Hopelessly Devoted: Why We Watch Sports

We’re on break until after Labor Day. Meanwhile, please enjoy some of our favorite articles commissioned by outgoing editor in chief Caitlin Zaloom. Today’s selection was originally published on May 7, 2013.
Why do we invest so much energy and emotion in the apparently unimportant and irrational endeavor of sport fandom?

My father called me the other day to ask if I was in a good mood. The Mets were in first place, having triumphed in their season opener. These days Mets fan cherish even the briefest of moments on top. During the brighter era of the mid-eighties, my father, a trial lawyer, childhood Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and recent convert to the Mets, developed a new philosophy. He decided that the outcomes of his cases were directly tied to the Mets results. If they were winning games then he would win his case, and if they lost then it did not bode well. He did not harbor this belief in secret; he strongly encouraged his clients to root for them. And this philosophy stood him in surprisingly good stead through the late eighties. As the Mets slid downhill in the following decade, pragmatics forced him to put this philosophy, if not his allegiance, aside.

In The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, Eric Simons attempts—earnestly and enthusiastically—to explain such irrational behavior. He starts with his own. The book opens with a blow-by-blow account of Simons watching his alma mater football team, the University of California, play Oregon State. Cal is down three with seconds to go. A win would make them the top team in the nation and give them a spot in the Rose Bowl for the first time in over fifty years. The rookie quarterback needs to throw the ball away to set up the tying field goal and a chance to win in overtime. But, inexplicably, he chooses to scramble for the win, and he fails. After describing his sweat-stained, devastated ride home, Simons declares: “this sports experience was one of the most emotionally complicated moments of my life.” His surprise at himself—at the intensity of his reaction to something that is “just a game”—drives the inquiry of the book. Sports are precisely not matters of life and death. So why do we invest so much energy and emotion in the apparently unimportant and irrational endeavor of sport fandom? Why do humans watch sports? Why do we feel the way we feel when we watch? How can a game generate such intense and complex emotional and physical responses in us? Shouldn’t these responses be reserved for the things in life that “really matter”?

Sports are precisely not matters of life and death.  So why do we invest so much energy and emotion in the apparently unimportant and irrational endeavor of sport fandom?

The underlying premise of the book is that watching ourselves watch sports can help reveal something fundamental about ourselves as contradictory human creatures.  Simons gathers material from scholars, sports fans, and at-home experiments. He reviews a stunning range of research—in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology—on topics running from the hormone system, emotion, and motivation, to cultural cognition, schadenfreude, and theories of self deception. He hangs out with fans of Cleveland’s perennially losing teams, embeds himself in the up-at-dawn San Francisco branch of Arsenal’s international fan club, and trails after the fanatic fans at the heart of Raider Nation in order to find out how sports fans understand their own fandom. And he performs pseudo-scientific experiments on himself and his friends, such as monitoring testosterone levels through saliva samples before, during, and after watching hockey games.1 Spectatorship, in Simons’s hands, is not a topic for which there is a single explanation but a field for understanding how we come to care and invest value in apparently “unnecessary” activities.

Art history and cinema studies have long examined and theorized questions of spectatorship, but sports generally falls outside of this tradition’s scope. One exception is a glancing mention by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, when he uses the example of “a group of newspaper boys, leaning on their bikes, discussing the results of a cycle race” to claim common ground between cinematographic and sporting technologies, arguing that in the cases of both film and sport, “everyone watches the performances displayed as a semi-expert.”2 For Benjamin, the sports fan, in occupying the position of a semi-expert, gains a degree of authorship; the race, match, or game, then, is always the product of multiple authors. It is common property—a collective creation—and one generated from within common conditions of relations at a particular historical and technological moment. As the title indicates, Simons, on the other hand, is after “the science of sports obsession,” and the majority of the book rests on work from biology and psychology.3 His writing displays an evolutionary, universalizing cast. The book slowly scales up from the physiological to the psychological to the social. I found it delightful to read Simons’s synthesis of the research being done on the effects of winning and losing on brain chemistry, models of social dominance, kinesthetic empathy, and mirror neurons.

