What Do We Root For?

Sport is a pretty shallow obsession. I used to be very politically active, but had a lot of trouble falling into the polarity that defines American politics*. What if I see virtue in both opinions? What if I see virtue in neither? In that way, the simplicity of rooting interest makes sport much more accessible. I never wonder who I am rooting for. I get to dig right into what it is that makes a team win. That's the fun part.

For the most part, we don't root for players but teams. "Team" is conveniently abstract. It doesn't have a personality; it has a history but no debt or allegiance to that history; it has no conscious; no accountability but to win; a team can be one thing today and something totally different in five years. The character of its executives, coaches and players can change. The quality of its play can change. The style of its play can change. Even peripheral details can change: colors, uniforms, mascots, location, team name, stadium, etc.

And so, when rooting for a team, the personality of its players is somewhat irrelevant. The players are but pieces of the team, and, if we allow ourselves such honesty, we are not terribly interested in the success of the players but the success of the team. Lawrence Jackson seemed promising once, but if benching or even trading him is for the betterment of the team, goodbye Lawrence. Rough, buddy. How's that E.J. Wilson kid doing?

That appreciation of team above player and wins above individual performance allows us a certain protected vantage from which we can be fans. We don't have to get our hands dirty with the lives of players, because players are only important insomuch that they contribute to the team. But I fear I am attempting a sort of hocus pocus here and ignoring the truth of the matter.

See, what is a team without its players? What is a team but its players. We can pretend that a team, through chemistry or alchemy or the force of history, becomes something greater than the sum of its players, but it's Ichiro that hit the walk-off home run. It's Kasey Keller that made the game-winning save. It's Leroy Hill that forced the momentum flipping fumble.

It's Leroy Hill, now under investigation for witness tampering and intimidation.

I wonder, what is it that we root for? Is it enough that the team wins for us, or must the players, the face, body and soul of the team, be decent human beings? And is it more satisfying to root for a player you respect? I don't pretend to know players. I don't believe media image is representative of moral fiber, and I don't passively convict every prominent person accused of something heinous. But, sometimes, players on teams I love do something heinous. And I'm deeply conflicted. When can we no longer separate player from team? Life from sport?

I don't have an answer, but it's been on my mind recently.

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