Why sports fans are the way they are

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at wendygparker@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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Before the World Cup began, Simon Kuper of The Financial Times summarized some recent research on what drives sports fans to their obsessions. For many of them, what he discovered might as well have come from the d’oh files:

“The key finding that’s emerging: for most fans, fandom isn’t chiefly about winning, or even particularly about football itself. Rather, it’s about community.”

Indeed, the psychology of fandom goes far beyond results:

“Being a fan also connects you to your own past. In life, everything changes: you grow up, and people divorce, move away and die. Only your football team is for ever. The England team in 2014, for instance, is still recognisably the same animal as the England team of 1954. Football allows you to be eight years old again.”

The Secret Lives of Sports FansHere’s the full story, “Fandom — It’s Bigger Than Football,” from Kuper, who is the co-author of “Soccernomics,” which alludes to some of these research insights.

Last year, American writer Eric Simons took a scientific approach to cracking this what makes sports nuts tick in “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsessions.” He opens with a personal tale: The wrenching agony of watching his beloved Cal Bears lose a football game to Oregon State, and especially the fateful final seconds as he watched the Beavers prevail:

“In those ten seconds my hormone system blew up. My brain blew up. Nuerons fired away like gangbusters in the brain centers for empathy, action, language, pride, identity, self, reward, relationships, love, addiction, perception, pain and happiness. If you’ve seen these images at the end of heartbreaking games, where the fan is standing there with his hands on his head and his mouth yawning — or if you’ve been that fan — you know that it feels like all this stuff is frothing around on the inside trying to beat its way out of your body like an alien chest-burster.”

He wrote the book to understand himself, and his own reaction to sporting events, particularly those with a deep emotional investment. Simons calls this a “species-level design flaw,” as he explains to Megan Gambino of Smithsonian.com:

“The urge is so powerful that even when we know that this leads to a lot of bad consequences, still we stick around.”

This might explain any kind of obsession, but as Simons claims on a New Books in Psychology podcast, “we sports fans are glorious expressions of all the wondrous quirks and oddities of human nature.”

So embrace the quirkiness.

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