Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Psychology of Sports Fans, Vol. I

[In which I place on my philosopher, rather than comedian, hat. First posted last night at Mile High Report, now archived here. I strongly suggest you also read "The Philosophy of Sports Fans," a lengthy and thoughtful continuation of the questions raised herein, written over at MHR by poster styg50.]

I count myself under the "rabid, tending to dysfunctional due to extreme emotional attachment" brand of sports fans. I watch spring training and preseason games, whether on TV or on Gamecast. (My plans for Saturday night consist of: Get pizza. Watch Broncos game. Heckle the Cowboys even though they can't hear me through the TV screen. Make unimaginative cracks about Jessica Simpson. Yell at Jay to throw the ball to the open guy in blue (or orange, as the case may be). You get the idea). I read every stats sheet in existence. I check an average of five or six different sites a day, five or six times, for news on my teams. My evening is planned around how I can check on the games in progress -- or avoid them, if they are currently too painful to be endured. (This April, I went to a big dance party at college. During breaks on the sidelines, I was constantly texting MLBscores to keep updated on the progress of the Rockies game). I am happy if the team wins, and feel as if life is all a sham and should be disallowed in the (sadly all too common) event that my teams get their behind handed to them on a platter. This is a routine that likely sounds very familiar to all of you, since I'm sure all of us have similarly proudly displayed our lack of social skills and bizarre emotional swings all having to do with a bunch of guys in matching colors.

This can make you do strange things. As an example, I work at Starbucks, and today a guy came in wearing a raiders hat. My first impulse was to ignore him, or pretend to throw holy water on him, or make more cracks about Al Davis. (Earlier this year, I recounted my triumphant encounter with a raiders fan while leaving the Rockies game, in which wit wasn't even needed to outmaneuver the poltroon -- just a simple stating of his team's crappy record). Of course, it is my job to be nice to the guy, so I just took my sweet time finishing the drink I was working on and eventually got around to him, where I was very nice indeed. So nice he might have suspected something was up. So nice that I certainly didn't spit in his drink or anything... (As a matter of fact, to be perfectly honest, I didn't. Mainly because he didn't GET one. Nope, he just stood there with a bagel, one bagel, for me to ring up. And couldn't have gone somewhere else. Nope, needed the bagel. One bagel. Right then, raiders fan). And the guy wasn't even wearing a chargers hat. I wonder what I might have done if that was the case. (Although a kid did come in wearing a chargers shirt a while ago. I decided not to tell him that his choice of football allegiance sucked harder than Phyllis on dollar drinks night. Being as poor as I am, I can take no chances with losing my job).

I'm a psychology student and a chronic overthinker in addition to a sports fan, which of course got me wondering. I had never met this guy in my life. I am sure he was a perfectly ordinary fellow, but the colors which he had chosen to brand himself immediately sparked a "that guy has gotta be a dipshit, oh god" reaction in me. We have the choice of following, or not following, a team that wears some assortment of colors and throws some shape of ball around. We don't play the games, we don't manage the team (at least in reality, as we do our best armchair-jockeying). We don't pay the salaries (although we grumble at how much money we blow on them with so little results). We don't even write the newspaper coverage of them. (Although we should, since I swear to God your average fan at MHR could do a better job than some of the hacks in the press boxes. But that is another diary which has already been written and not by me...) Is it a primal emotional thing, to glorify in Us stomping on their heads? Do we identify ourselves with the players or as their followers? And for heaven's sake, why does it absolutely ruin an otherwise perfectly acceptable evening when we don't cross home plate more times/make more three-pointers/shoot the puck in the net more times/throw the ovoid to the guy in the end zone more times? There is enough insanity going on in the world, so is that the precise reason sports evoke such a response in us -- we know it's not Darfur or Russia/Georgia, but dammit, it DOES matter that the guy didn't aim right in getting the ball through the yellow uprights. People make a lot of money on this crap. Or lose a lot of emotional stability, as the case may be.

