My little jersey: fandom as magic

How I help the Chiefs win

It’s a kind of magic.

The Chiefs won last week. You’re welcome.

When I watch Chiefs games, I wear my Chiefs jersey. I don’t wear it while cooking, because I don’t want it to get messy. (The exception, of course, is if I’m BBQing, because BBQ sauce isn’t ‘mess’, it is an added veneer of excellence.) I take the jersey out in the morning and rest in on my dresser. There it remains reverently folded, carefully placed with the crest upright.

In the final moments before the game, I’ll wash my hands, unfold the jersey, and don it ceremoniously.

Please remember that these final steps take place in my living room, generally on my own and — adding to the slightly cultic air of it — often after midnight. Time zones suck.

I also watch the games with a backup jersey to hand. It is kept carefully to one side, under the same conditions (folded, badge up, etc). If, at halftime, the Chiefs are doing badly, I’ll change jerseys. The first half jersey will be banished out of sight.

This not fandom, at least, in the conventional sense. I have a KC cap I wear pretty frequently (Chiefs, not Royals), I like to wear red on the Fridays before games, we even have a little flag waving in our front garden. Those are fannish activities. They’re badges of identity; ways for people to recognise the 'in-group’ that I associate with. They are the means by which I help project my values or affiliations.

My solitary midnight jersey activities are something completely different. It doesn’t matter if someone sees me. In many (many, many) ways it is probably best that my silliness goes unseen. This is not an identity, this is not an affiliation. It is superstition. It is my attempt to contribute to the outcome of the game.

I happily buy into the notion that one of the satisfactions that come from attending live sport is that sense of impact. By yelling and hooting and cheering and stomping that you feel like you have a say in the players’ performance (or, as proven, the referees’). But to think that my sartorial selections make a difference to the outcome of a game — from four thousand miles away — is the height of narcissism.

As far as superstitions go, my jersey shenanigans are actually quite mild. Over 25% of sport fans have some sort of pre-game routine, ranging from prayer to donning unwashed clothes. And, amazingly, 91% genuinely believe their actions impact outcome of an event. [The big caveat: this is a shady-ass poll commissioned by the betting industry, who would absolutely love you to believe that your lucky underwear is meaningful in the cosmic sense.]

This behaviour is not something that, in other circumstances, I would describe as ‘normal’. Or even ‘sane’.


My jersey is a ritual. And rituals are magic.

The practice of ritual, or ceremonial, magic is about creating — if you’ll excuse the reductive phrasing — “metaphors and moments”. Basically, you put a bunch of stuff together (objects, people, words) in a way that is symbolically representative, and then create a time and space where you fiddle with that arrangement as a metaphor for the wider change you seek in the world. Generally speaking, the more complex and immersive and esoteric the ritual, the more effective it is assumed to be.

When you start muttering about ritual magic, people start thinking about a big group of men in matching clothes, all going to a special, sacred location to wave their arms and chant in unison while a high priest does something spectacular in front of them. Basically, attending live sport - see above.

That’s certainly a type of ritual, but in its broader sense, a ritual can be any sequence of symbolic activities, undertaken in the hope of making a change in the world:

Simple or complicated, rituals are made of constituent elements involving actions, gestures, words, objects, object manipulation, places, times and so forth. It is the specific arrangement of these different elements that gives the ritual its own identity. It is not just these individual components, but the manner of their arrangement.

Ulysses Black, The Ritual Lens

Anyone can own a jersey — even a limited edition Patrick Mahomes Salute to Service™ one (black, not olive). The ritual happens because of where and when I wear it, how I treat it, what I do with it. The jersey is the metaphor for the Chiefs themselves; the moment is the pre-game care, the gametime donning, and — if it becomes necessary — the halftime discard. The symbolic refutation, as it were. This is undeniably a ritual.

But do rituals work? Does magic work?

YMMV (91% seem to think so), but it is hard to posit any rational explanation. In fact, the best — at least, truthiest — explanation that I’ve found comes from a slightly different approach to sorcery.

Chaos magic, unlike ritual magic, is not a formal practice. It is about wishing really hard, using methods and tools that are individual to you that can help you will your desire into being. The most common tool is a sigil, a type of art that you create to represent your desire. Then you wish real, real hard on it. Remember The Secret? Or ‘vision boards’? That’s chaos magic.

Unlike ritual magic, which has a more pseudoscientific philosophy, chaos magic openly embraces the irrational. It encourages you to design your own metaphor for the cosmos. Basically, ‘whatever works’. In his introduction to Condensed Chaos, Phil Hine offers a buffet of potential metaphors to draw upon, including one joyous explanation that has always stuck with me:

The up-and-coming paradigm is the ‘Cybernetic’ model, as we swing into being an information-based culture. This model says that the Universe, despite appearances, is stochastic in nature. Magic is a set of techniques for rousing a neurological storm in the brain which brings about microcosmic fluctuations in the Universe, which lead eventually to macroscopic changes — in accordance with the magician’s intent.

Phil Hine, Condensed Chaos

Remember Jeff Goldblum’s speech about chaos theory from Jurassic Park? That — except the proverbial butterfly is our brain. Thoughts are electricity. Electricity is a physical effect. A physical effect can change the world. (Profit!)

What a fan is doing with their jersey is making sure they generate the right thought, which makes the right electricity. And if you have one or two or fifty thousand or fifty million fans all generating brain-sparks, well, maybe you have enough flappy butterflies to change the outcome of a game.

Can a butterfly flapping its wings in London create a freak gust of wind in Buffalo?


But… what if?

Wide right.

That ‘what if’ gives us — me — permission to be a bit abnormal about it. To embrace the insanity. ‘Rituals’ and ‘magic’, even if we don’t use those exact terms, give us a sense of ownership and control over events. We know our lucky jerseys don’t make a difference, but playing the ‘what if’ game allows us to assume a meaningful role in events. It adds another level of emotional and personal investment in events:

Rituals do not just mark significant events, they can be used to create them. In fact, one of the things so potent about rituals is their ability to create meaningfulness even in the prior absence of such. [They can] fix the event in time and space and acknowledge its quality and reach for a deeper meaning within it.

Ulysses Black, The Ritual Lens

Folding and donning (and changing) my jersey makes the game more special for me. It creates a connection between me and a distant, impersonal event. It extends it from a passive viewing to something more actively engaging. Whether or not my ritual is magic, it helps make the event magical.

Don’t get me wrong: my jersey ritual is absolute bollocks. It has zero impact on anything at all (other than on my wife’s rapidly-plummeting opinion of me). But, believing in magic, even this relatively pedestrian variety, makes the the world a richer, more interesting place.

What I’m reading (online):

After missing the potential game-tying field goal, the poor Bills kicker deleted his social media accounts to avoid abuse. Chiefs and Bills fans united to … donate over $250,000 to his favourite charity: a local cat shelter. That’s real magic.

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