Football is a rough game—as a profession and as a pastime. It’s a game of titans, of hard knocks, of long spiraling passes that are watched with breath held, and of stadiums erupting into rapturous glee. It’s a game of men (and women), of beer and barbecue served off a tailgate. It’s a game of passion and anger and fans so devoted they will curse friend and foe when the going gets tough and the tough can’t get their quarterback to complete a pass. I was thinking about this on Labor Day weekend as I sat in a CU parking lot—with trash and bitterness surrounding me. The game had been a cruel one. New seasons mean fresh starts, but this was rotten. For a moment, I wondered how we would recover—not CU, not Buff football, not Coach Hawkins, but us—the fans.
Just hours prior, a group of us had gathered to prepare ourselves for a Buff victory, which we do several times a season. The boys—being boys and all—happily shouted “muttonchops” at passing cars that sported CSU’s green and gold. We wore a smattering of Buff paraphernalia and clutched cans of Coors Light. We lounged under and around a canopy marked with the familiar outline of a buffalo. You could say we were happy and ready for some football.
But then, the game happened. It’s really better that we skip the details.
We exited Folsom Field in shame, internally flipping the bird to every passing CSU fan, and playing Monday-morning quarterback before the clock ran out and officially ended the Sunday night trouncing. By the time we reached the car, my stepbrother Jason had vowed to never love a football team again. “I’m just done with this, man,” he said, with real anger in his voice.
“I’m just not gonna do it any more.”
* * *
I’m sure we’ll all be back. I’m sure those season tickets will be renewed for seasons to come. I’m sure Jason will put that Buff pullover sweater-vest he found at Savers back on and head back into that glorious stadium with a whole new outlook on the offensive line. It’s part of sports, right?
Well, according to sports psychologists, it might be more than an inherent love of the game that motivates us as fans. It’s part of our identity and our ego.
“There’s something primal at work when the crowd erupts as the two rivals take the field. There’s something tribal at work during the ensuing hours of passion, all in response to the ups and downs of a mere ball,” psychology author and professor David Myers said. “Our ancestors, living in a world where neighboring tribes occasionally raided and pillaged one another’s camps, knew that there was safety in solidarity. …Whether hunting, defending, or attacking, 10 hands were better than two. …To identify us and them, our ancestors—not so far removed from today’s rabid fans—dressed or painted themselves in group-specific costumes and colors.”
Fans are not just motivated by their connection with their beer-drinking, Sports Center-worshiping tribe. It seems that we often become engrossed in high school (at least in Texas), professional or college sports because they serve as a distracter from the everyday, according to Carole Lieberman, a California psychiatrist on the Clinical Faculty of UCLA.
“What drives fans is their unconscious identification with ‘their’ team or favorite player,” she said. “The fan lives vicariously through the victories and defeats, making up for the lack of victories in his (or her) own real life.”
Jim Taylor is a sports psychologist who received his PhD at CU. The Buffs, he theorizes, have fewer rabid fans than their Big 12 counterparts—mostly because there are more activities in Boulder than just football and less need to revolve one’s life around a sport. Still, fandom is not saved for Norman, Okla., and fanaticism is not only for teams with winning records.
“Otherwise, why would anyone be a Chicago Cubs fan?” he said.
Sometimes, he says, the honor is found in the struggle and a fan can often rationalize a losing game or record so that they don’t feel like a loser themselves.
“Fans delude themselves about the ability of the team. That delusion grows with each losing game,” Taylor said. “You hear excuses. You hear, ‘They have injuries’ or ‘They had some bad breaks’ or ‘The refs made a bad call.’ But they maintain their belief that the team is good.
“The excuses give them a sense of control,” he continued. “They say, ‘If I would have been in charge, we would have gone for the first down.’”
And what ultimately keeps us going—despite the disappointment, the taunting and those damn muttonchops—is the pursuit of the win. That game against Texas, we think, that’s going to be the one, that’s going to be different.
“It’s all about hope,” Taylor said.
But hope can take a fan only so far. There is such a thing as hitting the bottom in the wild world of sports. Loss after loss, the team may become so devalued that the fan can not identify with the team or the group.
“You can no longer distance yourself from those losses,” Taylor said. “There’s a judgment made that the team is no longer good enough.”
So, have we hit bottom? Not yet. We—Jason and I and the whole gang—are still looking for the next win. Maybe the playmakers will make the right plays and the offense will find their flow and…as Taylor says, it’s all about hope.