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Go Red Sox! Science defends the fair-weather fan

  • A young Red Sox fan watches from the stands during a MLB playoff game between the Red Sox and the Houston Astros last year. AP file



Monitor staff
Monday, October 01, 2018

Are you excited about the Boston Red Sox and all the baseball-y stuff they do really well? I sure am!

There’s that guy who hits it a lot, he’s great, and those guys who throw it wicked fast, I love ‘em. And what about those people who run around and catch the ball? Woo hoo!

Yes sir, I’m a fan who bleeds Red Sox red, or whatever the team color is. And I’ll stay that way until they lose – in which case, go Astros!

As you can tell, I proudly bear a title the title of Fair-Weather Fan, a.k.a. the Bandwagon Jumper. I cheer for winners, whoever they may be, and ignore the losers even if they’re local, because science says that’s the best way to be a fan.

Yes, science. The most recent evidence came from the analysis of 3 million responses made by British soccer fans to an app that measured happiness. When correlated with the results of soccer matches the University of Sussex economists found the sadness that fans feel when their team wins loses is twice as great as the happiness they feel when it wins.

Being a sports fan is like spending your inheritance on lottery tickets: You’ll get a rare big win (Patriots 2002; U.S. hockey over USSR; that time your daughter’s basketball pass accidentally went through the hoop) but that will be overwhelmed by all the times you lose (Patriots 2008; Bruins 1971-2010 & 2012-who knows; every team I have ever been played on).

From an emotional point of view, being a sports fan is a fool’s game.

I already knew this, however. I learned it in college when I was foolish enough to be a Serious Fan, only to see my team fail spectacularly at the finish line once, twice, three times. Oh, the pain, the sorrow, the anguish!

When I finished beating my head against the wall I had to ask: Why am I doing this to myself?

Life is full of unavoidable sorrow, like my hairline or the spread of the Emerald ash borer. Only a fool would subject themselves to avoidable sorrow. Since then, I’ve flitted like a butterfly from team to team and been much the happier for it.

I get the pleasure of being a sports fan, watching incredibly skilled people do difficult tasks that I enjoy doing in unskilled ways and then talking about it with others, and I sidestep the existential sorrow that happens when Your Favorite Team fails. Win-win!

Okay, that’s not entirely true. There is one component of fandom that I miss out on: Community building.

Sports and games have been part of every human society that has ever existed, so obviously it fills some need. That need is the equivalent of chimpanzees grooming each other’s back hair: It is an easy method of affirming that we are part of the same social group.

If I say “How ‘bout them Celtics?” and you enthusiastically fist-bump, we both get a mild dopamine rush from the feeling that in the eternal struggle of Us vs. Them, we have found another member of “us.” Human beings are social animals who want to belong to groups, and sports fandom creates them.

People like me will never belong to such a group, even if I try to fake it while watching The Big Game, so we miss out on one form of deep, and very human, pleasure.

This is a fact that the University of Sussex study didn’t measure, and probably couldn’t measure. Being a sports fan can provide an underlying sense of belonging that is important to general happiness.

Other things provide that sense, such as patriotism or religious identity or political beliefs, but sports has less potential to become toxic. With rare exceptions (a 1969 war between El Salvador and Honduras spurred by a soccer match comes to mind). sports-fan identity doesn’t have the deadly consequences that many other forms of social identity can have.

So maybe non-fans like me have it wrong. Maybe it’s great that so many people tie part of their happiness to the actions of a few wealthy athletic strangers, because otherwise society would be ever nastier and less bearable than it is.

Maybe. All I know is that when the Sox fail to win the World Series, I’m going to be very glad that I’m not a Serious Fan.

Wait – did I said “fail”? No way, I didn’t mean it. The Red Sox are awesome. Go team!

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)