We learn about a fish boxing ring complete with spectator fish. Researchers collect urine from the spectator fish after each bout to determine if merely watching other fish fighting has an impact on the spectators’ testosterone levels.

We also learn about experiments that test which parts of the brain fire in athletes, fans, and novices as they watch sports. The motor cortex (the part of the brain that directs movement) activates in both athletes and serious fans (experts and expert watchers) when they watch.

Athletes’ brains go particularly nuts when a shot is missed—when early anticipation of the ball’s movement is the biggest advantage. But although the biology is entrancing, applied psychology and neuroscience do not—as of yet—provide truly satisfactory explanations for why people care about sports. While a test can prove that watching competitions impacts testosterone levels, we do not know enough about what a rise or fall in testosterone level means to understand definitively what we know from the test. Simons reminds us, “You can’t generalize behavior or hormonal changes onto one person, you can’t predict the way a person will respond to a game without understanding all the ways the game matters to them.”

So how do we explain something like the commitment to almost guaranteed misery on the part of those fans who root for perennially losing teams? Simons chooses Cleveland fans as his example, but it could be any team, really. Team sports are organized around an inescapable fact: at the end of every season, every team loses except one. And that winning team will most likely lose the following year. Being a sports fan would seem to be a regular practice in heartbreak. Which is to say, being a sports fan has something to do with love. Simons reaches back to Socrates to unearth an old but still useful definition of love, one with parallels in contemporary research. The notion of a “social prosthetic system,” as advanced by behavioral scientist Stephen Rosslyn, is this:  individuals build up their identities by placing pieces of themselves into people and things that they care about, “à la Voldemort.” These practices of self-expansion are our bid for immortality. We care about sports teams, then, because (or when) we choose to lodge key parts of ourselves in them and to build core pieces of our identity around them. Humans are motivated to expand themselves, this causal logic goes, and watching sports is one way we can do this. We cannot understand sports fandom by measuring win/loss ratios, because most of the value and the pleasure lie in the risks and rewards of the ongoing relationship. And, as in addiction and romantic love, this relationship requires relinquishing control. In watching, we choose to put ourselves in situations that are out of our hands. We choose to be swept away by feeling.

Throughout, Simons emphasizes the complexity of the push-pull between our involuntary physiological responses and our psychological capacities to control, seek out, avoid, and regulate what we respond to. He drives home the point that both our physiological and psychological responses to sports (and to all other things) depend, to some degree, on how much we care about them, and he eventually settles on the group as the best site for explaining how we come to care about sports in the first place. The final third of the book turns to the collective, or, as Simons describes it, tribal, aspects of sport fandom. For this, he lays out the fierce debates between psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and anthropologists regarding what motivates humans to cooperate to form and maintain groups. While his final emphasis on groups and crowds is a solid place to land, there is an uncomfortable slippage between the “I” and the “we” when he follows his final conclusion that “control and overriding our nature are,  in fact, our nature” with a list of examples of individuals (and one group) making overt choices about their forms of fandom. The methodological individualism inherent in most of the disciplines on which he depends makes it difficult for him to follow through on his own logic, that we are fundamentally relational creatures.

The real pleasure of the book (and it was a true pleasure to read) lies in the way Simons goes wholeheartedly after things that we honestly do not understand about ourselves, but his desire throughout to say something of consequence about human nature sometimes leads him to play fast and loose with evolutionary logics, and to make sweeping claims that undercut the careful work of his argument for complexity.4 When he argues in the introduction that “sports fandom is a uniquely human endeavor that offers a surprising window into the emotional, rational, and irrational behaviors that have always made us what we are,” I am strongly compelled by his case for sport as a window into our behavior, but frustrated by his final rhetorical gesture. What gets lost in his desire to declare watching sports in Ancient Greece and Rome equivalent to watching sports today? Where is the acknowledgement that historical conditions make the terms of personhood (or humanness) and thus sports and sports fandom quite different from one time period to another? Simons focuses on NFL football, NHL hockey, NBA basketball, and Premier League football (soccer), three of the “big four” US professional sports and the world’s top revenue football league. These sports leagues are mired in the social, economic, and political histories of their times, and they are fundamentally organized by the 20th-century revolution in communications technology. Try to imagine what professional play and spectatorship of these sports would look like without television. Both the bodies and lives of these athletes, as well as the forms of fandom, would look fundamentally different without mass media.

