If you wish to be considered a serious person, tell no one you are a sports fan. You risk being regarded with dismay, disdain, or even pity. And no wonder: the evidence is damning. Why do millions care whether one group of people they don’t know scores more points than another group of people they don’t know? Why would anyone hold allegiance to a team and, when it loses, be unhappy?

Social scientists have been compiling the evidence for decades: sports provide people with ancient elixirs. Community. Celebration. Spectacle. Some studies go further, saying sports offer fans both ritual and religion. Athletes aren’t curing cancer or fighting the ecological crisis or working the front lines of the pandemic. No, what they offer is more primal. They are real-life superheroes, able to move and think and not think and so win astonishing victories.

Humans need stories; sports stars provide scripts. Fans benefit, often in unexpected ways. They will tell you that their lives are enriched. Faith. Fervour. Belief. Hope. Joy. Plus it’s all wrapped up in fun—and a kind of magic.

Sports fans don’t watch games for mere entertainment. They watch partly because it allows them to experience the inconceivable. Surprise is key too. You never quite know what will happen next.

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The first toe was mailed to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ head office in 2006. It arrived in a plain envelope with no return address. “Because you have missed the playoffs,” an attached handwritten note read, “I have cut off a toe. Please, please make the playoffs next year. Don’t make me snip again!” The toe—five centimetres long, soft, orange, and plush—looked like it may have been sliced from a child’s slipper. The letter was signed, “A fan.”

Larry Weinstein is a Toronto filmmaker best known for making movies about what he calls “obscure intellectual composers.” So, when a producer suggested he create a film about the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Weinstein protested that he knew nothing about football.

“You may not know football,” Weinstein recalls the producer saying, “but you know people.” This was how Weinstein came to make The 13th Man, the tragic story of the 2009 Grey Cup—a terribly sad defeat in the history of professional sports—when the Roughriders lost on the last play of the game after a penalty for having too many men on the field. Weinstein spent a long time with football lovers, and this had an unexpected effect. Much to his surprise, he became a fan.

“I had never seen a CFL game in my life,” he says. “But I became hooked. I had so many misconceptions.” For starters, Weinstein had assumed that the level of emotion found in the arts—especially in music—did not exist in football fans. On his first trip to Saskatchewan, Roughrider fans set him straight. Their sense of community, their faith in the team, and their unshakable support touched him. Realizing he wanted more of those qualities in his life, he decided to support the team its fans call “the Gang Green.”

Today, on Weinstein’s office door in Toronto, you don’t see the name of his eponymous film company—you see a Go Riders bumper sticker. He owns green-and-white Riders gloves, hat, shirt, and shoes. Weinstein has hosted Grey Cup parties where, by splashing together food colouring, he created grey icing—to serve on Grey Cupcakes. “Being a football fan can look rowdy on the outside, but there’s a deep sincerity that is moving,” he says. “I was seduced by the beauty of it all. . . . Now, I am more emotional watching a Riders’ football game than listening to a symphony. It’s a total paradigm shift.”

Weinstein sometimes cheers in an ironic way; many fans do. The truth that sports are actually games can catch up to you. But he also watches every time Saskatchewan plays. If working or on the road, he watches as soon as he can. Weinstein has thought carefully about this surprising change in his life. “Being a fan defines your values,” he says. “These people who believe in their team—it shows an incredible sense of loyalty. You band with people. In a bad way, it’s a kind of tribalism, but it doesn’t have the malevolence of, say, QAnon.” He is now thrilled by something all sports fans share: a deep appreciation for a certain kind of athleticism, the competitive ballet. “There’s something divine about seeing players in tandem doing something you think is impossible. It’s transcendent.”

In his classic book The Meaning of Sport, British sportswriter Simon Barnes writes, “Sport is not a logical process. Sport is an area of life in which most of us feel that we are let off logic, if not thought of any kind.” Life is difficult, with tricky decisions queueing up even during the best of times. In the age of COVID-19, when the national pastime is worry, what sweet relief it is to sit back and allow the weary brain to watch a pursuit that—compared to the Big Questions of disease, love, family, self-growth, money, and death—is, ultimately, about play. And at the core of all that boisterous exercise is the heart of a child. As adults, Barnes notes, “We hang on to the frivolous and childish delight in play, in messing about . . . even if we frequently delegate the actual playing to others. And call it professional sport.”

Billions of dollars are spent. Billions of people watch—and smile or scowl. If Karl Marx were alive today, he might condemn another opium of the people. And, all the while, sports are, in one sense, much ado about little: a ball crossing a line, a puck bulging a net. “Perhaps sport matters,” Barnes writes, “because it doesn’t matter.”

