TCS Daily

Root Causes

By Michael Rosen - October 15, 2004 12:00 AM

For the typical sports fan, there comes a moment at the end of the season when his favorite team's championship hopes are cruelly snuffed out. All but the lucky few fans suffer every season, some impassively, others tragically.

My moment arrived a few weeks ago when, for the fifth year in a row, my beloved, star-crossed Oakland Athletics faltered in early October. Fans of the Minnesota Twins, Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Atlanta Braves endured a similar fate earlier this week when their teams were unceremoniously dispatched from baseball's playoffs.

To be sure, not every losing season ends in disappointment. The San Diego Padres failed to reach the playoffs, but won 87 games (23 more than last year), drew over three million fans (a team record) to their sparkling new ballpark, and remained in the pennant hunt until the final weekend of the season. And many people are simply "fans of the game" who enjoy the aesthetic beauty of sport, the rush of competition, and the grace under fire of athletes thriving under adverse conditions.

Still, a majority of teams -- and their fans -- experience either crushing late-season defeat or a year-long sleepwalk that ranges from mediocrity to utter humiliation.

And all this suffering begs a nagging question: why do we root for our favorite sports teams when they achieve the ultimate success -- a world championship -- so infrequently? Are the rare but transcendent highs worth the steady, predictable lows? And is supporting a team ultimately a healthy, productive endeavor or a dangerous, pathological one?

Several pioneering psychologists of sport fan behavior have grappled with these questions to good effect. In particular, Miami University of Ohio has established a department for exactly such research. Its leading scholars suggest several reasons for why we root, many of them tinged with negativity.

One theory is that humans like to place themselves into in-groups and out-groups. People gravitate toward an us-versus-them mentality and the feeling of excluding those in the out-group can be as rewarding as a sense of inclusion in the in-group. As the famous psychological study undertaken at Stanford University showed, even arbitrary groupings into "prisoners" and "guards" can take hold rather quickly and powerfully. So too, sport fans simply enjoy the categorization and sorting functions that rooting for a team provides.

According to another hypothesis, supporting a favorite team offers the opportunity to "bask in reflected glory" (BIRG) and, on the flipside, to "cut off reflected failure" (CORF). The BIRGing and CORFing sports fan famously describes his team's victory as an instance where "We won!" but bemoans and dissociates a defeat as "They lost, the bums!" This mechanism appears to offer him (note that the reference to masculine fans is more than mere convenience: several studies have concluded that in general men attach themselves to sports teams far more tenaciously than women) the best of both worlds: a boost to self-esteem in victory and a mocking detachment from loss.

Yet another theory holds that truly dedicated sport fans eschew CORFing for a total assimilation of the team into their own social identity Under this principle, the supporter adopts the team as his own even during defeat and attributes a loss not to the team's performance but to sinister external forces like poor officiating, the other team's cheating, or bad weather. Such a fan's personal happiness and success is truly buffeted by the winds of his team's performance.

This close identification with the team can give rise to another manifestation of team support: "deindividuation". This typically occurs in large groups where individual identities become totally subsumed by the group's persona. In the stadium context, the fan's personal inhibitions come unhinged as he, along with the crowd of like-minded supporters, hurls invective, beer, and/or batteries at opposing players, fans, and/or umpires. Alcohol contributes heavily to this phenomenon, of course, and according to some studies, violence at sporting events occurs more frequently between rival groups of fans than within them.

Yet all of these theories, which tend to highlight the darker aspects of sporting fandom, omit one simple, important, and salutary factor: geography.

Many fans of competitive sports teams adopt their favorite squads based on geographic location. For some, this is simply a matter of convenience: why not support the team whose games they can attend in person most easily? But for many others, root-root-rooting for the home team is an expression of deep-seated pride of place. The team becomes an embodiment of the fan's city which, in turn, is transformed into an extension of the fan.

Perhaps this geographic theory stems from a rudimentary and healthy form of patriotism. After all, the Olympic Games were designed in part to sublimate -- pardon the psychological jargon -- violent patriotic urges into peaceful ones. In the Olympics, countries struggle for dominance on the ballfield, not the battlefield. It is perfectly acceptable to unabashedly support one's nation precisely because the stakes are lower: victory yields pride, not conquest; defeat spells embarrassment, not bloodshed.

But the Olympics take place for only a few weeks every other year. And sustaining excitement about one's own country, as large as it is, can be taxing. Instead, we turn to smaller geographic areas -- our cities or metropolitan areas -- to inspire a kind of local patriotism, a more manageable and intimate unit of identification.

These allegiances are often quite narrow and parochial. In New York, Long Islanders tend to support the Mets (baseball), Jets (football), and Islanders (hockey) while Bronx and Manhattan residents root for the Yankees, Giants, and Rangers. In Chicago, the northern suburbs love the Cubs while South Siders live and die with the White Sox. And in the Bay Area, San Franciscans root for the Giants (baseball) and Forty-Niners (football) while East Bay resident tend to support the Athletics and Raiders. Of course, different cleavages cut across geographic lines as well but support for a team tends to reflect love of and pride in one's neighborhood.

In this sense, then, rooting for a sports team offers useful psychological benefits. It provides an outlet for expressing sentiments that might otherwise lead to turf wars. It inspires a kind of civic spirit and unity within a region. And it allows us to connect to something larger than our individual selves but smaller than the broad -- although obviously important -- allegiance we bear to our country. When our team wins, we can rejoice with our city. And, more frequently, when our team falters, we can take comfort in those around us

To be sure, the geography theory of rooting is riddled with exceptions. I count among my friends supporters of the Red Sox, Pistons, and Cowboys who have spent little or no time living in Boston, Detroit, or Dallas.

For some, there are family connections to distant locales that offer a nostalgic opportunity for fandom. Then there are others like my father, who grew up in Brooklyn cheering on the Dodgers but, when he migrated to the Bay Area, adopted the local Giants -- the Dodgers' traditional and fierce rivals -- as a favorite team.

Finally, there's the emergence of Internet-based fantasy leagues where keyboard "coaches" or "managers" draft players from a given league onto their own squads and follow their exploits throughout the season. These post-modern teams, crafted as extensions of the coaches themselves, are anything but geographic yet they nevertheless inspire intense loyalty and no small amount of trash-talking.

Geography, then, isn't necessarily destiny. Other theories of sport fan psychology shed revealing light on why we subject ourselves to suffering on behalf of filthy rich athletes. But a healthy local patriotism goes a long way toward explaining the causes of our rooting behavior.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego. He thanks Michael Winick for his thoughtful contributions to this article.


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