What is it about sports that makes an otherwise civilized, respectful person suddenly act like a jerk?
That’s the question raised in a research paper by Cal State University, San Marcos marketing professor Vassilis Dalakas. He studied the disturbing reaction some Cleveland, Ohio, residents had to the death of Art Modell, who as team owner in 1996 moved their beloved Browns to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens. “Enjoy your ride to HELL you SOB!” one fan wrote at the end of the 2012 ESPN story about Modell’s death. “You stole what wasn’t yours!”
“Buh bye Modell scum,” another person wrote. “Glad you’re dead.”
Dalakas, 45, a Greek immigrant who moved to the United States in 1990, had studied the behavior of hard-core sport fans before but still was surprised at the extent of the vitriol.
“I knew that we take sports seriously, but I wanted to see the extent,” he said about why used the Browns fans’ comments as the basis for his study. “I know there’s a line that could or could not be crossed, and never before has it been looked at in the context of somebody’s death.”
Aggressive behavior from die-hard fans is nothing new. Fans have shot, stabbed, beaten and even run over people who support opposing teams. Most tragically, 39 soccer people died in 1985 in a Brussels stadium after they were crushed against a wall while fleeing fans from an opposing team.
Dalakas’ research, which was conducted with professor Joanna Melancon from Western Kentucky University and former CSUSM student Tarah Sreboth, focused not on violent behavior or joy in a rival’s defeat, but on the taboo of mocking somebody’s death.
The paper, “A Qualitative Inquiry on Schadenfreude by Sport Fans,” will be published next month in the Journal of Sport Behavior.
Schadenfreude is a German term for taking pleasure at a rival’s misfortune, which some Cleveland residents experienced Sept. 6, 2012, the day Modell died.
The research paper broke down the 233 ESPN reader comments into three categories. One category, “Schadenfreud intensified,” contained the ugliest posts and represented 42 percent of the comments. Of those, about 10 percent openly celebrated Modell’s death.
“There is a special place for you,” one fan wrote. “Burn baby Burn!”
About 19 percent of comments curbed their anger, with some saying they were not dancing on his grave, but hadn’t forgiven or forgotten what he did.
About 39 percent of comments disapproved of showing schadenfreude, and one person requested ESPN shut down the comments page.
“No man deserves this,” the person wrote.
Only about 6 percent of comments expressed forgiveness for Modell.
In academic terms, Dalakas wrote that “highly identified fans engage in biased processing of information, even in the presence of objective facts and arguments.”
In other words, die-hard fans who otherwise may be smart and responsible people make dumb decisions and behave like jerks when it comes to their teams.
In earlier studies, Dalakas found that die-hard NASCAR fans patronized the sponsors of their favorite driver, even if they knew their products were inferior. And they refused to buy products from sponsors of rival drivers.
As an alumnus of the University of Oregon, Dalakas can identify. He was crushed when the Ducks lost to Ohio State in the national college football championship game and he vowed never to use UPS again after the company tweeted congratulations to the Buckeyes.
While the ugly comments about Modell’s death were disturbing and tasteless, Dalakas said they were otherwise harmless. He does wonder, however, if the comments could escalate to action.
“If it gives so much joy for their rival to feel pain, at what point does someone take it upon themselves to inflict the pain?” he said.
As examples, Dalakas recalled the beating of a San Francisco Giants fan by two Los Angeles Dodgers fans in 2011 and the University of Alabama fan who poisoned two historic oak trees on the campus of Auburn University after a Crimson Tide loss — and then bragged about it on a sports radio show.
“Clearly, this is a minority, but it is worth investigating the extent die-hard fans will go,” he said.
Dalakas said sport franchises should keep fans’ potential behavior in mind and consider restricting alcohol sales at games and monitoring social media sites for comments that are inappropriate or may incite violence
He also said teams should be respectful when doing promotions that could encourage poor behavior.
“I feel sports teams have to be very, very cautious about how they build team loyalty,” he said.
In local examples of that type of poor behavior, a former San Diego State University student reportedly posted on Twitter insensitive comments about University of New Mexico basketball coach Craig Neal’s son after he was hospitalized for an appendectomy last year.
In recent weeks, a University of Las Vegas fan reportedly tweeted ugly comments about a University of New Mexico basketball player whose mother has cancer.
Aztecs Athletics assistant media relations director Darin Wong said such behavior is not typical of the comments left on the school’s social media sites.
The SDSU Athletics Department has a Twitter account and Facebook page, and the Aztec football team also has its own Facebook page. Wong said in the two years he’s been involved with social media at the university, he does not remember having to delete many inappropriate comments.
The operators of the accounts post information about their teams but steer away from taking jabs at opponents or negative comments.
“It’s all about sportsmanship,” he said. ‘It’s just professional courtesy.”
Dalakas said studying how die-hard fans can lose their humanity has resulted in him keeping his emotions more in check on game day.
“In a game when a rival player goes down, my first instinct is to cheer that,” he said. “But now, from studying this, I have that extra filter. OK, be passionate about the team you love, but don’t lose your humanity. At the end of the day, it’s just a game.”
