Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Are You A Fan Or A Fanatic?

January 24, 2005

Yea team! Most spectator sports are a positive, healthy expression of energy and involvement. The entertainment is sedentary and social. It is a part of our cultural conversation and helps unify a community. Studies have shown that watching TV sports is a relaxing form of entertainment.

We all need obsessions or passions - things we care about. Hobbies, collections and specialized areas of interest add to life. These activities can be rewarding as leisure, recreation and creative outlets. They bring welcome relief from the main preoccupations and stressors of life. Sports entertainment is one such outlet.

Fanatics. All things taken to an extreme can become problems. Some fans go into major funks after their team loses. Some explode into violent binges when their wins. Some fans egg on the players with crude language or flying objects. Some players, as we have witnessed recently, are more than ready to retaliate.

Diehard fans continue their obsession into the off-season with critical analysis of what needs to happen to improve the team. Or they live and breathe their own fantasy team which becomes more important than the exploits of the real teams on the field. Or they play sport video games. Or perhaps they follow multiple teams and shift to a new sport and new season to carry them through.

Why do fans paint their faces with team colors and logos? Why do they put cheese on their heads? Why do they wear dog masks to games, wear silver and black regalia or throw ice balls or flashlight batteries at players? The word "fan" is derived from the word "fanatic."

Basking in Reflected Glory. Psychologists Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University and Ed Hart at Indiana University have studied the nature of hard core fans. Sports can take on too much significance in peoples lives. Too much of their identity and how they feel about themselves depends of how well their team does.

Psychologists call this "Basking in Reflected Glory." Cialdini found that fans used the plural pronoun "we" after a hometown victory. After a victory, college students wore significantly more insignias, jackets, caps and jerseys of their team on Mondays than if the team lost.

Hart studied the effects of victory and defeat on students watching Indiana University basketball games in the laboratory setting. If their team lost, they didn't do as well on many intellectual, motor skills and social tasks. Their self-esteem and assessment of their abilities dropped.

Fan loyalty. Hart identifies another effect - "Cutting Off Reflected Failure." Identifying with a team who disappoints year after year is too painful - unless you have been a fan of the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs. Fan support dwindles because fans don't want to identify with failure. However, when expectations are high and the hometown team fails to perform, then fans feel frustrated and vent their anger.

Owners move franchises from city to city while players with free agency can follow big money. It is harder and harder to identify with players when the cast doesn't remain the same. Big business in professional sports cuts teams off from their fan support.

Local teams and college teams. At the local level, a team's performance can carry a lot of emotional freight. Personal and community pride are on the line. Bonding with local players who stay put is easier. Adverse events on the field or court feel like a personal slap in the face. It is not a game anymore. It is a reflection of them.

When people don't have a rewarding balance in life - job, family life, hobbies, spiritual life or social connection - team and community identities are incorporated into personal identity. Games mean more.

Games also mean more when economic conditions are poor. Winning sports teams become more important in locales where personal prospects are dim. A winning team is a message to the community that people living there are competitive and as good as anybody else.

Poor sportsmanship. The lower the self esteem of some community and/or particular parents, the poorer the sportsmanship displayed at the games. Winning means too much and the opposing team's players and officials are seen as real enemies.

A friend observes that the poorest sports he knows are high school athletes who couldn't cut it in college athletics. They play community sports or pickup games with great intensity and become fanatical fans. They continue to search for a taste of the glory that was almost theirs.

As parents, they live vicariously through their child's accomplishments and team's victories. Their children's success is their success. They become the overzealous parents who get on the coaches and umpires with great passion and outrage.

Roman rulers understood this. They provided games to placate the masses and take their minds off their own dissatisfactions. Today also we have an abundance of games to take our minds off our modern day troubles. Numerous sport channels on TV help fans endlessly relive the joy of victory and the agony of defeat.

Here's one solution to keep yourself from slipping from being a fan to being a fanatic. In the astute words of a Pittsburgh Steeler fan dressed in a football helmet and German short pants yelling to a sidewalk preacher decrying the excesses of modem day sports, "Get a life!"

Not bad advice, considering the source. Games shouldn't mean that much.