You sit in a crowded airport. Three muscular men in their thirties sit across from you, staring at an open book. As they read they become animated, they stand and clap, they shout, they give each other high-fives, and at times they become angry, curse, and punch their fists together. What could they be reading to excuse this behavior in an airport? What could hold such sway over these people’s emotions? This happened to me six weeks ago, but of course they weren’t reading, they were watching sports.
I have always felt like a spectator of spectator sports, watching fandom with confusion, wondering why my friends allow it to take up their time, and having to reconcile my thoughts about Sports with those of my own preoccupations.
I left school in Boston thinking that my brain must lack a ‘sports-lobe’, but over the last 6 weeks I have realized that I am not alone in thinking that Fans are dangerously deluding themselves, that there are cheaper and more productive ways to fulfill these people, and that there is a collective need to call ‘time out’.
I use the term “Sports” broadly, so by Sports I mean the watching of a game played in person or on video, usually by a team, whose fans wear the team’s colors and often use “we” when referring to the team’s doings (so not competitive swimming or the running of the bulls). The games’ rules are designed so that one team will beat the other in fast paced gameplay and the players are hired professionals. A ball is projected into the air (usually), the fans tense up with anticipation as it flies, and that stress is relieved and the reward centers of their brains are excited when the ball, against the odds, is caught or lands and the team they associate with advances. Putting it like this can make it sound so harmless, but there are millions of people that allow the events in a Sports arena to affect their personal pride, their happiness, their self-confidence, and often their inhibitions in ways that would be unthinkable in other activities with similar personal involvement.
In America, Sports teams represent different cities and people tend to support the teams from where they live. Fans often weave their identities and their in-group loyalty to the place of their birth as if it had been their choice. The rationality behind this regionalism becomes far more confusing when you consider the nature of sports drafting. Sports players are traded and sold to the highest bidder, which creates a mixture on each team of players from all around the country, if not the globe. So although Eagles fans still cheer, “Go Philly”, in any given season it’s likely that most of the team is not from Pennsylvania. This placebo works; by calling the team “The Philadelphia Eagles” and picking where they practice, the regionalism is still activated enough in the fans to make them cheer for Philadelphia. This is highly irrational: what percentage of the Eagles would have to be from Korea or Miami before the fans realized that they have been duped into cheering for something that isn’t Philadelphia?
When I present these ideas to my friend Tony, an Eagles fan, he laughs from his bed in North Hollywood, throwing a football at the ceiling.
“I don’t care where the players are from, it’s not about that, it’s about Philadelphia having the best team possible.”
I disagree, “But if 95 percent of the team is from elsewhere that’s not Philadelphia anymore, dude.”
The criticisms ‘you just don’t get it’ and ‘it just doesn’t do it for you’ follow me everywhere in my discussions about sports. I have to remind people that I enjoy watching soccer, that I learned a lot about teamwork from playing it in high school, and that I shared the same displaced joy when NASA named the touchdown position of the Mars rover “Bradbury Landing”. I understand that sports don’t do it for me, I’m wondering, given their knowledge of the auction block of drafting, how it’s still “doing it” for anyone else.
Wrestling is rigged. Many wrestling fans realize this and are still willing to, without irony, shell out ticket prices and pack stadiums to see the WWE when they come to town, or sadly, pay to watch it from home. Wrestling fans often cite the same reasons for watching wrestling as others do for watching Sports; it’s a big to-do, it’s live, there is built-in anticipation, the players and fans get to work out aggression, there are in-groups and out-groups, incredible physical feats, hero stories, underdog successes, it’s a group activity, there’s alcohol, engaging victories and losses, fans become attached to the players, attractive women are paid to excite the fans, etc. But given its theatrics and staged finales many Sports fans consider professional wrestling “fake” and subsequently not worth their time.
Sports fan, if you have ever seen a stadium filled with die-hard wrestling fans, cheering at the stage, wasting their money, falling for it, then you must understand how many look at you.
In 1976, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a critical study about Basking in Reflected Glory. The study analyzed the behavior of football fans and determined that people tend to wear a team’s jersey and use “we” when the team is winning and that doing so is used to “enhance one’s public image” especially when the fan feels that it is threatened. The study concludes that a team’s loss affects the fan as if their own image were being tarnished, they react to a team’s failure like a personal failure. Likewise, fans tend to view a team’s victory as a cause for personal celebration.
Why is this not publicly condemned as a leap from otherwise rational minds? If we went out to see a Will Ferrell movie at no point would either of us say, “We were funny”, so why do we take no issue when people celebrate others’ sports victories? It wouldn’t matter if it were a family tradition or if Will Ferrell were from our hometown; we weren’t funny, because we had nothing to do with it. Celebrating a Sports victory is the equivalent of men watching pornography and then toasting to their success as lady-lovers. Why don’t we treat it like this? Likewise, if the movie wasn’t funny, why would we allow our friends to pull out their hair, post hateful rants on Facebook, or argue with a fan of another comedy movie?
All of this may be complicating an understanding of Sports fandom.
