Fandom, the Ship of Theseus, and Corporate Culture

When Lebron James went from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat, it was widely noted that he left for a better chance at winning a championship. He grew up outside of Cleveland but it was understandable that he left, and it didn’t hurt his personal brand significantly. It diminished the Cleveland Cavaliers’ brand because they were missing a star athlete, but when he left the organization did not cease being the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There is a thought experiment in philosophy that is used to examine Platonic and Aristotleian concepts of ideas. If, over the course of time, every plank of a ship is replaced, what makes it the same ship as when it started? The same can be said of any professional sports team. A general answer to that question is memory is the determinant of the maintenance of identity. Certainly the athletes of a team identify with the goals of the team as they play for them, but a stronger determinant of team identity is the excitement of the fans. Fans stay in one place more and offer a stronger sense of location and history for teams and help differentiate them from one another. But the thing outside of this that often separates one team from another is its ownership and organizational culture and structure. When fans are rooting for a team because of the venerated genius of their system, organization, or technique (think Bill Belichick) they are rooting for a corporate culture. Teams are now even praised for their skill in navigating the marketplace, as in “Moneyball.”

Is there any deeper expression of American capitalism than the fact that fans are bonded to teams and creating their identities by rooting for the efficiency of their corporate structures? It is a tribute to the importance that we pay to organizational success and to the rise of computer-based analysis.

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