Of sports fanaticism and hero worship...

My attempt at psychoanalysis...kind of got off track about halfway through and took a different direction than what I originally planned...oh well.

Being a sports fan is such a strange phenomenon.  Now, I’m not talking about those that have a casual interest in sports….who like to catch a game on TV or even in person every once in a while for the entertainment and the opportunity to socialize.

I’m talking about people (like me) who are true sports fanatics.  Those of us who devote a significant amount of our time, our mental and emotional capital to following players that we’ll never know and teams that will never be members of.  Those of us for whom our team’s or favorite player’s successes and failures become our own. Those of us like Nick Hornby, the writer who so deftly chronicled his fanaticism for the English soccer team Arsenal in his book Fever Pitch

I often think about my sports fandom at this time of year…when football teams are heading off to training camps, basketball season is drawing closer, and the grand slam season in golf and tennis is in full swing.  What is it about sports that make people like me become so addicted? 

While there are certainly many factors that contribute to sports fanaticism, I think two factors trump all the others.

First, compared to “real-life,” sports are so simple.  After a few hours (or days) of battle on a field, court, or course there are clear winners and losers.  Success and failure is easy to judge.  Very few places in our lives will you find such simplicity.  In our jobs, friendships, and relationships, things are rarely so clear cut.  So in essence, we become sports fanatics because it offers us what we all yearn for…an outlet for our emotions.  And more importantly, an outlet that is mostly void of contradictions and confusion.  If your team wins…you get excited, happy, exhilarated.  If your team loses…you get angry, sad, depressed.  The dictates of sport tell us how to react…we don’t have to figure it out ourselves.  We don’t have to decide if the promotion at work is cause for celebration…or cause for trepidation at the increased responsibility.  There are no mixed emotions in sport.

Second, while the simplicity of sport appeals to us and draws us in…there has to be a reason so many of us stay and become so attached to our chosen teams and players.  Remember, these are people we have never and will never meet.  Some of them are immature college kids and some are multi-millionaires.  None of them care about us the way we do about them.  Why do we spend so much time reading articles, watching inane preview shows, even attending practices, and agonizing over games?  Certainly there are better ways to use our times and talents.  I often wonder what I could do to help the world if I could transfer just a small percentage of the passion and commitment I have for my favorite sports teams and players to meaningful causes (and this will be one of my foremost goals this coming year…curb, by just a little bit, my sports addiction…guess you can call it a mid-year’s resolution).

Why how does something so objectively unimportant become so important to us?

My answer is…not only do we associate ourselves so closely with our favorite teams that we feel we are part of the organization…we actually become one with them.  In other words, if I’m a zealous fan of the Orlando Magic…what happens to them, happens to me.  Similarly, if I’m a zealous fan of Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods, those individuals become part of who I am.  This melding of ourselves with our sports heroes helps explain why we are often able to overlook our heroes’ personal flaws.  All sports fanatics, at some point in their life as a fan, root for athletes that have made mistakes in their personal lives.  Be it running afoul of the law, cheating on their wives, or even cheating in their competitions.  While this may seem strange to non-fanatics, that we can root for people that do wrong, it’s relatively easy to justify.  We’re not rooting for the people that committed bad deeds…we’re rooting for the holograms of them that show up on the field…and we’re rooting for something that we have completely internalized.

I chose to use Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong specifically because they are recent examples of sports heroes that have fallen from the good graces of many.  I’m a huge Tiger fan…I have been since I was about 11 years old when I watched a teenaged Tiger win his first U.S. Amateur at Sawgrass.  Then came two more amateur titles and one of the most dominating performances I’ve ever seen at the ’97 Masters.  From then on I was hooked.  As a teen, I even adopted his trademark wardrobe (red shirts, black pants) as my own (yes…this is actually true…the proof is in my closet).  Even though I didn’t know him personally, I saw in him all the sports qualities I wish I had…the immense talent, incredible focus, and superhuman competitive drive.  His personal life was never of my concern.  I became Tiger Woods the athlete…not Tiger Woods the person.  So, when his personal life went afoul last year, I was saddened…but my status as a fan did not waver.  I still root for the qualities in Tiger that I so desired from the very beginning.  I am still Tiger Woods (the athlete) and I would like nothing more than for him (and by extension me) to get back to dominating golf like he used to.

Lance Armstrong is even more of a hero to many than Tiger was because of his amazing back story.  A young athlete stricken by cancer in his prime…seemingly days from death…who miraculously battled back to not only beat cancer, but win perhaps the most daunting test of endurance in sports, the Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times.  Who could help but admire and internalize Lance’s fortitude, courage, and strength?  While his battle with cancer was part of his personal life…it became a huge part of who he was as an athlete.  Now, there are reports that federal investigators are closing in on Lance for alleged doping.  While this is certainly a more damning accusation in relation to his sport than were Tiger’s personal misdeeds, you can rest assured that Lance’s legions of loyal fans will stand by him every step of the way.  Even if there is irrefutable proof that Lance cheated his sport…they will either refuse to believe it or simply not care.  The reason is simple…they are Lance Armstrong and it’s easy to overlook one’s own mistakes and overweight one’s own accomplishments.

I think these two recent examples, and how I and other sports fans have reacted to them, are indicative of how seamlessly we become one with our sports heroes.  I chose stars from individual sports rather than team sports as examples, but the connection with member of our favorite teams is no less strong.  Think Michael JordanRay Lewis, and John Terry (Chelsea FC) as just a few examples of star team sport athletes who had significant failings in their personal lives.

And, while I readily admit that we sports fanatics have our faults…namely that we tremendously overvalue the importance of the contests and competitions that we are compelled to watch and become irrationally attached to teams and athletes…I think in the case of being able to accept our heroes flaws, we actually get it right.  While many casual fans are quick to trash fallen heroes and revel in their failings, we continue to appreciate them for what they are…flawed individuals that have amazing talents on the playing field, but are completely human in their everyday lives.  We have no illusions that our heroes are perfect human beings.

Those that became casual fans of Tiger, Lance, MJ, and countless others because they believed they led perfect lives are rightfully disappointed.  But, those of us that worshipped them only as sports heroes are not disappointed in the least.  Because they’ve given us more than we could ever ask for…the chance to experience vicariously through them the incredible thrills of competitive accomplishment that we otherwise never could. 

And that is why we keep watching.  Why, for better or worse, we continue to make sport such an irreplaceable part of our lives…

(Of course…that we as a society have such time and effort to devote to trivialities such as sport speaks volumes…both good and bad.  But that’s a story for another time…)