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Sports Crazed: Fanatacism part of our culture

Experts say loyalty to sports teams is more societal than psychological

Posted: August 18, 2014 10:16 p.m.
Updated: August 18, 2014 10:16 p.m.

Sports fanaticism can often bring out the most unusual superstitions and behavior.

 

There are few singular moments that can send two groups of people at the same place spiraling into opposite extremes of the emotional spectrum.

But in sports, this phenomenon happens nearly every day in stadiums and arenas across the country.

When Alabama lined up to attempt a game-winning field goal at the end of the 2013 Iron Bowl, thousands of onlookers collectively held their breath.

When the ball went fluttering through the night sky, only to be caught by Auburn’s Chris Davis and returned more than 100 yards for the game-winning touchdowns, the majority of the stadium erupted in cheers.

Another segment of the stadium, though, the Alabama fans, were distraught.

It’s an emotional response driven by the actions of others.

“In many ways it seems almost unique to sport,” says Long Beach State University assistant professor of sports psychology, Tiffanye Vargas, of situations where individuals are so emotionally invested in something they have no control over.

“You look at those Budweiser commercials (where fans show off their superstitions) and they’re funny,” she adds. “But they’re funny because they’re true.”

What makes average men and women dress up in their favorite team’s attire? What makes those same people, often typical in everyday situations, turn into obsessive-compulsive individuals with any number of odd sports-related quirks?

“I think in many ways ‘control’ is a good word. Anecdotally, when I was an athlete I didn’t have any crazy superstitions, but it was under my control,” Vargas says. “As a fan, I have a ridiculous amount of superstitions because that’s what I can control. It’s my way of helping and contributing.”

A lot of it has to do with our human inability to separate ourselves from the teams we follow.

Fans can often be heard referring to their team with the collective pronoun, ‘We.’

It feels natural.

“Say you have a brother, and someone insults your brother,” says Ashley Samson, sports psychologist and assistant professor at California State University Northridge. “You’re going to get mad because that’s your brother. He’s attached to you.”

That sense of attachment, though, can also open fans up to some negative side effects.

Research suggests that fans on the winning side of a big game can see a testosterone boost.

Unfortunately, that can also lead to over aggression — something that has been seen many times.

We’ve all seen the images outside Staples Center after Shaq and Kobe won any of their NBA titles — chaos in the streets.

According to Everyday Health, a Duke University study suggested that sports fans tend to be “more extroverted and gregarious than other men, which can sometimes lead to overexcitement and even violence.”

Vargas suggests another possible reason for fan violence, though.

“I actually think that’s less of a brain issue and more of a sociological issue,” she says. “If you look throughout the country, it’s become a mob mentality. The Midwest has that nasty tendency to riot after wins and losses, but you look at a city like San Antonio and it’s the same thing. Everyone outside, but there’s no riot, no real harm. That might just be the mentality of that particular area.”

The fanaticism also provides a sense of belonging that is difficult to find elsewhere.

“What you’re seeing is the level of behavior and in many ways is wanting to belong,” Vargas says. “It’s an automatic culture and as we look at the friends we choose, we choose other people we’re happy with and people we share things in common with. In many ways sports will provide that.”

Does that make it all worth it?

At last year’s CIF-Southern Section Northern Division championship game, the Santa Clarita Valley was split.

Hart took on Valencia for the crown, and in front of a packed house, the Indians came out on top.

But both fan bases entered Valencia High School’s football stadium knowing there was a possibility they would leave disappointed.

It’s the same at all levels of sport.

Take the Cleveland Browns fan base for example.

The team has never won a Super Bowl, yet its fans are among the most fervent in the league.

“In (the Browns) case that identity is probably stronger,” Vargas says. “At this point we can probably separate the band wagon jumpers and the lifetime fans. In general, the lifelong fans are much more willing, because that’s the core of who they are. They can be proud of the way they are still a fan, even when their team is losing.”

At first glance, there may not be much upside to sports fanaticism.

There’s pregame stress and anxiety within every contest. But there’s one important aspect that keeps bringing fans back: hope.

“Even if your team is losing all the time, you’re still going to want to go to every game,” Sampson said. “It’s that element of hope. Maybe this time we’re going to do it.”

And the brain isn’t going to let a sports fan forget that anytime soon.

So they watch, they often times pray, and in the end, they remain fanatics.

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