In 2007, a second fuzzy plush toe was carefully Scotch-taped to a sheet of paper, placed in an envelope, and mailed to Hamilton. The accompanying letter read, “Once again I and thousands of other football fans are disappointed in the Hamilton Tiger Kittens. Attached, I regret, once again, is a toe snipped from my Tiger-Cat slippers. Please! PLEASE! PLEASE! make the playoffs in 2008. I have run out of toes.”

The sports fan’s highs can be ecstatic, but the lows—oh, the lows. From between Chris Matthew’s lips, a word sneaks out. “Stupidity.” He cheered for a team that did not win for almost half a century: the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. “I suffered with them from 1961 to 2010—forty-nine years,” Matthew says. “At some points, I would say to myself, ‘Why? Why? They are so bad.’ But I chose them, and you stick with your team through thick and thin. It’s almost like a marriage. Sometimes you have good times and sometimes bad, but you don’t throw it all away because of a bad stretch.”

Note that Matthew, a retired Winnipeg schoolteacher, cheers for a team 1,400 kilometres away. His neighbours root for the shiny new Winnipeg Jets, who returned to the Prairies after a fifteen-year hiatus. “I want them to do well,” he says, “but I’m not going to throw away a fifty-year allegiance just because a new kid shows up in my hometown.” Matthew does cheer for a Winnipeg team, the CFL’s Blue Bombers. He is Canada’s exemplary fan, so devoted that he is willing to sacrifice for his team. In this case, he sacrificed his pants. In 2019, Matthew made national headlines because he took a vow, eighteen years earlier, to not wear pants until the Bombers won the Grey Cup. When they finally won, he put on pants—and has worn them only a handful of times since. He had come to like his life in shorts. “Just because I can [wear pants],” he says, “doesn’t mean I will.”

One athlete excelling in a solitary pursuit can be astounding. To have this happen in a group—with so many more possibilities for stumbles—is wondrous. At their best, sports teams reveal much more than physical prowess: you can see many minds syncing as one. Each individual has agency, but all act in service of a greater whole. Together, they demand more of themselves; together, they refuse to fail; together, they become champions. “Chemistry!” says Matthew. “It all comes together the way it is supposed to. You can see it, that magic moment.”

Now, imagine watching a team—your team—create beauty of an extraordinarily enchanted kind. A team so good that it transcends our normal ideas of skill and grace. A team whose play is not just fast and smooth but feels almost otherworldly. Once you get a taste of that, it just might keep you watching for years, hoping for another sip. Ottawa Rough Riders, 1969. Montreal Canadiens, 1977. Toronto Blue Jays, 1993. Arsenal Football Club, 2004. Barcelona Football Club, 2015. Devoted fans can recite excellent names and years to match any sommelier.

Jerry Seinfeld, doing stand-up, has mocked fans who back the same team for decades. All the players will have changed, he said. So, really, you are just cheering for laundry, “rooting for the clothes.” Rather than swat this away, Matthew embraces it. “To an extent, I am cheering for laundry,” he says. “That logo on the jersey makes the team. It doesn’t have to be the same guys to be the same team. The New York Yankees are always going to be the New York Yankees. There are teams that don’t have that mystique, that are just . . . there. The Columbus Blue Jackets—Who cares? There’s nothing there that sparks your interest. Unless, I guess, you live in Columbus.”

Transcendence. Beauty. Values. Mystique. Non–sports fans may be surprised to hear fans speak in such superlatives—or go even further. Asked if his connection to the Toronto Maple Leafs would best be described as dedication or devotion, Mike Wilson hesitates. The truth runs deeper than that. “It’s part of the fabric of who I am,” Wilson says. “And I am not alone. Hundreds of thousands of fans feel the same way. My dad said I was born coming out naming the players on the team.”

Wilson collected Leafs memorabilia his whole life, winding up with treasures including the door to the team dressing room from its former home arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. Now retired from his Bay Street day job, he has found a permanent home for his collection—in the Canadian Museum of History. During the 2018/19 Leafs season, Wilson accomplished the extraordinary feat of going to all eighty-nine games across North America, a trip he estimates at more than 64,000 kilometres. Every game night, his wife, Deb, would go on social media and direct Leafs fans at away games in Anaheim, Dallas, Tampa, wherever, to go meet him and tell their stories. While doing so, Wilson said, many fans were in tears. Loving a team is often tied to the love of family; support for a club can be passed on for generations. “It goes back to their grandparents, how it kept them alive during the war,” Wilson says. “Listening to games in hard times gives you hope.” In Calgary, Wilson says, he met a sixty-one-year-old Leafs fan who, that night, was watching his team play live for the first time. Trying to express how important this was, the man started to cry. “It’s about what the team means [to fans],” Wilson says. “It’s engraved in their DNA.”