Here’s the real question: Are the effects that activities have on people their actual reasons for doing them?
If we watch a comedy, are we really just looking to laugh? Would it be fair to say that when we pick out a comedy over a drama, although we may not recognize it, that it’s because our brains want to laugh that night? If we watch dramas to feel moved, documentaries to feel informed, and thrillers to feel suspense, what conclusions can we draw about wanting to watch sports?
Identifying yourself as a fan of anything can inform others about your desires, but being a Sports fan reveals unique desires that many might rather keep quiet. Namely, the desire to blend into a group, the desire to regularly cheer for yourself, the need to release extraneous aggression, and the biggest outlier of all, the desire to bask in others’ glory.
It’s 10pm, you stand in a Grocery store checkout line as a girl in an oversized Oakland A’s Jersey and penciled eyebrows takes your card.
“How are you doing?” you ask.
“Not good, the A’s lost” she says.
“Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s no big deal, but my boyfriend’s a big fan and when they lose I’m always the one that gets the brunt of it.”
That isn’t her jersey, she’s working late to pay her bills, she’s just told you in passing that her boyfriend mistreats her for something that neither of them have anything to do with and this is commonplace for her.
How should you respond? Urge her to get out of the relationship? Find the boyfriend and share choice words with him? You decide to leave, sad and confused, and drive home to your girlfriend where she tells you,
“It’s not sports, that guy would act that way regardless. He’s just that type of guy.”
If there were no sports would these people still act this way?
Absolutely. Aggression far outdates modern sports and although this may sound damning to an argument against them, it confirms a lot. These men would act like this regardless. These men are just using sports as a vehicle for their aggression, all over the country, regardless of the team. They spend game days mutually releasing tension and hostility and they call it supporting their hometown. Likewise, when their team wins, they are imagining their involvement in its success and they feel glory that might otherwise be missing from their lives. These men are not cheering for a team, they are making up for their perceived inadequacies, and they buy and wear clothes that broadcast this everywhere they go.
Why might this behavior persist?
Sports fandom persists because it provides instant gratification and the men that propagate it are notoriously unapproachable. But telling a fan of Angry Birds that they are ‘wasting their time’ rarely feels like it will end in a fistfight. Could it be that we are less likely to tell a stranger that they are acting ridiculous when they are in the shape of a football fan? Of course. How less likely are we to demean the behavior of a Mixed Martial Arts supporter? Or a platoon of Marines?
Sports fans can become incensed by how strangers perform on television, who knows how they might respond to an actual slight?
Although the sports are nearly identical, a fan of Muay Thai Kickboxing has very different interests than a fan of Capoeira, the non-violent Brazilian martial art. Both fans are watching trained men kick at each other in a ring, but they watch them for very different reasons. Because of this, the largest difference between these two sports could be their audiences. People often say that they watch sports as an appreciation of physical feats (as if they watch an equal amount of Cirque Du Soleil), but fans actually seem to be drawn to sports to fulfill their inner desires; to Capoeira to admire human teamwork, and to kickboxing to watch a violent fight. Now: despite the similarities between these two sports, of their fans, which would you rather approach with dissent?
This is why aggressive sports are still among us.
A man spends his life imagining the incredible, fantasizing about a future on a distant planet, and years later the real scientists who have reached out to this place name the landing site after him. He has four daughters. Two months after his death imagine what this must have meant to them.
Why was I moved by this story, having nothing to do with the team of scientists or the Bradbury family? I didn’t even consider it until I realized how strange it sounded, but now I feel like I better understand myself. I think that I was moved because my brain seems to seek out reasons to feel awe, because I have always liked his stories, and because it inspires me that one person’s thoughts put to paper can help to actualize unparalleled human achievements.
Are these same emotions of joy and admiration felt in others when a team inevitably wins the playoffs? Yes.
No one’s appreciations are better than anyone else’s because people don’t choose what they are moved by (had I grown up in Tony’s neighborhood, I would definitely be an Eagles’ fan), but it does seem that we are encouraging the appreciation of segregating, instantly gratifying, falsely rewarding activities and asking that our children do so as well.
There are countless great things about Sports, they build communities, they create conversations in which many can partake, they have a long history of compelling stories of trials and triumphs, and they can provide hope for many. These side-effects can be incredible and I don’t wish to demean those experiences, but of all human activities for a culture to spend its time on, many of us are wondering ‘why does it have to be Sports?’
We spend billions of dollars on Sports, they are broadcasted on 24 hour news stations, they have the monopoly on Men spending time together, the kids in my neighborhood can tell you more Basketball statistics than actual statistics, and if you don’t like them people assume that you don’t understand them or you don’t have good reasons for it.
There are thousands of other pastimes that fulfill people with an equal time commitment like the actual playing of sports, camping, learning an instrument or a language (at the mention of these Tony suggests sarcastically, “Yeah, I could also work in a ****ing soup kitchen.”) that can engage your body and brain in the same ways that sports-fandom has and of which you can take genuine pride at no longer spending your life as a spectator.