The increasing public recognition of direct links between sports, social issues, and politics poses a challenging question: what should we watch? If we watched the 2022 Beijing Olympics despite concerns about IOC policy and China’s human rights record and repressive surveillance, does that make us bad people? If we watch the 2022 World Cup in Qatar despite concerns about FIFA motives along with the rights of migrant workers and LGBTQ people, does that make us complicit?
Or might there be ways of watching, and ways of being a sports fan more generally, that allow us to engage directly with what sociologist Peter Donnelly calls the ‘Janus-face of sport’ — the reality that a love of sport can bring joy and social goods while simultaneously enabling repulsive behaviors and ideologies? While I’m not a moral philosopher or ethicist (though I enjoy reading philosophical takes on the morality of sport fandom), I have recently written a book that is in part an effort to promote just such engagement.
In Soccer in Mind: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the Global Game I draw on sociology, psychology, and other related social science lenses to suggest that watching sports as a “thinking fan” is not only necessary in our heavily commodified and politicized world of sport, it’s also more fun. The book draws heavily on the sociology of sport to consider topics such as fandom, culture, talent development, mental skills, social impact, and sports for development in a way that makes clear any science of sport depends on social engagement — we have to watch with both curious and critical eyes. And while many students who’ve taken a sociology of sport class leave feeling as though the field is actively anti-sport, in its ideal form the sociology of sport should instead promote deeper and richer ways of engaging the games we love.
While my recent book is specifically about soccer, the way it explains “thinking fandom” can apply broadly:
I define thinking fandom as an approach that depends on a broad intellectual curiosity and an engaged critical consciousness. Thinking fandom is a natural outgrowth of the very social science of soccer. It is a way of thinking about the game with a scientific mindset while centering the messiness of human experience. It is something…anyone can use to enrich their own experience of soccer — and, just maybe, also as a way to make soccer a bit better for others…
Note first that when I refer to a “thinking fan” I’m referring loosely to anyone who cares about the game—whether players, coaches, administrators, or supporters. And care in this formulation means having concerns beyond profit. Global soccer in the twenty-first century is a heavily commercialized endeavor; many see soccer primary as a business concern. The commodification of soccer is also sometimes enabled by others who think of soccer as nothing more than a trivial pastime. Thinking fandom starts with a willingness to position one’s self in between soccer as a business and soccer as a triviality and to actively engage soccer as one of the world’s most broadly shared cultural forms with very social meanings.
The active engagement of thinking fandom is then primarily tautological: it is founded on thinking. This is not to question the aesthetic pleasure of watching players with special skills perform at their best. Nor is it to question the happiness that comes from seeing a team with which one feels a deep connection win, nor the elemental joy that comes from playing the game itself. In fact … thinking fandom dovetails well with play and can be complementary and deeply satisfying in its emphasis on learning and playing with ideas. Soccer can simultaneously trigger our most ancient as well as our most evolved instincts, providing us both reflexive joy and deliberate opportunities to better understand ourselves and our world…
Promoting some form of thinking fandom is certainly not a new idea. Ralph Nader was working on something similar in 1977 when he created an organization called “FANS (Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports)” and explained to the Washington Post that he was prompted to form the group because of the “acceleration of greed, arrogance and fraud” in sports. While Nader’s group may not have quite stemmed the tide of greed, arrogance, and fraud, there is still a “League of Fans” legacy organization that sees leveraging a version of thinking fandom as a way “to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports.”
More recently, sports journalists such as Dave Zirin have promoted a more public sociology of sport that speaks directly to fans and their “inchoate fear about what sports has evolved into, and what it continues to become.” Likewise, other critical sports journalists, such as Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson, have explored the dilemmas of modern fandom with ideas for “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back.” These sports journalists are, in other words, promoting a new type of thinking fandom that both depends upon and represents the value of watching the games we love with a curiosity that goes beyond the scoreboard and critique that goes beyond the binary choice of whether or not to watch.
So what is a thinking fan to do with an event such as the upcoming World Cup in Qatar? It is reasonable to debate whether or not to watch — as long as that debate doesn’t devolve into a crude moral absolutism that suggests “we” are all right and “they” are all wrong. But if you do decide to watch, it is also reasonable to think about watching like a sport sociologist — asking questions borne of a genuine intellectual curiosity about what it means that this will be the first ever global mega sporting event hosted in an Arab nation, about what successful teams tell us regarding talent development and human development, about the ways globalization is simultaneously homogenizing and hybridizing sports culture, and about the many more social issues on vivid display at a World Cup. And it is worthwhile to remember that a crucial part of changing the global power dynamics of sport is the power of fans themselves to think critically about what they want from their games.
Author Biographical Note
Andrew Guest teaches sociology and psychology at the University of Portland in Oregon, where he also directs the University Core Curriculum. His research focuses on youth and community development, particularly as reflected in sports and activity programs.