Throughout the world, the way people feel about sports spans a wide range. Let’s start with what we know about the non-sports side of the spectrum—
To non-sports fans, caring about sports makes no sense.
If you’re a sports fan, here’s how non-sports fans view your love of your team:
A bunch of strangers in their 20s and 30s are paid to play games against each other that have no real world consequences, and you’ve decided that you care a ton about this. There are teams that must win and teams that must lose, and players that must play better than other players—and this is all critical.
Meanwhile, the players that must play well sometimes get traded to the teams that must lose, and now you want those players to play badly. In fact, the only thing you’re really rooting for is a certain set of jerseys, regardless of who happens to be wearing them.
Then there’s the fact that as you follow your team that must win, almost every season ends with them losing, leaving your face looking like this:
Then, every 30 years or so, this team you so badly want to win actually wins! 30 years and thousands of hours of time and dedication and finally, the ultimate goal is achieved—and then what happens? Some major change in your life? No, you go stand on the street and yell things, and then people start rioting, which makes no sense because they’re happy.
Then you spend a few days reading articles about the great victory, buy a t-shirt, and go on with your life. That’s it. That’s what it was all for.
Like I said, it’s an odd phenomenon.
And yet, one of the few things nearly every country in the world has in common is sports fandom. When something is both odd and universal, there’s gotta be something deeper going on.
As a big sports fan from a city full of frightening sports fan lunatics (Boston), I feel the need to take a shot at getting to the bottom of this.
Why sports fans are sports fans
Sports are entertaining, for the following reasons:
→There’s high drama.
Because so many people are paying attention, and because what happens will be remembered for a long time, the stakes are actually high for the athletes you’re watching, which creates drama.
This is the same phenomenon that made American Idol such a big hit—it was precisely the fact that it was such a big hit that created the drama that made it entertaining.
Of course, then there are also many people who find sports genuinely entertaining to watch themselves—they enjoy watching an Arena Football game, or a minor league baseball game, or a high level pickup basketball game, because they just like watching sports, even without the stakes or drama. But I think most sports fans need the high-stakes component to feel fully engaged.
→It’s fun to watch greatness.
Humans have a fascination with freakish greatness, no matter what the skill is. Sports is a great place to watch people who are in the best .001% at something do what they’re great at, against other .001% people. Meanwhile, you—who are in like the best 73% at that thing—get to sit on your fat couch and judge them. It’s fun. Speaking of which—
→It taps into our creepy side that wants to sit in the ancient Roman Coliseum and watch people fight to the death.
You can deny it all you want, but part of you wants to do this. And sitting there on your couch, there’s some schadenfreude happening as you watch people sprinting around in the freezing cold or searing heat, getting smashed in the face, and possibly embarrassing themselves and destroying their dreams in front of 20,000,000 people. “Play for me—do your best,” you think, as you feed yourself a chip.
→It’s aesthetically pleasing.
This is a huge appeal of many of the Olympic sports, and it’s part of the reason it’s fun to watch a person as smooth and athletically blessed as LeBron James play.
Sports bonds you to other people.
→On a micro level, it brings family and friends together.
A lot of people get together with friends to watch sports in times they otherwise might not see them, and I know no fewer than eight guys whose primary talking point with their fathers is sports. Sports isn’t replacing other, more worthwhile topics of conversation between those sons and fathers, it’s just adding a level of closeness that would not be there without it.
→On a macro level, it gives the greater community another thing to bond over.
There aren’t too many times in life you can celebrate something with complete strangers and feel an emotional connection with your community as a whole. People love this feeling—that’s why Christmas songs make everyone happy. When they play in public all December, it’s like we’re all in holiday mode together.
The best example of community bonding euphoria is an end-of-war celebration:
But since six-year collective struggles that finally end in sweet victory don’t happen very often, sports gives us another way to do this.
The key is that sports creates an “us versus them” structure, which allows people to be part of a collective “us,” where the us can triumph or fail all together. In tribal times, the concept of “us versus them” was highly pronounced in a tangible way—today, especially in huge countries, it’s not. Sports is an artificial way to bring some more collective “us” into our lives…
→…which is the only reason that my list of life experiences includes the time I cuddled with a big, scary, mean man I never spoke to before or since.
Try coming up with another circumstance under which that man and I would squeeze each other tenderly and blissfully in a moment of pure innocent joy—good luck.
→Sports can give two people who would otherwise be horribly awkward together something to talk about.
The sports world includes a lot of gossip.
Sports fans have a morbid fascination with the off-field drama of famous athletes in the same way people are captivated by the lives of movie stars.
Sports provides an escape from life.
→Life is a self-centered thing, and sports is often a nice place to focus when you’re sick of your own issues. Especially on days when your life sucks.
→It’s a perfect tool for your crippling procrastination tendencies.
→Sometimes I think we might even use sports as a way to attach ourselves to something immortal.
And in the end…
In a time when heroic triumphs aren’t part of most people’s lives, sports allows us to capture a little sliver of the feeling of glory.
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