The Super Bowl is a singular event in American culture. It is consistently the highest-rated broadcast on American television. Over 100 million Americans will watch Super Bowl LVIII. This year is unique in that substantial portions of the viewership will be tuning in both because of and in spite of someone off the field, namely, the very famous pop singer in the booth cheering for the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end. Curiously, the public discourse leading up to this year’s Big Game has been less about the 49ers-Chiefs matchup and more about the true meaning of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s romance. Some popular conspiracy theories include: the Breakup Album Theory, that the relationship is concocted to set up her next break-up album; the NFL Profit Theory, that the league engineered the relationship for ratings; and the Psyop Theory, that the Pentagon is using the relationship to swing the 2024 election, as if Kelce will win MVP, propose to Taylor on stage, and then the betrothed will announce their endorsement of the incumbent.
It is tempting to speculate on these or even make the case for my own conspiracy theory (namely, the Vatican Theory, that Rome is behind the relationship and, via the witness of Travis’s brother Jason Kelce and his wife Kylie, practicing Catholics, Taylor and the Swifties will convert to Catholicism en masse)—but I shall resist the temptation. Instead, I would like to reflect on what might be good—and not-so-good—in the emotional life of a sports fan, from the perspective of a lifelong Chiefs fan. As anyone with a sports team allegiance knows, it is impossible to be a sports fan without painful memories.
It was a cold Saturday in January, 1991, in my Kansas City suburb. But my living room was a warm place to watch Wild Card Weekend. My beloved Chiefs were on the TV playing against the Miami Dolphins. I remember cheering for my favorites in that game: Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas on defense and Stephone Paige and Christian Okoye on offense. Indeed, I even got excited about the kicker, Nick Lowery, whose autograph was one of the most valued treasures of a six-year-old boy.
In those days, the Chiefs were stellar defensively and mediocre offensively. They depended on the run game to eat the clock and wear opponents down. Their running back, Okoye, ran brilliantly that game. Unfortunately, the Chiefs were facing future Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino, who pulled off some fourth quarter magic to come back from a 16-3 deficit and take the lead 17-16. But the Chiefs had one more chance. On the back of a big Okoye run, the Chiefs drove down to the 35-yard line, giving Lowery a chance to kick a game-winning, 52-yard field goal. The snap was good. The hold was steady. Lowery’s approach was sure and his aim was true . . . and the ball fell about a yard short of the crossbar.
I can still remember the heartache and tears as if it were yesterday.
Undoubtedly, disappointment about unfulfilled potential has pulsed through the veins of every sports fan at some point in their lives. And, given the scarcity of championships in sport, the joy when your team is a victor is all the more precious. But can such emotions be reasonable?
Sports are part of the human good of play. Play is “good” in that recreation is desirable. Thomas Aquinas explained that the soul’s work, contemplative and practical, is wearying. The soul at work is like the bow drawn to shoot the arrow. If it always remains drawn and never relaxed, it will break. Play is thus intelligible as an end in itself, and hence restful and re-creative activity, for no other reason than the delight of the soul, can be virtuous when done in moderation.
Playing a game of pickup football, for its own sake, is a focal case of what Aquinas was thinking about. But even simply kicking back and watching a football game, for its own sake, can be a form of play that relaxes the soul. This good takes on a distinct valence for those who are experts on or have played the game at an advanced level, generating a kind of appreciative love for displays of excellence.
More than love of play is typically at work in the soul of a sports fan, however. Professional sports teams, differentiated by the communities in which they work and the symbols under which they perform, generate communities and friendships of a sort. Think of two expat sports fans in a sports bar who see each other wearing the same team colors, strike up a friendly conversation, and watch the game together. Such expressions of kinship, I suspect, can be rooted in a common love not only of a sports team but the place to which the team is tethered. Hence, rejoicing in the success of the hometown team can be an expression of love of one’s city.
In this way, love of a sports team is a form of love of one’s own, which is a love cultivated in the home and most powerfully felt within the bonds of family. This is the germ of love-of-one’s-own social affections, including team loyalty. Like love of one’s family or place, sports-team love is thus not “rational” in the abstract, universalist sense conceived by some Enlightenment philosophers. But it can be reasonable inasmuch as we are embodied creatures tethered to specific persons and places. This was probably more true in professional sports before the era of free agency, when professional players were much more connected to the city they played in.
Still, love of one’s own does not seem sufficient to explain the visceral pains and joys that the typical 49ers and Chiefs fans will feel during the Big Game. I suspect that there is a deeper longing in the human heart, an essentially religious longing for transcendence, that sometimes finds an outlet or an echo in sport. In willing the highest achievement available for one’s sports team, one enters into a kind of solidarity with the team, and thereby has a kind of share in the potential to touch greatness.
So stated, love of one’s team, as a complex expression of the pursuit of the love of the good of play, love of one’s own and community, and even the desire to touch greatness, could be compatible with the life of virtue. Yet, with any love, there are the perils of both excess and deficiency. Ours is a culture in which the vice of excess is the temptation. Sport fanaticism unduly places one’s affections in the success of a sports team. In its most extreme form, it makes sport into a false god, and supplants traditional religious rites with devotion to a creature, which inevitably takes on the trappings of a religion, complete with its own rites and liturgy. And of course, as with any spectacle that attracts wide interest, the incentives to appeal to base passions for profit can be seized upon as in, for example, the profiteering advertiser and salacious halftime performer.
The futility of placing one’s essentially God-directed longing for transcendence in one’s sports team is apparent in the life of the GOAT himself, Tom Brady. It simply wasn’t enough to win seven Super Bowl titles and universal renown as the greatest quarterback. That hunger drove him to come out of retirement with the goal to touch greatness once again, reportedly against the wishes of his erstwhile wife, who wanted him to devote more time to his family. When the desire for greatness, which is rooted in the desire for God, is not sublimated to love of higher goods, especially the superordinate love of God, it becomes insatiable. So let the sports fanatic ask himself: If no amount of championships can satisfy Tom Brady, how much less will the heart of the fan be sated by another trophy?
Yes, a Super Bowl championship does touch greatness—but victory in a manmade game is a merely temporal, ephemeral good. If the human longing for transcendence isn’t ultimately futile, then an Imperishable or Eternal Greatness really does exist. In that case, whatever is great in sport must point beyond itself. The Christian faith teaches that it points to the only One who can satisfy the longing for transcendence in every sports fan’s heart.
So, on this Super Bowl Sunday, allow me to make a modest suggestion. Go ahead and enjoy your Super Bowl party. Take delight in food, friendship, and fandom. I know my guests and I will enjoy our Big Game spread, which will include Mahomes-made pizza, Kelce-salted popcorn, and Purdy-good broccoli. And feel free to weep with anguish or joy as the Chiefs whoop the 49ers. But before you do any of that: go to church.