Monday, June 24, 2013

Interview: Eric Simons, author of THE SECRET LIVES OF SPORTS FANS

To sports fanatics, the emotional attachment formed to a team is sometimes inexplicable and to outsiders it is often incomprehensible. In The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, Darwin Slept Here author Eric Simons changes focus from following the story of evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin to a look into the lives of athletic obsessives. Through entertaining fan stories and research, Simons sheds a new light on what it means to be a true fan, from the thrills of victory to the agonies of defeat. He joins us today on the Overlook blog to dig deeper into the science of fandom.

OP: The game of golf is often considered one of the most obsessive sports, both by those who play, and those who are spectators. Are fans generally more obsessed about team sports than individual sports, like golf or tennis?

ES: I'm not sure I'd say more obsessed -- everyone, not just sports fans, has the ability to obsess in similar ways, and people can become just as obsessed about golf or tennis as they can about football ... or opera, or fishing, or gardening. But my guess is that team sports offer more opportunities for obsession and so catch a wider variety of fans -- golfers and tennis players stand pretty much for themselves, and obsessing over them is usually obsessing over their technique and style, or occasionally their nationality. (See Andy Murray.) A team like the San Antonio Spurs has so much more symbolic value: they represent not just individual players with all of their own importance, but a region, a distinctive philosophy of basketball, a color scheme, a mascot... I mean, look, I love ice hockey and I'm from the Bay Area, but I've had a lifelong obsession with carnivorous marine life that makes the name and mascot of the Bay Area's professional hockey team one of those cosmic destiny sort of things for me. (Did you know that for Sharks games, before the game they project video of real sharks swimming around on the ice? They'll never do THAT at Wimbledon.)

OP: Describe the “warrior sports fan.”

ES: There's this idea in evolutionary psychology called the "male warrior hypothesis" that says evolution has really set men up to find allies, join up in groups, and go beat the crap out of each other. It suggests conflict is such a fundamental shaper of who we are that men have evolved to excel at it, and that this explains a lot of the ways we behave today. Which of course brings us to sports fans, those "mobs of little haters" in the words of the muckracking journalist Upton Sinclair. I'm on the fence about our evolutionary psychology, but I will say: I went to watch a game once in the Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, where they apparently have some male warrior concerns because they separate the home and visiting fans with a four-foot high cement wall topped with another four feet of plexiglass topped with what looked like concertina wire. So the home team was winning, by a lot, and with every goal the home fans would go pouring into the wall, raining abuse on the visiting fans, who would hop and jeer and gesture back. And about the fourth or fifth goal they scored I remember this kid, probably 16 or 18 years old, just screaming by me, veins bulging on an arm raised in a warrior pose, teeth bared, exhorting the visiting fans to acknowledge the greatness and beauty of his universe, and when I think back on that many years later I just kind of think, yeah, OK, maybe those warrior male researchers have a point.

OP: What is the science behind the “fair-weathered fan;” fans who stop rooting for a team once they start playing badly and jump back on the bandwagon once they start playing well?

ES: The fair-weather fan quite frankly makes a lot of sense from a psychological perspective. I mean, the question is really why WOULDN'T you do this? What's wrong with us that we stick with a team that's losing instead of doing the nice, apparently rational thing and enjoying them when they're winning and not caring when they're losing? So I think the science here is much more about the psychology that makes us so amazingly interested in identifying potential freeriders and shunning them -- in the non-hierarchical societies in which our minds evolved, those are some of the most powerful tools we have for compelling others to behave. It's an investment joining the Raider Nation -- of time, of money, of energy, of self-esteem (depending on your perspective, of dignity). We are very, very keen on protecting that investment by rooting out the people among us who are getting the benefits without putting in the work.

OP: The growth of sports clothing and merchandising has exploded in the last decade. What are the primary factors that compel fans to buy and wear sports-themed products?

ES: There's pretty good suggestion that on a very literal level your brain starts to merge your identity with the team's identity. I'd say merchandise is mostly about people announcing their own identity, which we all have to do somehow, anyway, whether we're wearing our Patriots TEBOW jersey or, like I'm doing today, a T-shirt with a picture of a fish driving a tank. I think the very public demonstrations of team loyalty -- like I don't just wear the hat, I dress up Monday-Friday in a dog suit and bark at passerby in Cleveland -- that's probably more a public signaling device to other people that you're committed to the group, that again, you're sacrificing for the team and no freeriders here, no sir.

OP: What about the sports media? Can their levels of sports addiction ever be understood?

ES: They're addicted to sports in the same way US Weekly is addicted to celebrity, which is to say that they make a ton of money on it and as soon as the money goes away they'll find they weren't really that interested to begin with.

OP: Are there any countries, or even US geographical regions, where there doesn’t seem to be much loyalty, obsession, or even interest, in sports?

ES: Well, honestly I think most of the country would look at me sitting here in San Francisco and saying, YOU PEOPLE, and here we all are anyway and one million Giants fans went to the World Series parade last fall. So not that I know of from personal experience, but I haven't traveled to every corner of the globe. Antarctic research stations? I mean, there's no rule that says we have to be sports fans, but given all the various fundamental parts of us that sports excites, it would be pretty surprising to go somewhere and find they had nothing at all similar.

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