset of the petty states of the ancient Mediterranean world where so much of the athletic culture of our world seems to have developed. In the ancient world, there were a variety of petty local gods that served cities and local communities, gods that were often in rivalry with the gods of other local communities. Victory by one state over another in warfare and other competitive endeavors was seen as a validation of the power of that particular deity, inspiring greater confidence. Defeat would lead to a great sense of loss, often leading the defeated to lose faith in the old gods and change over loyalty, at least superficially, to those new and more powerful gods who had been victorious. The shrines to these local deities would be places of community involvement, full of the lure of sex and spectacle (not unfamiliar with those who have seen cheerleaders and elaborate shows at sporting matches) and by the time of the Hellenistic era sports were a profound part of the prospect of Hellenization and Romanization through gymnasiums and gladiatorial matches, which are not dissimilar at all to the sort of sporting events that fill our modern world. This was true of the ancient Mesoamerican world as well, where victory in sports not dissimilar to basketball among the peoples of what is now Mexico could be a life or death matter and an intense matter of civic pride.
In our world, one of the reasons why communities are willing to spend scarce public money for sporting venues is due to a largely unrecognized and primitive sort of religious devotion to a sort of local religious spirit. Just as the people of Southeast Asia build spirit houses for the spirits that are supposed to protect and watch over the houses and farms of those nominally Buddhist peoples, so to towns and cities build stadiums as a way of expressing their own pride in their city and their desire for dominance. Sports offer a very convenient way for someone to show loyalty to their very particular local region, no matter how far from that region they may wander. The loyalty to these local teams in many ways mirrors the difference in loyalty to the tribal gods of the ancient world who are not so far removed from our contemporary practice as we might think or hope. Some people have an intense loyalty to teams, whether it is done as a way of desiring acceptance in their area as outsiders and a feeling of belonging in a new area or whether it is done to show their loyalty to where they come from no matter where they may be. There are others, many others, who are merely bandwagon fans, supporting those teams that are the best without the same kind of loyalty to any particular team, shifting their loyalties to whichever tribal deity (or team) is the most popular or seemingly most powerful at the present. Not surprisingly, those who are deeply loyal fans of a particular team tend to look down on those who are merely fairweather fans. This is as it should be, because it represents a certain disloyal and shallow heart among those who so casually flit from one team to another like an unfaithful lover.
I, for example, am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. As someone who was born just outside of Pittsburgh, I have an intense loyalty to my “hometown” despite the fact that I only spent the first three years (which were pretty horrific) of my life there, as well as other times when I visited my father’s family farm after my parents’ divorce. This has been no fairweather sort of loyalty, for despite my considerable ambivalence about the religious significance of sporting interests, I have long felt it to be very important to show loyalty to the area I viewed as home, as the source of my own worldviews, given my nomadic and somewhat vagabondish existence. Being loyal, even in the face of hostility, to my own local community and its teams was a way of showing to others (however unsuccessfully) that I am a person of intense (if unconventional) loyalty to those whom I love, regardless of the treatment I have received. As a child, being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan in rural central Florida was a sign that no matter how long I lived in the Tampa area, I never developed the same sort of deep loyalty or sense of belonging to that particular area. Likewise, it was a way I could show myself as a northerner in an area where that was not particularly appreciated, so it was a visible and obvious sign of much larger disagreements in worldview with the area where I happened to grow up, and a way to cope with and express the alienation and social isolation I felt as a young and friendly but terribly unpopular outcast.
As a young adult in Tampa, I was once invited by some members of a neighboring local congregation to go to a Super Bowl party at their house. I was an open Pittsburgh fan and they were avowed Seattle Seahawks fans, and that particular year the two teams happened to be playing against each other. Above the snack table in their living room, where we watched the game, there was a little football shaped item hanging from the ceiling that we would hit when our team scored a touchdown. As the game progressed, and Pittsburgh scored three touchdowns in a game that featured some amazing trick plays and some very bad officiating that favored Pittsburgh (and that was really unnecessary for Pittsburgh’s victory), my hosts became increasingly annoyed by my cheering on Pittsburgh’s impending march towards victory. Pittsburgh ended up winning that contest 21-10 (they would have won a much narrower victory had the officiating been better) and I was never invited back to a Super Bowl party at that particular residence.
I told this story rather lightheartedly among a group of Seattle fans at the sporting event of my church’s most recent Northwest Weekend, and while I thought it was a funny story, my listeners did not agree. Some of them, who are particularly loyal and fierce fans of Seattle, persisted in calling me “Steelers fan” during the rest of my lunch, as if I did not warrant being called by my name because of my loyalty to a team that they detested for besting them in their team’s one shot at Super Bowl glory. I, for example, did not have any sort of hatred for Seattle fans. They are no rivals of my team, after all. Pittsburgh has defeated a lot of teams in the Super Bowl, and I am not hostile to any of them. I am not even hostile to Green Bay fans, even though they did beat the Steelers in their most recent Super Bowl appearance. Pittsburgh has enough sports glory that I need not feel hostile to those fans whose teams are more successful at the moment. Besides, I have enough loyalty in my teams to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team whose futility in baseball is legendary.
So why is it, with no natural rooting interest for either of the teams based on my background, and being likely to be tarred with the brush of being a fairweather fan for cheering for a team in an area where I have only the most recent and most shallow of roots, that I would wish for the Seattle Seahawks to win the Super Bowl today? The reason is very simple. The Seahawks are a team with very loyal fans as well as very little history of sports glory. I think that they ought to have some glory so that instead of being motivated by hatred of those teams who have denied them their chances at victory in times past (like Pittsburgh) they can instead be motivated by a sense of pride in their area for a job well done, the sort of memory that will sustain their love of their region in more difficult times and unite them in love with others of like mind. Likewise, it will allow me to be a Pittsburgh fan in peace, in the same way that people feel less upset over those who have been involved in unhappy situations when they have happiness of their own. Even if I have no emotional state in the outcome of this game, I do wish my neighbors to celebrate a victory and to have the sort of success in their sporting teams to have enough room to avoid any sort of bitterness towards me for being a fan of my own team. Why should we not have a desire for the well-being of those around us?
 See, for example: