Monday, November 08, 2004

Rules of Rooting

Matt Weiner has a fascinating post on the rationality of rooting for football teams in certain circumstances. The basic question, as I understand it, is this: suppose that I am a Cleveland Browns fan, and don't care about any other football teams one way or the other. My only football interest is in the success of the Cleveland Browns. Suppose that one week, the Browns play the Ravens, and defeat them. The next week, the Ravens play the Steelers. Should I root for the Ravens? Matt says:
Here's the argument for so rooting: You want X to be as successful as possible. The better X is, the more successful they will be (most likely). The better Y is, the more evidence X's previous victory provides that X is good. So if Y beats Z, you have more evidence that your goal will be achieved. The argument against rooting for Y is basically this: What happens between Y and Z has no effect on X's fortunes. All you care about is X's fortunes. So why should you care what happens between Y and Z?
Both arguments do seem somewhat compelling, which is why we have a genuine puzzle. Add for further consideration that many of us, I think, *would* root for the Ravens under those circumstances. I guess I consider that to be weak evidence that it's rational so to do. Following are a few random thoughts on the issue: Maybe we're not *only* concerned with the success of the Browns -- maybe we also care about *respect* given to the Browns. (Or *maybe*, and I'm getting more and more tenuous, I know, respect given to the Browns is partially constitutive of their success.) It's also worth noting that it's contingent on the way the NFL works that the Ravens' future performance does not affect the Browns' future success; in college football, 'stregnth of schedule' considerations affect BCS standings, so it is clearly rational to root for previous opponents of the preferred team. I guess these two points might be applied as attempts to 'explain away' the intuition that it is rational to root for the Ravens. Matt sets up the example, as I did above, with the preferred team having *beaten* the team we're now considering rooting for. I don't see that this is critical -- even if the Browns had *lost* to the Ravens, there is still exactly the same argument for rooting for the Ravens: the better the Ravens are, the less bad that loss looks. Maybe grudge factors come into play, but I suspect they're not rational.


  1. There is another aspect which must be considered in this debate. The success of team X in the future may depend on team Y or Z. If team X and Z are both contenders for the wild card or in the same division then you would root for team Y to beat team Z. However, if you felt that team X was somewhat fortunate in beating team Y and would not be likely to do so again, you root for team Z so that there is less of a possiblity of facing team Y in the playoffs.

  2. Speaking as a Browns fan, when the Ravens and Steelers play I root for an earthquake.

  3. Yeah, so maybe this isn't rational but it seems understandable and I think it deserves mentioning. The Ravens used to be the Browns until they moved to Baltimore. The Browns fans might like to see the Ravens lose as much as possible. And I can feel them on that one.