I get philosophical about sports, especially when my teams lose. (Since I am a diehard Rockies fan, I have this experience frequently). The more I think about it, it just doesn't entirely make sense. And then I go to the stadium on a summer night, have a dog and a drink, settle down, watch the opening video montage, and feel like, "Hell yeah! These are my guys! We're awesome! We rule! We kick butt! Hell yeah!" (And then this does not usually happen). Not your deepest emotional reaction, but no one would deny that it is deep. It does matter. Good luck explaining to your non-sports-crazy significant other that yes, the reason you want to put a paper bag on your head and die is because the one guy hit the ball three inches too far to the right for the game-ending double play instead of the game-winning single. Yes. That is the reason. And yes, you are an infidel because you don't get it. Wait, you have a life? Well, screw you.

(Interlude while I watch Michael Phelps win his record-tying seventh gold medal in his most exciting race since the 4x100 freestyle relay. Same thing goes here. Aside from the fact that Phelps is probably from another planet, he is from the USA, so I root for him. My sister and I leapt off the couch and roared when he somehow got in first. This at least has somewhat more sense in the fact that that's where I'm from, so national solidarity.... so.... state solidarity? Is it that we decide this particular group represents us, so we come together in a unity show? Is it the old pack mentality? Since we are from one place, we are better than you from another place?)

If I can get away with it during the course of my cognitive psychology Ph.D (still a few years off) I would like to be able to trick the department into letting me study if being a sports fan appeals to something in primal human nature. We all jump off the couch, pound our chests, and shout like cavemen when Jay threads the needle with a pass to a double-teamed Marshall in the endzone who somehow pulls it down... we don't waste time on analyzing why we are doing what we are doing, we just know that it feels good and HAHAHAHA EAT IT CHARGERS EAT IT HAHAHAHA. This is not particularly intellectual stuff. No one thinks that being a sports fan will save the world, but sometimes it does. Or at least our world. Maybe the whole rest of the day sucked, but at least the boys won, so we can deal with it. Or maybe you read a feel-good story about a dying kid getting to meet their favorite athlete. Or you have a get-together with your friends and talk about sports, it's something you can connect with. (MHR fulfills this role).

So, my question to you all is this. What makes us sports fans, and what keeps us there through the bad parts? I don't think that any of us would doubt that what we feel for these guys, these moments, these teams -- none of whom we've ever met unless we're stupidly lucky, none of whom we know aside from soundbites provided to the paper, yet who we watch devotedly every day or every Sunday -- is real love. And yet we put up with so much crap from them, like boneheaded passes into double coverage in the endzone that Marshall doesn't catch, but which instead get picked and run back for a touchdown. They break our hearts. They do stupid things like signing Kip Wells and failing to have a run defense capable of stopping a paper bag blowing in the wind. But we stick. They become a part of us.

And why, in chicken-pickin' hell, is this the case? Would we all be happier if we had the answer? Or would it really not matter? A lot of us start watching teams because we live in a certain geographic location, or because our parents did, or because of total accidents. And then we start obsessing. And then it generally goes badly. But hey, there we are, sitting with teeth clenched through one more five-run inning or three-and-out drive. And if we're bona fides we come back for more pain. And curse existence. And do it again, so we really have no excuses.

In short, I am watching the Rockies play the Nationals, a few games removed from a disastrous 3-7 homestand in which the Nats were responsible for 3 of these losses. But watching them anyway since they are my team. And waiting for the Broncos game to start, as I have all day. Despite the fact that it is preseason. Despite the fact that it is against the Cowboys, who schooled us in preseason last year (I tell myself that this will be an interesting opportunity to judge progress. For Pete's sake, I had to watch the entirety of the Colts/Redskins Hall of Fame Game to get my football fix. I want to see what the defense looks like, how sharp Cutler is, how well Clady matches up against DeMarcus Ware this week after drawing Mario Williams last week. I will probably be posting updates on the affair over at MHR. My name is Hilary and I have a sports problem, but at least I own up to it freely. There are far worse things to be obsessing about).

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