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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, July 26, 2014

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"Fan," as we all know, is derived from "fanatic." But what is a fanatic?
"Fan," as we all know, is derived from "fanatic." But what is a fanatic? (Photo: David Bernacchi)

Getting inside the minds of sports fans will make you go crazy

What is it about a game that makes us go crazy?

Case in point: Even with a commanding 6 ½ game lead in the National League Central, Brewers fans had pinned all of their hopes on salvaging just one final contest from the Phillies after having lost the previous three last weekend. After Sunday's thrilling victory, it seemed as if the weight of the world – or at least the weight of Miller Park – had lifted from the collective psyche of Southeastern Wisconsin.

Social media is an incredible advancement. Athletes can connect with fans; entertainers can announce their latest projects; journalists can break stories as soon as they happen. But one thing that social media also allows for are the ledge-jumpers to come out of the woodwork.

Either via Twitter or Facebook, Brewers fans conditioned for the worst honestly believed that their team would squander the lead they had spent the previous month building. Never mind that the Brewers had the best one-month stretch in their history following the All-Star break; never mind that the Cardinals had all but given up until they finally got their act together a couple of weeks ago. The sky was falling, and so it seemed, were some fans' lives.

"The Brewers will be lucky to win 10 games in September," one Facebook user wrote.

"Here we go again ... another September swoon!" another Tweeted.

"Glad I didn't lay out all that cash for games that won't be played in October!" yet another fan wrote as his status.

"Fan," as we all know, is derived from "fanatic." But what is a fanatic? Can you be a fanatic and never have painted your team's colors on your body? Can you be a fanatic and not have named your pet Miller, Curly, Vince, or Prince? Can you be a fanatic and not have an alter ego based around your favorite sports team?

In soccer, fans riot violently with each other on a regular basis, and have for generations. It has such a history that "football hooliganism" has its own (very, very detailed) Wikipedia entry. After the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins, there was widespread mayhem in the downtown streets of Vancouver where there was millions of dollars in damages reported.

You know fandom has gotten out of control when Canadians start rioting.

University of Miami (Ohio) psychology professor Dr. Allen McConnell wrote two years ago in the magazine "The Social Self" what is known as BIRGing, or Basking In Reflected Glory:

In psychology, the phenomenon of Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRGing) helps to explain how the performance of one's favorite sports team can change one's sense of self-worth. Specifically, people will symbolically associate themselves with others, such as sports teams, in order that their successes rub off on themselves, increasing one's own self-esteem.

By wearing a sports team uniform, attending their games, or watching them on television, the team's successes becomes the fan's successes, and as a result, wins on the field translate into bolstered self-esteem.

Interestingly, some of the best evidence for BIRGing actually come from experiments involving success (or failure) of one's college football teams. In one study by Bob Cialdini and his colleagues, the clothing choices of college students at several universities (e.g., Arizona State, Ohio State, Univ. of Southern California) on Monday mornings following football game Saturdays were monitored.

On Mondays after the university's football team won their football game, students were more likely to wear university-related apparel (e.g., shirts, sweatshirts associated with the university) than on Mondays following losses (63 percent vs. 44 percent).

Perhaps even more interesting, in another study conducted by these researchers, students were contacted following football games and asked to describe the game that took part over the weekend. When their university's team won, the students were far more likely to use first-person constructions (e.g., "WE played great") than following losses. In other words, people tried to "own their team's victories" by describing wins in the first person, symbolically linking themselves to the victory.

In other words, for the true die-hards, when the Brewers strand runners in scoring position, they didn't fail, we failed. If the Packers lose, we lost.

Dr. Edward R. Hirt, associate professor of psychology at Indiana University (and self-ascribed sports nut) has studied the links between sports fandom and behavior for years. Among his findings when studying 150 University of Wisconsin basketball fans, most felt better about even their sex appeal after the team they are rooting for wins. After their team lost, those same people studied – of both genders – were much more pessimistic about completing even the simplest of tasks, including getting a date.

Getting back to today, what is fascinating to me is the pessimism surrounding the Brewers. Yes, they got swept by the Cardinals and lost three out of four to the Phillies. But what of the incredible August they had? Baseball is a game of averages and streaks. All streaks – good and bad – come to an end. Between July 26 and August 26, the Brewers went 25-5. In terms of winning percentage, that's a whopping .833. For a team to win at that clip the entire season, one would have to win 135 games.

Except in rare instances, every team in baseball, from first place to last, will win between 40-60 percent of their games. Even for first place teams like the Brewers and Diamondbacks, that's still a lot of losing. But that's baseball. During the 162-game regular season era, the record for the most wins in one year belongs to the 2001 Seattle Mariners. They won a whopping 116 games. But as great as they were, they still lost 46 times, never mind not even getting to the World Series. In October, nothing is a given.

My point to all of this is simple. The Brewers wrapped up the division weeks ago. Time simply is not on the side of the Cardinals. It's too little, too late. When the Brewers go into their little funks like they did in their series against St. Louis and Philadelphia, they weren't blowing the division; they were simply obeying the laws of averages; and thus, the laws of baseball.

I realize that Milwaukeeans are not used to having our sports teams succeed. Aside from the Packers, Milwaukee has only seen three major sports championships in our history: the 1957 Braves, the 1971 Bucks, and the 1977 Marquette Warriors. Unless you are over 40, you don't remember any of these titles and you so desperately want to be able to say "I remember when..." to your grandchildren.

But there is no sense in cursing every loss because that is one of the inevitabilities in life after death and taxes. Sports are supposed to be fun; distractions from our everyday lives, yet so many fans have taken to fearing the worst as if our lives depended on it. This is a magic carpet ride that we have all been taken on by Ron Roenicke's crew. But losses are going to happen. They are just little pockets of turbulence, that's all. As I have said over and over again, you should just relax and enjoy the ride.

This is supposed to be fun, after all.

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