Imagine an avid sports fan in the throes of a nail-biter. With seconds left in the tight game, the jersey-wearing fan jumps up from the couch, muscles tensed, and barks some final orders to the athletes. A desperate “Run the ball!” or “Shoot the three!”
But, what is going on inside the fervent fan’s body? Blood pressure rises, no doubt. What else? What is happening in the brain, and how are hormone levels changing?
In his new book, The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, San Francisco-based journalist Eric Simons discusses the biology and psychology of sports fandom. The zealous admirer of hockey and football tries to get to the bottom of a question he and other sports fans often wonder: Why am I so hooked?
You call sports fandom a “species-level design flaw.” Can you explain?
I follow very closely the San Jose Sharks and the UC Berkeley football team. I care very deeply about the outcome [of their games]. But, then I think about all the things that are just horrible about me loving these teams. With hockey, I don’t think anybody can look at all the concussion stuff—same with football—and feel like you are anything other than a Roman paying at the Colosseum to watch people kill each other. It is kind of sick. College football may be the worst of all, and I love college football. They are not even getting paid to destroy themselves. This is ruinous to their bodies. That’s not even mentioning all of the incredibly horrible things that athletic departments do, fighting over money with the academic side of things, for example. I question the entire enterprise.
Then, you look at how many people in the world are sports fans, and you have to think that this is not something that can be overcome just by saying, “Well, but this is bad. We should stop doing it.” That is part of what interests me so much. The urge is so powerful that even when we know that this leads to a lot of bad consequences, still we stick around.
Speaking of sticking around, what is the strongest evidence to explain why sports fans continue to be loyal fans to teams, even when there are no rewards in it for them?
That’s the problem. There is a reward, even if it often doesn’t feel like it. The book is kind of a confirmation for human beings of the primacy and importance of interpersonal relationships and love. There is a lot of really cool science coming out of psychology labs about how our brains perceive relationships and how they operate with relationships. The way that relationships work, your brain often has trouble distinguishing between you and the other person.
In the case of sports, there is compelling evidence that this is basically a real relationship in your brain. In a very real sense, the sports team becomes a part of you. You just feel like whatever success it achieves is a personal success, and whatever failure it has is a personal failure. You can’t cut the team off without cutting off a part of yourself. Even if the team is losing, you have so much of yourself wrapped up in it that you can’t just walk away. To do so is to give up on a part of yourself.
How would you describe yourself as a sports fan?