Well, it is that time of the year again. The big football sports game is coming up, and we’re all going to spend the day eating fried-things, placing small and unnecessary bets, and rooting against the team we hate least. Yes, that’s right. With the New England Red, White, and Bluers versus the Philadelphia Bird Men, there are a lot of people not necessarily caring about which team wins, so long as it is the team they hate less than the other team. So, its like voting for President, except with less trash-talk.
Now admittedly, we here at the NYRD are nerds, through and through. That does not mean that we don’t understand football, or hockey, or baseball, or badminton, just that we don’t really care. Yet, maybe that uninterested outsiders perspective is just what “real” sports fans need. So, -for once- we are ready to talk football, and not simply just about the commercials.
Sports Rivalries are Dumb
We are from New York, which means we are the home of the New York Average-Sized-Large-Men, and the New York Fast Moving Airplanes. Yes, we are lucky enough to have two football teams along with two or three hockey teams, two baseball teams, one or two basketball teams, -Depending what you consider the Nets to be- a soccer team, and even a lacrosse team. All those teams have rivalries: the NY Bankees hate the Boston Red Stockings, the NY Walker Texas Rangers hate the NJ Satan-Men, etc. So our question is, why? Why is it just as fun to hate other teams as it is to love your own.
According to Art Markman, the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, three things are necessary for a rivalry: Similarity, Frequency, and Parity. Take for example the NY Average-Sized-Large Men (ASLM) and their rivalry with the Philadelphia Bird Men. They are similar, because Philly and New York are major cities in the East and belong to the same football conference. That also means they play each other frequently, and they are on somewhat of an equal footing with one another. At least, in the general sense, there is enough equality of skill to keep games interesting. Yet, this year the ASLM did not make it to the Big Game, while the Bird Men did. So naturally the fans of the ASLM are rooting against the Bird Men to win… but to us that seems a bit dumb.
After all, Philly and NYC are less than 100 miles away form each other, two-hours by car. They have similar values, people, and they even both have a strange hold over New Jersey. If anything Philly and NYC are more alike than Boston and their team, the Red, White, and Bluers. It is even extremely likely that fans of the ASLM are friend with fans of the Bird Men. So why won’t they root for one another? After all, don’t you want your friends to be happy? Don’t you care about their need for whatever-sort-of-spiritual fulfillment socially-adjusted-people get from their sports team winning? Alas, sports rivalries don’t work like that. If anything similarity and friendship only seem to drive them more.
Go Team Sports Jersey!
Another odd predilection of sports fans is that so often it feels as if they are just rooting for a piece of cloth over the actual players. If Huge McSportsmaster is on our team, he is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but the second he gets traded to wearing a green shirt instead of our beloved blue shirt than he is dead to us. “We don’t care if he is skilled and talented and deserving all of the admiration and praise his physical prowess deserves, because he is wearing green instead of blue… So, booo.”
In a way, a team’s jersey seems to be the most sacred cloth one can behold. It is held up above the players, above the coaches, and even above the beer. Disrespecting the jersey seems almost as bad as taking a knee during the National Anthem. If you’re wearing it you are one of us. If you are not wearing it, well then you deserved to be jeered at and threatened with physical violence in the parking lot, or in the stadium’s bathrooms. This seems to be because, wearing your team’s jersey makes people feel a part of something larger. As if by putting on the jersey or cheering for the athletes on the field a fan feels as if they are actually contributing to the winning success of a team. Perhaps the same also applies when deriding fans of other teams.
It is an odd thing to behold as an outsider to this culture. We will perhaps enjoy dressing up as our favorite Star Wars characters or Star Trek characters at conventions, but we do not necessarily take pleasure in shouting down or insulting people in opposing costumes or wearing opposing fandom. In the end a comic convention, regardless of what one is wearing, is about sharing your passions with one another. We would hope a football game could be similar, where people of different regions and teams could come together to eat nachos, drink carbonated beverages, and enjoy the company other people who share their passions, even if they are not precisely dressed in the same attire. However, we also understand that there is a difference between the fulfillment one gets out of being a part of a football team, and the fulfillment one gets out of going to a comic convention.
Running with the Pack(ers)
Did you ever talk with a fan of a team like the Philadelphia Bird Men or the New England Red, White, and Bluers? When talking about the accomplishments of their team they often talk using the word “We:” “We did really great this year,” “I can’t believe we fumbled that pass,” “We got benched for three days with a concussion,” etc. Well, part of that goes to the root of team sports culture in general. We once again turn back to Art Markham, for an examination of this phenomena.
According to the professor, “Family traditions and sports rivalries play two important roles in our lives. They connect us to our past, and they help us to create the family that sustains us in our future.” In essence, sports pride and rivalries are like ancestral traditions passed on through the generations. People cling to their teams in much the same way that they cling to the way their family celebrates Christmas, or goes to the beach every summer, or has pasta Thursdays. Being a fan of the New England Red, White, and Bluers, or the New York ASLM, or the Philly Bird Men, is tradition and it fills a part of a person’s subconscious need to be a part of a familial group, whether that be your own family, or the guy sitting across from you at the bar wearing that very same jersey.
Markham goes on to say that, “When a rivalry disappears, though, it is a real loss. It disconnects us from our past and affects our relationships into the future.” That is because we -as imperfect humans- tend to define ourselves and our groups against the groups we are not. Now, we’ve spent a good part of this article calling “sports rivalries dumb,” but they are actually natural extensions of our need for tribal definition. The truth is that rivalries and sports traditions can actually help the well-being of fans, “Because blood relatives often live far apart, we all need some way to replace that connection that family provides. Those transcendent moments in sports where an entire stadium erupts in cheers create at least a fleeting sense of membership in a larger community.”
The Professional Football League knows this, -just as we know they will sue us if we use any of their copyrighted names or football phrases- and they do their best to keep rivalries in the same divisions and put games with rival football teams in prime time sports. Rivalry is good for their business, because ultimately it gives people something to cheer for and something to cheer against. So, we may not still fully get it, but we do understand it. So we hope you sports fans out there will forgive us for taking good-natured pot-shots at the concept of sports rivalries, but we know that football fans can take it. After all, its nothing as harsh as anything a rival team’s fan would yell to you in a parking lot.
Anyway, pass the fried food and turn on the commercials… err football game.