The book also reads as a boy’s story. No fans of female athletes or women’s sports teams appear, and there are few accounts of the female spectator beyond a passing discussion of the difference in hormone release for those with and without testes. There is no accounting for queer spectatorship, let alone the possible queerness of spectatorship.5 This is in part because the mass-media team sports in this country are overwhelmingly male dominated. It is also because the motivation for the book was Simons’s desire to understand something about himself. He openly wants to redeem the straight Caucasian male sports fan by separating him from the image of fandom as imagined and promoted by advertising: the beer-guzzling, fast-car–driving, woman-chasing, bar-fighting hulk of a man. Treating gender casually, though, is a mistake. Despite the best intentions, a description of sports as dominated by men both on the field and in the stands repeats and naturalizes the error. Although the number of female athletes has risen exponentially in the past four decades, in 2009 women’s sports got just 1.6% of the total airtime given to all sports on network news and ESPN Sportcenter, down dramatically from its (still dismal) all-time high of 8.7% in 1999.6 The market logic that presumes men are more natural sports fans is both self-perpetuating and tautological.

For years I have told a story about my dad introducing me to the Mets when I was five years old and turning me into a devoted follower. In my mind, he had taught me to love his team. In my sports fandom, I was my father’s daughter. My memory fits the available narrative: fathers training their children to take up their own sporting devotions. It was only in the process of writing this review that I learned I had the story all wrong. As my dad recounted the trials he won while practicing Mets witchcraft, I stopped him to ask why he had developed this philosophy specifically in 1985. Were the Mets not good enough to warrant such faith before?  “For some reason that summer, when you were five, we were in the car and we would listen to games on the radio—there were two really great announcers at the time—and you just got fascinated. You learned everything you could about the game. And I became a Mets fan because of you.”  Sports fandom can demonstrate the full range of shapes our intimate and agonistic connections to others can take, if we let it. icon

  1. I particularly enjoyed what appears to be a wink in the title to the 1970s classic, The Secret Life of Plants, a text generally dismissed as pseudoscience by biologists, which argues that plants respond not just to the physical but also to the mental or emotional conditions of their environments. Simons understands that the ways different fields structure their questions (how they delimit what is and is not acceptable to ask), in turn structures the answers they do (and do not) produce.
  2. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, translated by J. A. Underwood (Penguin, 2008), p. 22. Benjamin goes on to note that the owners of the newspapers cleverly sponsor competitions that the boys compete in, motivating them all to ride well by creating the promise that some small number of them might just make the leap from bike boy to competitive cyclist. If we go along with Benjamin’s comparison of sport and cinema here, we could ask why cinema studies has developed such as strong tradition within academia, while sports studies has been, for the most part, sidelined.
  3. In the thick of the book I found myself wondering what the implications might be for the particular pool of test subjects that many of the studies, particularly in psychology, seem to depend on. Using the average American or European college student to make claims about the way all humans behave seems like something of a tricky business. One of the rewarding results of Simons reading and interviewing across so many fields (and scales of study) is that he is able, on multiple occasions, to step back and emphasize some of the broader challenges of scientific research. As he notes, this sort of science depends on and even requires extrapolation. It is not a small task to name something as a definite cause or consequence of an action or a behavior. And it is done more often and with more authority than is warranted because of the current political economy of most of the sciences, which leaves researchers dependent on grant funding to not only pay for their lab costs but often also for their base salary.
  4. The evolutionary lens should not be surprising since Simons’s first book, Darwin Slept Here, is the story of his trek through South America following in the footsteps of Darwin.
  5. It seems like queer theory might be exactly where to turn for theories that model relations of care, intimacy, and erotics outside of normative categories.
  6. Jaeah Lee and Maya Dusenberry, “Charts: The State of Women’s Athletics, 40 Years After Title IX,” Mother Jones, June 22, 2012.
Featured image: Je vous offre ces poissons ... et mon coeur.