Readers Choice Nominees 2023

For Everything There Is a Season: On Fandom, Futility, and the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes

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This article is part of a series called Sports Month. We'll highlight more on the intersection of faith and sports during March.

My NBA fandom has been consistently challenged my entire life. I live in the South, where football is king and baseball is religion, ruling together in a modern-day sports diarchy. For many people in the South, the NBA is the league that occupies the brief window between the date of the Super Bowl and the date that pitchers and catchers report. This year, that window was approximately eight hours, while everyone was asleep.

Not only am I an NBA fan, I’m a fan of the smallest market team in the NBA: The New Orleans Pelicans. A quick historical summary, in case you aren’t one of the 12 New Orleans Pelicans fans: New Orleans had a team in the 1970s named the Jazz. In 1979, that team relocated to Utah but kept the name Jazz, I suppose because of all the great jazz that comes out of Utah. New Orleans didn’t have a team again until the Charlotte Hornets franchise relocated to the city in 2002. They changed the name from Hornets to Pelicans in 2013 and have lived in perpetual mediocrity since that time. In order to give you a small taste of how mediocre the team has been, after a big opening night win this NBA season, I texted friends that this was the greatest day in franchise history. I wasn’t even slightly kidding.

For anyone who has ever been a fan of a small market team in any sport, you know well the pain of mediocrity: the constant roster changes to save money, the years of high draft picks that don’t pan out, and the rising stars who leave for bigger cities. We small market fans toil through the season, only to see the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers of the world add another trophy to their collections at the end of the year. About halfway through the year we remind ourselves of our greatest fan motto: “Next year is the year.” We don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds nice in our heads.

Fandom is a small microcosm of existence, placing into perspective not only joy and sorrow, but desire, satisfaction, longing, and patience.

Occasionally I’ll step back and recognize the seeming futility of it all. I stay up late to watch the games, check the box score the next day, read the latest trade rumors, buy the merchandise, look at the standings, watch the losses pile up, and head into another offseason of disappointment. On and on it goes, the only thing changing is the season. Why do I do it? Why do we do it? Why do we recognize the seeming futility of fanhood, and yet stay plugged in and invested?

King Solomon had a lot to say about futility and fanhood in the book of Ecclesiastes. Well, not about fanhood exactly, but he certainly gave us the language for analyzing our fanhood and putting it into perspective. Ecclesiastes gives me mottos after every crushing defeat (“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”) and hope after every rival’s victory (“What happens to the fool will happen to me also!”). More importantly, Ecclesiastes serves as a reminder that there is a season-ness to all of life. We toil, make decisions, find pleasures, weather storms, get dirty, clean up, celebrate, and mourn, all the while recognizing that life is brief and we are small specks on the scale of human history. As Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 5:18, “This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.” There’s a cycle to life we can’t escape because we are limited by the very nature of creation itself. Within this cycle, our commitments root us in the soil of time and place. They invariably limit us, because every yes means a thousand no’s. But every commitment also serves as an affirmation of our existence in our particular place. Sports fandom in particular roots us in a community identity, just as the Olympics roots us in national identity. We pact to cheer together, hope together, mourn together, and celebrate together with the ups and downs of our team.

In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Zack Eswine warns of two dangers Christians often face in making choices in life, and I think that these apply well to sports fandom.[1] One danger is escapism, pretending that the messiness of reality doesn’t exist. In Ecclesiastes 7, Solomon invites us to embrace the concept of death as an escape from escapism, because recognition of death grounds us in reality. Fandom can serve as a form of escapism, an attempt to cover the reality of life with hopes that don’t truly satisfy our deepest longings. Any fan knows the danger of their fandom spreading like a weed to more important areas of life. If I know more about my team’s stats than my family’s schedule, then I am failing as a husband and father.

However, Eswine’s other warning for Christians is about the danger of pietism, which removes us from the rootedness of historical existence in its rejection of the created order. We can rail against the insignificance of physical reality, all the while missing out on the God-ordained goodness of this reality. Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 invites us to enjoy the simple pleasures of life within proper recognition. Although it occupies a comparatively small portion of my life, my fandom isn’t insignificant, in the same way that my love of good food or certain holidays isn’t insignificant. It’s a small part of my shape, one of the choices that I make that locates and limits me. If I am here, then I can’t be there, so why not embrace being here? If I look at my fandom not as satisfaction for my soul, but as a delight within the cycle of the world, then I can see it as God’s blessing. As Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:13, we can see these facets of life as gifts of God when we hold them in right order.

Seen in this light, fandom becomes a gift. It is a small microcosm of existence, placing into perspective not only joy and sorrow, but desire, satisfaction, longing, and patience. When my team is winning (a rare occurrence), I can enjoy it for what it is, while knowing it is not eternal. When my team is losing (a frequent occurrence), I can be thankful that the seasons are relatively short (my wife would disagree). And if the Lakers win another title, then with Solomon I can recognize this as a meaningless, grievous evil (just kidding, maybe). If I rightly view my fandom, then I have a bit of clarity in which I can view the rest of life in both its ups and downs.

Of course the humor of it all is that my team might never win a title. In fact, they might pack up next year and move to a different city that promises a more rabid fanbase or a nicer stadium. I recognize the contingency of my fanhood just like I recognize the contingency of my entire life. I can take sweet enjoyment in my fandom today, just as I enjoy other limited delights, as a person planted in a certain time and place by God. And who know, next year might really be the year! Or as King Solomon would say, “Hope springs eternal.”

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[1] Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 101.

  • Readers Choice Nominees 2023
  • sports
Chet Harvey

Chet Harvey is discipleship pastor at Hebron Church in Dacula, GA and director of the North Georgia Extension Center for NOBTS. He completed a PhD in theology from SEBTS in 2018. Chet is married to Anna and they have two kids, Mae (11) and Win (6). Besides rooting for the New Orleans Pelicans, Chet loves trying new restaurants with Anna, beginning yard projects he’ll never complete, and watching 80s action movies.

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