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What’s in a fan?

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Looking back, I realize I’ve spent all year talking about the problems inherent in the world of sports today. With all of that negativity out of the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind myself and everyone else that, in the larger scheme of things, I am a sports enthusiast down to the core, and that, in my opinion, sports still serve many valuable functions for people that go beyond simple entertainment. In particular, I want to focus on how fans develop emotional, personal connections to players and teams; the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics are a great example of this on the national scale. This is one of the ways that sports can bring people of all backgrounds and situations together in a way that few other things can. I think that the beauty of sports comes from the fact that every individual fan is entitled to their own individual connection that makes sports an enjoyable and meaningful part of their lives.

Surprisingly, though, there are always a few self-determined “real” sports fans who claim that support should be allocated based on measures that are more objective than whatever emotional attachments one may have; players should be evaluated for their skill alone, and a team’s fan base should be based either on locality and/or the team’s quality. Very few people here would make this argument, but there are plenty of sports “purists,” as they see themselves, who would and do. I’ll give a few personal anecdotes to explain what I mean.

I often scroll through the Facebook pages related to teams that I’m a fan of (although, sadly, I have fewer opportunities to do so now that I’m at Swat). On the fan page of the team Manchester United, I’ve run into a few posts that have annoyed me. Here and there, I’ll see a post degrading American fans, saying that they’re not true fans, and I even remember reading a comment about how the real fan base of the team is only in England, or even more restrictively, in Manchester. Of course, plenty of people responded negatively to these types of comments, but there were enough people supporting them to get on my nerves. Yes, I’m an American fan, and, yep, American soccer is relatively quite bad (especially compared to English soccer), but why is my support of Manchester United any less real? I visited my cousin in England when I was a little boy, saw Manchester United play, was in awe, enjoyed arguing with my cousin who was a fan of rival Chelsea, and became a lifelong fan in the process. I think that’s a fairly legitimate reason to support a team; I can’t claim to share in the element of the city’s and the country’s pride, but I have my own personal reasons that are just as important to me.

This is probably overreacting a bit, because the comments I’m responding to would almost universally be viewed as stupid. I’ll use another example that might not be as straightforward, then. In recent years, support for Manchester United among Muslim fans around the world has grown as a result of two high-profile Muslim players that they’ve kept, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj. I was a fan before they joined, and, as a Muslim, I was pleased to see them join and thus tracked their progress closely. Last year, for the Muslim holiday Eid-ul-Fitr, the Man U fan page put up a post saying, “Eid Mubarak” (may your holiday be blessed) with a picture of Januzaj in acknowledgement of this growing Muslim fan base. I thought it was a great step towards making their new fans feel welcome as well as continue to boost young Januzaj’s stock and popularity among them.

To my dismay, multiple comments immediately came up telling fans that they should keep religion out of sports (in addition to the usual derogatory comments accompanying anything that has any remote connection to Islam). This is a widespread issue evident, for example, in the debate surrounding NFL player Tim Tebow’s observance of his faith while on the field (Tebow-ing) and other instances/actions like that. I took the incident on the Man U fan page very personally, however. Why can’t I have a particular connection to Manchester United because of how I shared Januzaj’s Muslim identity? Why was it wrong for me to jump at the opportunity to hold on to a moment where the media actually allowed Muslims to be seen in a positive light? Why was it so wrong for Muslim fans around the world to take pride in the fact that they could be represented to the world through two talented soccer players instead of having to constantly apologize for the terrorists who usually get the spotlight? As I see it, support for players and a team based on an emotional reason and a connection through shared identity, religion in this case, hurts no one while having the potential to help quite a few people feel better.

This extends to other forms of emotional connection to players as well. It only adds to the diversity and strength of the fan base when someone supports a player on a team because they’re the same race, religion, sexuality, and, in general, when they find an aspect that they can associate with in some manner. Fans are people, and players are people, and shared identity is often a pretty great way for people to connect; as such, these ties should be considered a sound basis for support. Besides, if players or teams were supported for a set of objective reasons only, then fans wouldn’t be as widespread as they are currently.

Of everything I’ve written this year, this is probably the most jumbled, but it’s also the most genuine. I’ve talked before about all the ways that sports aren’t so great and need to improve, but, in the end, sports make me really happy (please excuse the cheesiness); they provide me with multiple avenues of emotional connection which, when needed, allow me to escape from all the issues of real life. So, as a closing remark, I hope everyone can realize that, to an individual, sports can mean as much as things like art, music, literature, politics, or even divestment might mean to someone else. We as sports fans have to recognize that the players, teams, and organizations we support often have problems, and we should use our power to pressure improvements in those cases. At the same time, we’re also lucky to have the pleasure and release that sports provide us and should take pride not just in the fact that we are fans of a sport, but also the reason why we’re fans. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you all that not only is the world of sports complicated and deep, but so are all the genuine fans out there. And, hopefully, they can get recognition for that, too.

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