Sports Jersey Polygamy

Basil Kahwash examines the implications of wearing the jersey of a team you don’t root for.

The NBA store tab has been open in my web browser all afternoon. Occasionally, I’ll glance at it but it’s mostly left to blend in with the background, like the idea in the back of my mind. The NBA playoffs are on, and I am thinking of buying a Knicks jersey. This matters because a) I’ve turned away from this thought three times in the last month, b) the Knicks were knocked out weeks ago and c) I didn’t lose a wink of sleep the night the Celtics handed New York their season-ending loss. I am not a Knicks fan. Yet here I am: three clicks away from making a purchase that until recently would have made absolutely no sense to me.

How did I get here? Less than a year ago I berated a friend in a Hines Ward jersey for cheering against the Steelers. His defense: “I like Hines Ward.” Not the team he plays for (nor, I would assume, the reality show he competes on). Well I happen to like Chauncey Billups, and I do live in New York, so now that he’s on the Knicks … but no, my pride keeps getting in the way.

The millennial generation has bred a new fan prototype. We’ve all seen them: the kids who, in 2008, slipped Jets jerseys over their Favre cutouts, while die-hard Cheeseheads excoriated their former QB. The Jimmie Johnson jackets favored by suburban folks who’ve scarcely seen five minutes of NASCAR action. The guy strolling through Queens in an AC Milan jersey who couldn’t pick Gattuso out of a lineup that also included Johnny Drama and a Rockhopper Penguin. The hipsters, in their infinite irony, geared up in the apparel of a defunct pro hockey or basketball team.

This isn’t to say that strong team loyalty is on its way out, just that there are alternatives. There’s no right way to be a fan. There will always be a place for dyed-in-the-wool supporters of any team.

The relationship between sports and entertainment is universally acknowledged and frequently discussed, especially on networks whose names contain both of those words. But what about the relationship between entertainment and fandom? Should we feel guilty cheering for the teams that entertain us most, even if they didn’t last year and may not next? FreeDarko introduced the idea of “liberated fandom,” whereby spectators choose their teams according to their style of play or the presence of a particularly outstanding player or any other personal reason. Inherent in this is the idea that rather than hitching yourself to a wagon for life you can switch between teams as often as you’d like. You can even support more than one team—with the possibility of one or two rising above the others at a given time.

The 2006 and 2010 World Cups provided perhaps the purest examples of liberated fandom. Most Americans have not followed international soccer since childhood, and many prefer to adopt a second team other than the Red, White and Blue. Those who did were free to cheer for whomever they pleased, be it Brazil for their fluid ball movement or Portugal because of Cristiano Ronaldo. After all, no one’s going to mock you for being a Portugal and a Cowboys fan.

There’s even another, more extreme level of liberated fandom. What about when that entertainment from sports extends beyond the court/field/rink? Plenty of fan apparel has been sold because of its cultural significance or attachment to celebrities. Jay-Z famously claimed to have “made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can”. Ice Cube could make the same argument about the Lakers jersey. Just because your uncle likes Roger Federer’s accessory line doesn’t mean he’ll tune in to the next installment of Federer-Nadal (if there even is one). Wiz Khalifa makes the Pirates logo look cool, no easy task. Even documentarian Michael Moore flashes his Sparty pride almost everywhere he goes. In a world where advertising is ubiquitous, symbols of even the humblest teams can be inescapable. As a result, people adopt the Philadelphia Eagles as their team like they choose Coke over Pepsi.

This isn’t to say that strong team loyalty is on its way out, just that there are alternatives. There’s no right way to be a fan. There will always be a place for dyed-in-the-wool supporters of any team. Quite often, that place is the student section. Maybe so-called liberated fans don’t bring the same, singular, often misguided passion to sporting events as their more traditional counterparts, but they also wouldn’t riot over a controversial call, start dumpster fires, or drive Steve Bartman into Witness Protection. Liberated fandom is here to stay. So I’ll bite my lip the next time I catch my buddy switching sides mid-season and withhold judgment when I see a mustachioed Williamsburg resident in a Hartford Whalers shirt. And you know what, I think I’ll go ahead and buy that Knicks jersey.

—Photo Flickr/JMRosenfeld

About Basil Kahwash


  1. Absolutely a fan can switch loyalties, or root for more than one team. In fact, I would argue that that kind of flexibility of support is not “treason”, or “douchbaggery”: it’s a good thing, because sometimes the “true fans” are what holds a team back.

    The best example of this that I can think of is my local NHL team (the Toronto Maple Leafs). I’m not a fan of the Leafs, but I do love the sport, and living in Toronto this puts me in an interesting position to observe how futile sports fandom can be at times.

