Reaction to an article last week chastising fans for referring to their favorite teams as “we” generated some interesting responses. So which is right? “We” or “They”? Read on for my take.

Esquire Magazine’s Chris Jones recently posted an article on Grantland.com taking to task those sports fans who insist on using the personal pronoun “we” when referring to their favorite sports team.

Here’s the deal: If you don’t play for, or you are not an employee of, the team in question, “we” is not the pronoun you’re looking for.

“They” is the word you want.

Jones goes on to make a very good case, but of course, it didn’t sit well with some readers, like Toronto Maple Leafs blogger Danny Gray, who finds nothing wrong with using “we” when referring to his beloved Leafs, though I have to wonder how much of Gray’s response was spurred by Jones less-than-complimentary reference to Leafs fans in his article:

If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can probably say “we,” because your faithful devotion to that miserable team is the principal reason they will always be shit. You might as well accept your share of the blame. 

Is it ok for fans to use "we" to refer to their teams?

The Cult of Hockey’s Jonathan Willis offered up a more thoughtful response to Jones, pointing out how much sports teams in general, and NHL teams in particular, encourage their fans to identify with their fortunes.

Fans are encouraged, by teams, to identify with their respective clubs. They put their money behind their statements of support, buying tickets and merchandise. The obscenely priced NHL Center Ice package exists because enough fans immediately outside their chosen club’s geographic area are willing to pay large amounts of money to watch every game. The willingness to fork out dollars at unimaginable rates for the right to sport the team’s logo is created, in no small part, because fans identify with their teams. 

Teams are a part of the city they play in. All three Western Canadian clubs have had lengthy playoff runs in the last decade, and there is simply no denying the way those runs transform their respective cities – they change them in a way that a good book or a popular band (to use Jones’ analogies) never could.

On the one hand, I agree with Jones, and at times, I’ve playfully chided friends and readers of this site whenever they use “we” to talk about their favorite teams. If you don’t play the game, or aren’t involved directly with the team, I don’t believe you should use the personal pronoun to describe them.

On the other, Willis and Gray make valid points about how much teams want their fans to identify with them.

The teams do this, of course, to convince those fans to plunk down big bucks to attend their games, purchase their cable specialty packages, and buy their merchandise.

Fans are the necessary component in professional sports. No fans, no money, no teams, no league, and rather than earning millions to play a game, the athletes instead do that as a recreational hobby whilst toiling at real world jobs like the other 99 percent of the population.

And, as Gray noted, without the fans to support the sports leagues, there would be no sportswriters, meaning those like myself fortunate enough to make a living at it would instead find another avenue of writing, or another job.

I will, however, point out how quickly fans will stop using “we” when their favorite team is playing badly, either for a game, a season, or a playoff series.

Suddenly, it becomes the pronoun “they”, as in “They better get their act together, or they’ll miss the playoffs/get swept in the series”

Or the determiner “those”, as in “Those guys are horrible! Why did management waste so much of our money to ice such a lousy team?”

Or the third person plural pronoun “them”, as in “How many games are them bums gonna lose before the owner/GM does something?”

A wise scribe once described Montreal Canadiens fans as standing by their team, win or tie, but I think that’s true of all NHL fans to various degrees. As the old saying goes, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

And as Jones pointed out, while fans like to believe they have a hand in the fate of their teams, there are several examples, in every pro sports league in North America, of teams being folded or moved, regardless of what their fans did.

Winnipeg hockey fans lost their beloved Jets fifteen years ago, despite some going to extremes of raising money to try to keep the club in their city.

Yes, they got an NHL franchise back, but that had nothing to do with the fans, and everything to do with a billionaire owner willing to purchase the struggling Atlanta Thrashers and move it to Winnipeg, when there was no other option available to the league to find new owners willing to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta.

Ultimately, there’s no harm in fans identifying with their teams to the point where they use “we” to refer to it, and there’s no way any writer, even one as eloquent and award-winning as Jones, can change that.

Those fans, however, have to bear in mind that, while it’s their dollars which keep their teams funded, they’re not the owners, and remain powerless over management and coaching decisions,  the outcome of games, and ultimately, what the owners of a team decides to do with it.

In other words, “we” may make it possible for pro sports to exist, but “they” – the team owners, general managers, coaches and players – make the final determination of how, and where, the teams perform, and how much “we” will be charged for the privilege.