We fans – what wretches we are. Each year we charge into a new campaign, proudly wearing our colors, even though we know deep inside that our team will cause us anxiety, outrage, moral compromise, and, in all but the rarest instances, a disappointed end to the season. And the next year, we do it all again. Cultural critics have a diagnosis for this torture we bring upon ourselves. But is there an antidote?
Anybody who follows an NFL team knows that being a fan can be a cruel experience. Even if you support a team that has enjoyed a lot of success in recent years – the Seattle Seahawks, for instance, or the New England Patriots – there will still be moments during the course of the season when you will think, however briefly, that all is lost. If you are a fan of a team that is good enough to make the playoffs, you know that there is only a 1 in 12 chance that the season won’t end with you sulking on your sofa and grumbling about the officiating. And if you are unlucky enough to be a fan of one of the NFL’s perpetual losers, you know that no matter how many notable things happen in the league that year – a 2000-yard rusher, a 20-sack season – all of it will take a back seat to the feelings of rage and frustration that will ruin your Sunday each and every week. Call it the “factory of sadness” factor: the very thing that draws you to watch and cheer for the NFL – being a fan of a particular team – is also the thing that prevents you from really enjoying it.
Let’s consider the case of Cleveland Browns fan Mike Polk, from whom I’m borrowing the phrase “factory of sadness.” In 2011 Polk recorded himself delivering an amusing rant outside Cleveland Browns Stadium following the Browns’ 30-12 loss in Houston, and posted the video to YouTube. Polk rips into the Browns for their terrible performance that week, and the team’s perennial losing seasons, complaining that “all we [Browns fans] do is pay you money to put us in a bad mood every week.” After calling Cleveland Browns Stadium a “factory of sadness,” Polk starts to walk away, but not before hanging his head, admitting defeat, and uttering the words: “I’ll see you Sunday.”
I’d like to think about Polk’s reaction to the Browns’ loss – a sense of outrage followed by resignation – through the lens of what critic Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.” In the introduction to her book Cruel Optimism, Berlant writes that a “relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Berlant is interested in the ways that people embrace and pursue fantasies of the “good life” that – realistically – very few of them will actually be able to attain. Despite war, economic uncertainty, austerity, unemployment, and any number of other contemporary crises, people are still attached to the idea that they, and what they stand for, must “add up to something.” Such an attachment is cruel precisely because it cannot be satisfied, and also because the lure of its promise prevents people from pursuing the possibility of alternative social and political arrangements.
I want to borrow Berlant’s concept of cruel optimism to think through some of the conflicts that can prevent NFL fans from enjoying the sport that they claim to love. Obviously this model could be applied to fans of any sport. Long-suffering fans of the professional hockey, baseball, basketball, and soccer teams in the city where I live – Toronto – are all too familiar with the pain of cruel optimism. But I’d like to focus on NFL football, not only because it’s the sport I watch most often, but also since each team plays such a small number of games each year. When your team is guaranteed a mere sixteen games per season, it’s not hard to see how each contest starts to look like a high-stakes showdown with everything on the line.
I first started thinking about the cruel optimism of being a fan last summer while watching a non-NFL sporting event, the FIFA World Cup. I like soccer, but I rarely watch it outside of the major international tournaments. I don’t follow a club team or any individual players, and I don’t feel a strong attachment to any of the national teams. All of this allowed me to enjoy the tournament in a way that fans of particular teams could not. I was never disappointed by a tough group draw, or an unexpected loss, or an unjust red card. I could enjoy a game like the Brazil-Germany semifinal for what it was – a historically anomalous blowout – without feeling any of the pain Brazillian fans had to endure. At the same time, I couldn’t experience the kind of elation German fans felt after this game, or after winning the Cup final a few days later. There were no grueling lows, but there weren’t really any triumphant highs either.
I haven’t been able to embrace this neutral attitude when watching the NFL, even though there are times when I wish I could. I’ve been a fan of the San Francisco 49ers since the Joe Montana/Steve Young era of the early 1990s. And even though the 49ers have enjoyed several periods of sustained success in my lifetime, my attachment to the team is still structured by cruel optimism.
Let’s consider the recent Jim Harbaugh era. Even though Harbaugh’s first three seasons as head coach were wildly successful, they each ended in ways that were much more painful than simply watching a mediocre team stumble toward a 6-10 record. I know that the games that ended the 49ers’ seasons between 2011 and 2013 – the NFC Championship losses to New York and Seattle, and the Super Bowl loss to Baltimore – were, objectively speaking, great football games. They were exciting games, with big plays on offence, stout defensive stands, and crucial turnovers. And yet, I wasn’t able to enjoy any of them. I was watching, of course, but there wasn’t anything fun about three hours of anxiety, stress, and – ultimately – crushing disappointment. For a few plays here or there, sure, I was cheering. And if the 49ers had won, I would be singing a different tune. But no team wins every championship, or even most championships.
It appears that cruel optimism is an inextricable part of being a fan of a particular NFL team –disappointment is the NFL fan’s default setting. You care about the sport because of your attachment to a team, but this attachment, more often than not, is actually an obstacle to your enjoyment of the sport. Moreover, even though it seems like there is no way out of this cycle, nobody decides to stop being a football fan just because of the pain of cruel optimism. So is “I’ll see you Sunday” the best that fans can hope for? Or is there a real alternative to cruel optimism?
Being a fan means believing in an ideology. And believing in an ideology means agreeing to maintain certain blind spots. Like the committed nationalist who seems to deliberately ignore the faults and shortcomings of his or her nation, a fan must be prepared to blithely ignore any number of things – players who are arrested for serious offences, for example, or owners who utter racist or sexist sentiments – that they would never let slide in another context. Being a fan often means finding oneself making excuses for the inexcusable.
And it’s not like fans don’t know any better. According to cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, the core sentiment of contemporary ideology is the sentence, “I know very well, but…” For example, “I know very well that it is wrong for Player X to remain on Team Y after being charged with sexual assault, but I continue to support Team Y anyway.” Cruel optimism is complicit with this ideology. We know very well that one victory, or one player, or one championship will not allow us to truly enjoy watching our football team every week, but we continue to believe that they will. For Žižek there is no getting “outside” of ideology. I fear that this is true for the ideology of being a fan as well.
Is there really no alternative to accepting cruel optimism as part and parcel of the experience of supporting a particular team? One possible solution, I think, is to abandon the structure of “being a fan” altogether. Although this would entail giving up your favourite team, it would not necessarily mean no longer watching the sport you follow. However, it would mean learning to watch that sport without the feelings of attachment, hope, optimism, and – of course – disappointment that have shaped your relationship with it in the past. No more lows, but no more highs either. While this might seem like it would take the fun out of watching your favourite sport, I actually think that – on the whole – this would make for a more enjoyable experience of being a fan. A fan without attachments, and a fan without optimism, sure. But a fan without a factory of sadness as well.
 I’m not the only one to think about Žižek and the NFL: the parody Twitter account @ZizekOnNFL has been successfully mining this territory for several years now.
Ross Bullen teaches English literature at OCAD University in Toronto. He’s on Twitter at @.