Suddenly, sports are getting political. A long-overdue movement to change the racist name of the Washington Redskins is cresting. A growing number of black pro athletes have worn a “I Can’t Breathe” shirt to protest Eric Garner’s death, or raised their arms in a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture as a nod to Ferguson.
Many people see political activism as corrupting an escapist pastime, but I’m all for players showing solidarity with social movements. Rooting for their team, on the other hand, needn’t be a political act. Sports fandom is more like religion than politics: it’s something you inherit rather than choose.
As soon as a left-leaning person hears I’m a Yankees fan, the incredulity begins. “How can you be a liberal and a Yankees fan?” they demand, often followed by the cliché—delivered as if it were an original witticism—“That’s like rooting for General Motors!” The explanation that I’ve been a Yankees fan since forever sometimes suffices; other times, it just prompts chiding that liberals are morally obligated to root for the underdogs, not the richest, most successful franchise in baseball history.
These people are right that rooting for the Yankees may very well be conservative—but for the wrong reasons. The Yankees’ history of winning is a silly standard on which to assign them a political orientation. I became a Yankees fan when I was was four years old because my best friend rooted for them. The year was 1986 and the crosstown rival Mets were on their way to winning the World Series, while the Yankees endured a pennant drought for most of my childhood. You can’t establish a team’s politics with their won-loss record. Teams do better some years than others, and the claim that the Yankees “buy” their championships is belied by the fact that other teams with high revenues and large payrolls, including the Mets and our archrivals the Red Sox, have won far fewer World Series. In sports, as in politics, the side that spends more usually wins, but nothing is guaranteed.
Besides, liberals don’t automatically root for the candidates with less money because they are the underdogs. Just ask Barack Obama, who shattered previous fundraising records and outspent his opponents in both his presidential campaigns.
The real reason to label the Yankees rightwing has to do with George Steinbrenner, the team’s longtime owner who left them to his sons Hal and Hank upon his death in 2010. Steinbrenner donated heavily to Republican candidates, including Richard Nixon (an illegal contribution for which he later received a pardon from Ronald Reagan). An all-around despicable person, Steinbrenner allegedly did not make donations required by star outfielder Dave Winfield’s contract to Winfield’s charitable foundation. Instead, he paid $40,000 to a mafia-connected gambler to dig up dirt on Winfield. That earned Steinbrenner his second suspension from baseball and a Newsweek cover declaring him the most hated man in the game.
Right after the September 11 attacks, baseball teams played “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. Whereas almost every other team in baseball has long since abandoned the heavy-handed practice, the Yankees—ever-eager for a chance to impose nationalism and religiosity on their customers—never stopped. They even took to ordering fans not to leave during the song and closing off the exits to the aisles to prevent them from doing so, until a fan sued in 2008. This is all on top of the national anthem at the beginning of the game. (My uncle got kicked out of Yankee Stadium during the Vietnam era for refusing to stand up for the anthem.)
All of this disappoints me. But I haven’t switched baseball teams—just like liberal Celtics fans haven’t started rooting for the Cavaliers because they saw Lebron in an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt.
If I could choose who I favor, it would be better for me to choose the Mets. But I can’t choose. That’s the essence of fandom. It’s irrational. I’m a Yankees fan because I’ve always been one. It’s more like saying I’m Jewish than like saying I support raising the minimum wage. And like one’s religion, changing it is a dramatic decision that risks alienating family and friends. It’s often done to appease a future life partner, and anyone who can undertake it too lightly is suspect. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I had a friend who is also from New York but had switched his allegiance to D.C. teams on the grounds that he planned on living there the rest of his life, so it would be more convenient. I couldn’t even fathom doing the same. If you can make rational decisions about who you root for, are you even a real fan at all?
Being from New York leaves me with some especially problematic teams. Even though the Mets are the lesser of two evils, they have spent heavily on mediocrity for decades, and their owners were caught up in the Bernie Madoff scheme. And just as I can’t switch from the Yankees to Mets, I also can’t switch from the Knicks to the Nets, even though it would make sense for me to. Knicks tickets are so expensive, despite the team consistently sucking, that I haven’t been to a game in years. The Knicks’ owner, James Dolan, buys ads to influence New York City land use decisions to benefit his company, and in 2007 the team’s general manager and parent company were found liable for the sexual harassment of an employee.
In 2012, the Nets moved in down the block from me. Their shiny new arena features food from landmark Brooklyn restaurants. Compared to the Knicks, they are a better team with cheaper tickets. I go to Nets games, but I can’t actually force myself to care about them. Following the Knicks and not the Nets is a habit 25 years in the making. And, in fairness, a politically connected developer got the government to use the threat of eminent domain to bully my neighbors and my favorite bar into moving so that he could build the Nets arena. No sports team is politically pure.
And neither is our country’s athletic tradition. I take consolation in the fact that sports fandom itself is unprogressive. The Nets are sadly typical in that they benefited from government largesse in getting their stadium built. Teams are for-profit corporations, not charities, that often promote nationalism, retrograde gender norms, and use exploitative labor practices. If you’re a liberal and you’re looking for a team that will consistently express your political values, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, you should engage in activism on industry-wide problems like ending Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption or putting a stop to corporate welfare in the form of sweetheart stadium deals.
And of course, there are exceptional cases where every cheer for your team is a finger in the eye of someone else, like a certain football team from Washington. Wearing the racist logos of, or rooting for, teams named for American Indians is where I draw the line.
Otherwise, I take the long view: a team’s ownership will change hands, and its fortunes will wax and wane. If you pick a team because its politics are better now, you might find yourself switching fairly often. Red Sox fans, those obsessive Yankee-haters, are the people who most often act as if rooting for the Yankees is like joining a country club. But since the Red Sox broke their long World Series drought, their fans have had to stop claiming that suffering infuses them with moral superiority. And while current Red Sox owner John Henry is a Democrat, Tom Yawkey, who owned the team for 40 years and for whom the street on which Fenway Park sits is named, was a racist who didn’t integrate the Red Sox roster until 14 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Times change, and I’ve never told a liberal Red Sox fan she is a hypocrite. Red Sox fans may be self-righteous blowhards, but their politics have nothing to do with it.
Ben Adler is a staff writer at Grist.