    For those who don’t follow the NHL: The Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They haven’t made it to the playoffs since the 2004 lockout, and it’s likely that they won’t have any serious hopes at a Cup any time in the near future.

    What Toronto has, though, is a lot of True Fans. People who will buy season tickets if they can get them (there’s a decade-long waiting list for season tickets) and individual tickets if they can’t (the last time a Leafs home game didn’t sell out was 1946). They will buy jerseys, and collectible memorobilia, and paint rooms in their houses blue and white to show their support. They’ll listen to games on the radio, and watch them on TV. They’ll subscribe to a special Leafs-only cable TV station that shows post-game analyses and rebroadcasts old games from decades previous, and every September they will crow from the rooftops that THIS is the Leafs’ year. That this year they’ll bring the Cup home.

    The result? The team’s owners know they’re going to make a huge amount of profit, win or lose, so they don’t change anything. They don’t fire the coach or GM; they don’t put pressure on them to restructure the team or to put forward any real plan on how to make the playoffs. Instead, they laugh their way to the bank knowing that they could finish dead last every year for the next decade and they’ll still be the most profitable team in the league. And as long as those True Fans are there that situation isn’t going to change.

  2. Carl Jackson says:

    I grew up on the East Coast rooting for a West Coast team in baseball and football (the Mariners and Raiders respectively…prescient choices if you ask me), and only one local team (UConn basketball), I understand the concept of liberated fandom. I went through a long period of not liking the NBA before coming back around without a team. I have to say it is nice to be able to shift from team to team (not band-wagoning or front running, please see my football and baseball choices for evidence against this), and I enjoy the ability to pick up a jersey or t-shirt for a variety of teams. However, I don’t think I could ever be as big of a sports fan as I am if I applied this model to all sports. I mean I like watching other football games and other college basketball games, but nothing compares to watching a Raiders or Huskies game in terms of me paying attention. I don’t even really follow baseball very much outside Seattle so having an undying loyalty to a team that I liked because Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez led them to a Division Series victory 15 years ago is about the only thing keeping me involved with the game (well, Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda don’t hurt).

    Perhaps more importantly though, Daddy Files you can take your “Snow Game” aka Tuck Rule travesty and shove it down whatever Mexican water slide Tom Brady and his Justin Bieber hair are frolicking on at the moment. And you can take Adam Vinatierri, and Walt Coleman, and your Bill Belicheck Spy Tapes, and every vomit invoking word Bill Simmons’ has written in indignant justification of that stupid rule that says that Brady was attempting to throw a forward pass despite having two hands on a ball the nose of which was perpendicular to the ground, and go pound sand. Which, of course, brings up another one of the joys of non-liberated fandom, that it produces such moments of passionate, sheerly irrational hatred. Sports is one of the only avenues where it is acceptable to hate unconditionally. That is only possible with true fandom, and it is, I feel, a great thing. (Assuming of course you still maintain the rational perspective to understand that at the end of the day its still sports and said hatred does not manifest itself in any kind of violent way.)

  3. Basil Kahwash says:

    Yes, bandwagon jumping and champion-chasing are as deplorable now as they’ve always been. You stay loyal to your team through the amazing years, miserable years, and everything in between. As a lifelong Steelers fan, I would never dream of jumping ship (and yes, I often cheer against whoever happens to be playing the Ravens or Patriots).

    But what if your loyalty doesn’t go back that far? Plenty of people don’t live anywhere near a major pro sports team and have no loyalties to inherit from an older generation. Take for example someone from a small town who grew up without a “favorite” NBA team, or someone who was a die-hard fan before their team relocated, or a newly-arrived immigrant drawn to football on TV before he knows exactly how the game is played. Should these people just cast their lot with whichever team appeals to them first? Some undoubtedly will, others may not. Here I think is where liberated fandom can be a good thing. Flexibility and treason don’t always have to overlap.

  4. Liberated fandom? What a crock of shit.

    That’s called being a bandwagon jumping douchebag. Sorry, but it’s true. Pick a team and stay loyal. There is no room for sports bigamy. You can still choose to root for other teams, but it has to be in relation to your team. For instance, if the Red Sox are out of contention you’re free to root against anyone playing the Yankees. Patriots fans will always cheer for teams playing against the Jets, the Colts and the Steelers.

