Posts Tagged ‘fans’

“If you make every game a life-and-death thing, you’re going to have problems. You’ll be dead a lot.” ~Dean Smith

The other day, I sat in class discussing the importance of victory in a sports match. The group was composed of a variety of athletes and fans and we all had different answers to one question. At what cost does a victory come? Although answers varied, we all agreed that what starts out as a game when we were children quickly becomes more as we get older. Though still young in college, suddenly sports has become about making money. The game, at times, becomes a life or death matter.

Putting so much stock into, what should just be a game may seem silly to people who are not sports fans; on the contrary, the outcome of the game is incredibly important to the morale of a team’s fans. Psychologists have long been fascinated by figuring out why fans act and feel the way they do at athletic events. But let’s step back in time for a moment.

Humans are tribal creatures and thus, our desire to be connected to a group is embedded into our DNA. Back in the day, tribes rallied around warriors and war games. In fact, games and early sports (like jousting and polo) were often played in order to rally villagers around their nobility or for marriage ties to be decided between two noble families. So you see, sports have always acted as some kind of glue for communities.

These days, fans gather in the thousands to watch a single game and to rally around a particular team. And all kinds of things can happen at these meetings. Inter-fan violence occurs in the forms of brawls and riots and fans collectively lose their voices cheering loudly for their team, amongst other things. As fellow sports followers, I’m sure we can all attest to watching some strange display of fan-dom during a game.

Psychologists have been studying the phenomenon of fan-dom and have discovered that ties to a certain team run deep. To all of you who have ever said, “But it’s just a game” when your friend comes home dejected following a loss, I’m here to tell you that fans actually experience physiological and hormonal changes along with their teams.

A study in Georgia found that male testosterone levels actually rise up to 20% following a win, while testosterone levels plummet by rates of up to 27% following a loss. We’ve also already discussed the “us vs. them” ideology- which explains why fans identify with their team after a win (“We won”) and draw away after a loss (“They lost”).

Charles Hillman, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, even discovered that highly zealous fans’ arousal rates rise. These arousal rates are similar to those attributed to seeing erotic photos or seeing images of animal attacks. Edward Hirt, from Indiana University adds to this finding. He discovered that both male and female fans were more optimistic about their sex appeal after a victory.

However, perhaps the most appealing part about sports fan-dom is the escapism factor. Watching a really good game (especially one in which your team is winning) seems to be akin to getting lost in an exciting movie or compelling book. For a few hours, fans can escape the drudgery of their own lives. They also find a sense of belonging amongst the thousands of fellow fans. In fact, according to a study done by the University of Kansas, ardent sports fans actually have lower levels of depression and alienation than do non-sports fans.

A lot more is surely to be found in this niche field of fan psychology, and after all, this was only a basic primer. However, I know I will be thinking about this research when I go sit amongst my fellow fans when the Ducks play Stanford today. It’s just college and it’s just a game, but maybe it really isn’t that simple.

“The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.” ~Dwight D. Eisenhower


Yesterday, I spent an hour watching a variety of homemade Oregon Duck anthems, from the famous “I Love My Ducks” to “Eugene Lean” to the very latest. It then started occurring to me what power a team has over an entire fan base. Victories and defeats really can pull us apart or bring us together. In fact, sports psychology has proven the whole “we” vs. “them” ideology for both good and bad times in a team.

Have you ever noticed that when our team is winning, we say, “Oh, we did so well against Tennessee last week.” But if they’re losing we ask, “Ugh why didn’t he make that pass? That would’ve saved them in the 3rd quarter!” This brings me to an even more specific point- If football has that kind of power over our language, what kind of power does it have over our psyche in general? Even further, does it draw parallels to other types of human activity?

Sports psychology, and psychology in general has always fascinated me. I wish there was a sports psychology program at the University of Oregon. Alas, getting back on track, let me ask you this question: Is football a substitute for war?
Now before you adamantly nod or shake your head one way or another, consider this- much of football’s language stems from war terms: blitz, bombs, and flanks. Play strategies are often configured the way war strategies are and vice versa. The rules of football today are like the rules of wars of old- clearcut, easy to understand, and with a clear winner after only a few hours of play.

In the last decade or so, wars have gotten much more complex. We’re finally out of Iraq but we’re onto Afghanistan. A whole generation of American children will have been born into these wars, with no knowledge of what peacetime America is like. Contrarily, Americans are tired of reading about and paying attention to our conflicts overseas. Our attention span is short, which is why it’s so easy to simply sit down to watch our favorite team play football.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion over this controversy. Frank Deford, dubbed as the “the greatest sportswriter of all time” by GQ, recently ruffled feathers by suggesting that fans are ignoring the increasing violence in the NFL. He was not the first person to compare football to war. He explains that football today is much more violent than any of our other sports, but that it fits into our very violent culture- from music to television to sports, we are a culture that thrives on watching people hurt one another.

Deford explains, “And for all the beautiful excitement in football — the kickoff returns, the long touchdown passes — the one constant is the hitting. We very much enjoy watching football players hit one another. That makes the highlight reel.”

The next day, war and peace columnist Paul Pillar of The National Interest responded with a firm agreement. He presented the idea that as wars got less conclusive, football became more so. He also discussed the fact that each week coaches focus on one opponent at a time and that each game’s goal is clearly about victory. Everyone participating and watching the game is clear about why they’re doing it.

Next week, we’ll go into further discussion about sports fans and about the “us vs. them” thinking that traps many of us. But for now, I want to hear from you- do you agree or disagree with this argument? At what point does the outcome mean more than the game itself, and what parallels does it draw to modern day conflict?