Being a sports fan offers everyone the opportunity to experience the transcendental. Virtually every fan has witnessed something exceedingly unlikely—and hugely desirable. When you see something like that, you remember it forever. David Adams Richards, in his 1988 Governor General’s Award–winning novel Nights Below Station Street, put it this way: “For Adele who had always loved hockey, and especially the Montréal Canadiens, the 1972 series between the Canadians and the Russians, was the one spiritual happening she could think of. It might have seemed silly to a few, but the greater majority of Canadians thought like she did.”

Wilson is sometimes asked how he could travel to every Leafs game through a long, packed season. He is puzzled by this. Going to eighty-nine games in eight months wasn’t a chore; it was rapturous. “A live game is still the best,” he says. “Once you step through the turnstile and hear the fans and smell the popcorn and hot dogs and see the rink and feel the cool air—you get the same buzz every game. It was awesome. It was like a religious experience.” Notre-Dame Basilica thrills devout Catholics. Carnegie Hall is a revered temple for those who love the arts. Sports stadiums—bigger, louder, packed with far more people—exude an energy that inspires people who follow sports.

Asked if sports are like religion, Wilson doesn’t hesitate at all. “Yeah. Who knows if there is a saviour? We don’t know. And, if someone dies and finds out, they can’t come back and tell us. But it gives people hope, something to believe in. To release anguish, to lean on at the worst times. I don’t want to pull a Beatles and say, ‘This is more popular than Jesus.’” Still, he says, there are “a lot of parallels.”

The team improved; a playoff game was enjoyed. Fair being fair, a letter arrived in Hamilton bearing a photo of a goofy new orange-and-black slipper with three fat—and still attached—toes. The note read, “Dear Tiger-Cats, thank you! For making the playoffs! This year, finally, I will not snip a toe. My toes will stay where they belong—on my foot!” It was signed, “A friend.”

Sports fans, of course, are not all the same. Ben Schellenberg, a kinesiology professor at the University of Manitoba, and two colleagues recently examined how passionate sports fans differ when their team wins. Some fans savour victory while others dampen their own good feelings. The difference is that some fans are more harmonious while others are more obsessive.

Harmonious fans, it turns out, are healthier and happier. Obsessive fans are less happy because they cheer for unfortunate reasons.

Their paper, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, found that harmonious fans cheer because they enjoy doing so. Obsessive fans cheer because they have an uncontrollable urge to do so—and need the excitement or boost to their self-esteem.

The surprising part is this: harmonious passion helps people be mindful, gives them a sense of absorption and flow, and creates positive outlooks on past, present, and future events.

When obsessive fans win, they may tamp down the emotional high because of a need to retain emotional control, a desire to manage expectations, or even out of a fear that enjoying positive emotions may make something bad happen.

“Harmonious fans are just as passionate as fans who are more obsessive,” Schellenberg says. “But they can take a day off, will skip a game if they have to do something else. Their relationship with the team is harmonious with other things in their life. Obsessive fans are really bothered when they can’t watch a game. They may even sacrifice something in their lives to watch the game. They have to watch the game.”

When the Tiger-Cats missed the playoffs in 2012, another note was sent—one that contained a new warning. “Ouch!” it read. “Every time you miss the playoffs it hurts—because every time I cut off a toe. Please make the playoffs next year. If not, we may have to take this toe-snipping to YouTube.” It was signed, “Cat Fans of Nova Scotia.” No toes have been snipped since. The Cats have been good and sometimes great. The striped slippers rest, dangling from deer antlers in a garage.

If your favourite restaurant starts serving bad food, you eat elsewhere. If a politician you voted for turns out to be a crook, you vote for someone else. But what can a sports fan do when their team is lousy? Only one option is off the table: you don’t want to quit cheering. Which brings us to this momentous question: Why would anyone mail a football team toes that had been severed from plush tiger slippers?

The answer is heartfelt: in the years when the Cats were down and needed love and support, my family wanted them to know that someone cared.

David Swick
David Swick is a professor in the school of journalism at the University of King’s College, in Halifax.
Franziska Barczyk
Franziska Barczyk is an illustrator and visual artist known for her vibrant use of mixed media. She lives in Toronto.