    There are acceptable times when you can root for an individual player, but they are rare. For instance, I can’t hate Adam Vinatieri. Even though he went to the Colts, it was because the Patriots kept franchising him and I don’t blame him for looking elsewhere. But the margin of victory in all three of the Pats’ most recent Super Bowls was 3 points in each game. And against the Raiders in the Snow Game, he kicked THE MOST UNBELIEVABLE FIELD GOAL in NFL history. 45 yards through a blizzard to send the game into OT. Therefore I will never boo him.

    I don’t trust sports bigamists. I like to know where people stand. That’s how it should be.

    • Agreed…even on the worst of hometown teams, there should still be a player or two whose style of play you like, or whose potential for greatness you can attach yourself to. The idea of flexibility/”liberated fandom” is, in my opinion, a smokescreen for jumping on a bandwagon. Which is fine. Just don’t call it anything else. If some people derive happiness or excitement from doing so, then so be it. (And maybe I don’t fully understand liberated fandom, but I see it as anything other than having one team in a given sport, and sticking with that team for good).

      For example, when you choose a team based on their “style of play,” I’m assuming that “style of play” leads to many wins in the victory column. When you attach yourself to a player, and root for him as he jumps from team to team, I’m assuming that not only is that player great, but his team is as well (and no, you probably didn’t follow the Texas Rangers when A-Rod played for them). What happens when the player retires? When his abilities decline? You just find someone new?

      Ultimately, this “flexibility” derives from a desire to be a part of something big, exciting, and important, and to put yourself in the best position to say you “won.”

      It’s also a unique phenomenon of our time. Before the Internet, the local media was the source of pretty much all information related to sports, with just about all coverage devoted to the hometown teams. Not so much anymore, where anyone can watch a YouTube clip of a Lebron James highlight reel. So we have choices.

      American (white, educated, college-aged kids) will succumb to the media hype of the World Cup every four years, maybe buy a jersey or two, and post Facebook status updates about each game their adopted team plays (ROH is actually one of the few true soccer fan I’ve ever met). And yet everyone knows, were the US to make a run, those fans would come scrambling back. Everyone also can assume that when Spain/France/Brazil wins—though their American “fans” can say “their team” won—deep down, they aren’t really feeling the explosion of joy and pride as their overseas counterparts.

      And that’s my point. When you have one team, with every big victory, the elation is unparalleled—the sinking depression after a loss, likewise. That’s also what “liberated fandom” fails to capture: something that can only be built through years of devotion, through following minor leaguers, the drafts, devouring insider information, books, history—anything and everything that comes with the territory of having one—and only one—team.

      Still, it requires patience and devotion that’s harder and harder to maintain in our Internet-driven of instant gratification. For many (especially more casual fans who couldn’t care less about history, minor leaguers, etc.) it boils down to the quick fix of a winner, or the chance of maybe having to wait a lifetime. And sometimes, it’s hard to argue with the quick fix.

      (By the way, I don’t view buying a player’s jersey or a different team’s hat in the same vein as liberated fandom. Because that’s fashion, some teams have cool logos, and there are also players on other teams I enjoy watching and following—I’d happily wear a Josh Hamilton or Matt Stairs t-shirt jersey—but push come to shove, if they face the hometown team, forget about it.)

      • Carl Jackson says:

        “Style of play” does not necessarily mean you’re picking the best team. I know plenty of NBA fans who follow the Warriors because they like watching their run and gun style even though the team recently hasn’t put up much in the way of wins.

        Fans can also be loyal to teams that aren’t from their hometown. As sports become more ingrained in American culture, families move around more, and the internet and cable providers continuously provide us with access to out-of-market games I think its becoming increasingly common to see not only transplanted fans, but fans who grow up in one area rooting for teams from another. There can be just as much loyalty in that kind of arrangement as there is in rooting for whatever team happens to play in your local area.

  5. Ok, I will never ever ever buy a jersey to support a player. Waste of money. I only roll with my personalized Eagles jersey because I love the team, and like some players better than others but will never abandon the Eagles for any one player. I can wear another team’s jersey/shirt whatever as long as it doesn’t interfere with my fandom of any of MY teams (namely Virginia Tech and every pro team from Philly). For example hubs is a Cleveland fan in all forms of sport, so I can root for them and have even worn an Indians jersey to a game. But then, he wore an Eagles shirt to the NFC Championship game we attended in Phoenix against the Cardinals (what a waste THAT trip was from SoCal). Anyway, since he had to pick a side and he likes being married to me, he rightly wore the Eagles shirt. I have no respect for this wishy washy fanhood. Back when I was in HS it was Raiders crap everywhere, though no one could actually name any player on the team. There are trends I suppose, but I’m not a trend follower. I’m a phanatical Philadelphia all the way!

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