The Devil in Every Fan

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Nick Laham / Getty

Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots watches their game against the San Diego Chargers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Last week we New England Patriots fans learned that Bill Belichick, our team's wildly successful head coach, cheats. Turns out that in the first game of the season, one of Belichick's assistants improperly videotaped the defensive coaches of the opposing New York Jets, trying to steal their signs. As punishment, the Pats were stripped of future draft picks and fined, as was Belichick. Across the nation, sports writers wagged their fingers. Editorials called Belichick a disgrace. And us fans? Well, when Belichick's mug appeared on the video screen just before the Pats' second game, the hometown crowd cheered so loudly and so long that Belichick actually waved. Some diehards unveiled a banner reading "In Bill We Trust."

I wish I could say I was surprised. In truth, Pats fans already knew that Belichick doesn't play by Marquis of Queensberry rules. This February former linebacker Ted Johnson alleged that Belichick made him practice even after he suffered a concussion and that today he has brain damage so severe that he can barely get out of bed. But in Boston those earlier revelations — like these new ones — haven't hurt Belichick's popularity a bit. And there's only one thing that could: losing.

That's the dirty little secret about sports fans. We're basically amoral. Kant said that acting ethically means treating other people as ends in and of themselves, not merely as means to our own desires. But that's exactly how fans treat coaches and players. We want them to win because when they do, we bask in the glory. Supporting a winner makes us feel like winners. A few years back, an Indiana University researcher showed that when Indiana won, avid fans actually grew more confident that they could get dates.

Fans don't really care how their teams win. They aren't moral universalists; they don't care about being fair to the other guys. In the abstract, fans oppose cheating. They may even oppose cheating by their own team, since the team could get caught, thus eliciting penalties that outweigh any potential gain. They may also fear the psychological penalties: If your team wins but people think it cheated, it's harder to do a victory dance around the office water cooler. But fearing the consequences of cheating is a far cry from opposing it because it's wrong. When the refs go to review a close play, fans don't sit there thinking, I hope they'll make the right call. They pray that the call goes their way.

According to a 1999 study by psychologists at Murray State, a significant minority of fans — if guaranteed anonymity — would even support injuring an opposing player or coach. In 1940 the Cornell football team forfeited a victory after realizing that it had been mistakenly given an extra play. If a coach did that today, sports writers would declare him a saint. And his team's fans would boil him in oil.

But it's even worse than that, because fans don't treat just the players on opposing teams as means rather than ends; they treat their own players the same way. Sports are often compared to war. The team is our army, battling for our honor. But there's a key twist: the players aren't citizen-soldiers; they're mercenaries. They can be bought, bartered and sold, and once they are, they go from heroes to enemies. They're valued only when they wear the uniform. And once they hang it up for good, we stop caring about them, except when they take us on a stroll down memory lane. The press rarely reports on what happens to ex-players — the injuries that intensify as the athletes approach middle age, the financial woes that afflict players who make too much money too fast and then see it disappear. And there's a reason for that: fans don't want to know.

Thinking of players as real human beings, with identities off the field, spoils the fantasy. Atlanta Falcons fans don't care that Michael Vick is going to jail for torturing dogs; they care that without him, their team is 0-2. The media often bash athletes for being greedy and irresponsible, for caring only about themselves and not about us. But why should they? We don't really care about them.

So by all means, penalize Belichick. Wag your finger. Rake him over the coals. But don't weep for us Pats fans, because we aren't innocent victims; we're co-conspirators. Belichick understands us perfectly. He knows that as long as he wins, all will be forgiven. And that once he stops, it won't matter if he becomes Mother Teresa. He doesn't care about being fair to the other team; he doesn't even really care about his own players. He just wants to win. He'd make an excellent fan.

Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations