The first team I rooted for was the New York Yankees, but in fairness, it’s not really my fault.
My father grew up a Yankee fan, which always felt strange to me, given that he was also a hardcore pessimist. The Yankees never really fit his ethos, but much of the time we don’t choose our allegiances when it comes to sports—it is passed down, or it’s a natural product of our geography, as with my dad, who was born in New York City. Still, I never felt quite comfortable being a Yankee fan; it didn’t comport with my neurosis and self-doubt, and that’s probably why I abandoned the Yankees altogether (and even began to actively dislike them) soon after leaving for college.
Eventually, having spent the majority of my life in Pennsylvania, I gravitated toward Philadelphia sports teams, whose fan bases’ natural tendency toward self-loathing jibed more with my perception of the world. When I went to graduate school in Boston in the early 2000s, I adopted the Red Sox, who at that point had yet to figure out a way to conquer the Yankees and win a World Series. The bottom line, I suppose, is that I am drawn toward teams that tend to lose more than they win. And these choices may be a reflection of my personality, but they have shaped me, too, in ways I didn’t even realize.
“We know that people get wrapped up in their own kids’ performances, right? In many ways, this is just a logical extension of that… those are our guys and girls out there. And their performance reflects powerfully on us.” —Dr. Edward Hirt, Indiana University
See, there’s a good deal of science devoted to the notion of sports fandom, and much of that research focuses on the affects of winning and losing. These things are real, and they affect the way we view ourselves as people. “When our allegiance to a team becomes an important part of our identity,” says Indiana University professor Edward Hirt, “we define ourselves by our fanship with the team. It’s a key part of who I am, and how I describe myself with others. And just like some individuals do with their political allegiance or religious affiliation or ethnicity, the team is part of us—an extension of ourselves—and we live and die by the team’s performance.”
And so it becomes intensely personal, to the point that it almost feels like we’re watching our own family.
“We know that people get wrapped up in their own kids’ performances, right?” Hirt says. “In many ways, this is just a logical extension of that… those are our guys and girls out there. And their performance reflects powerfully on us.”
Hirt, who works in Indiana’s department of psychological and brain sciences, conducted a study with some of his colleagues back in the early 1990s: They invited Indiana University basketball fans to come in to watch some of the Hoosiers’ road games under the guise of evaluating player performance. They rated the players, but they also rated their current mood and self-esteem levels; and then Hirt and his colleagues conducted a second (purportedly unrelated) study about people’s ability to evaluate their own performance at various motor, mental and social skills tasks.
They were asked to estimate how they would do at each task, and then they performed each of the tasks. Fans of winning teams had much higher estimates of their own abilities to perform those tasks than fans of losing teams, as well as higher estimates of their team’s future performance and of their own self-esteem—in other words, the boost they received from watching their team win was similar to the boost they received from personally completing a task.
“Specifically,” Hirt says, “it was not surprising that wins should elevate these things. But I wanted to show that losses depress these things. Real fans do not cut off reflected failure and disengage from their team. They suffer through tough losses, but maintain their allegiance to the team. The coolest finding was that the effects were strongest among fans who have the strongest allegiance to the team. We found that for these individuals, team success is like personal success, and team failure has the same effect on these individuals as does a personal failure.”
But here’s the thing about northeast Ohio, and about Cleveland sports fans: They never let go. They refused to give up on the Browns and the Indians and the Cavaliers in the same way they refused to give up on Cleveland itself.
I’ve seen the effects of these failings first-hand. My first job out of college was in northeast Ohio, where depressed Cleveland sports fans just assumed everything would go terribly, both for them and their blue-collar city. This was in the late 1990s, when the city and its sports teams (or at least the Indians) were experiencing a mini-renaissance, a trend that peaked in 1997, when the Indians reached Game 7 of the World Series against the Florida Marlins… and then unraveled in heartbreaking fashion when closer Jose Mesa blew a save in the ninth inning and the Florida’s Edgar Renteria notched an RBI single in the 11th. It was yet another disappointment for a city that had begun to expect disappointment in the wake of so many—the sports teams had become a metaphorical representation of a city that couldn’t catch a break.
But here’s the thing about northeast Ohio, and about Cleveland sports fans: They never let go. It became a badge of honor to live through those disappointments, in the same way they’d lived through the ups and downs of their city and their region in the midst of the slow decay of the Rust Belt. They refused to give up on the Browns and the Indians and the Cavaliers in the same way they refused to give up on Cleveland itself. And this is something else that Hirt, the Indiana professor, discovered in his research—losing breeds loyalty.
“My take is that people do take a lot of pride in being loyal, and they believe it sets apart true fans from fair-weather fans,” Hirt says. “You have to suffer through those dismal seasons and heartbreaking losses to be able to earn the right to relish in the team’s success.”
So in a way, the old cliché about losing building character is actually true, Hirt says, in that “it proves your mettle to be able to remain loyal and support the team when times get tough.” Might it be better, then, to teach our children to root for teams that aren’t very good, and that only occasionally cling to hope? Should we all raise our kids to be Browns fans? And will this somehow make us funnier, too, given our ability to have to deal with those failures? I mean, it worked for fanatical Cubs fan Bill Murray, didn’t it? It worked for Jerry Seinfeld, who, growing up in Queens, chose the Mets over the Yankees, didn’t it?
“Not sure about the sense of humor,” Hirt says, “but it is an ability to admit that they drive you crazy or break your heart, and yet you still love them. That seems to be a lauded characteristic with anyone with regard to his or her relationships. And it seems to also be true about your attitude toward your team.”
Rooting for a winning team can perpetuate a cycle of self-regard, the kind of braggadocious reputation that has transformed Boston, through more than a decade of professional athletic success, into the most obnoxious sporting fan base in America.
In 2000, Sports Illustrated’s Leigh Montville, a longtime Boston resident, wrote a piece speculating about what might happen when and if the Red Sox finally won a World Series: elation, followed by a hollow feeling brought on by the idea that the Red Sox were no longer striving for the brass ring, no longer identified as the tragic and literary franchise that had inspired so many New England intellectuals over the course of more than 80 years.
The next World Series and the next and the next will be simple competitions,” Montville wrote. “So what if the Red Sox win it all again? So what if they don’t? They’ll be just another team, no different from the Devil Rays or Diamondbacks, hired Hessians on the job. They’ll have no history to amend. They’ll be a form of entertainment, a show, not the heart and soul of New England. Their individuality will be gone.”
Such are the pitfalls of rooting for a perpetually winning team, as the Red Sox have become since winning the World Series in 2004. This year, Boston won the American League East and made the playoffs yet again (only to be eliminated, surprise surprise, by the Cleveland Indians), but the focus this postseason is squarely on the Chicago Cubs, who have supplanted the Red Sox as baseball’s perpetually cursed franchise. No doubt part of the reason Cubs general manager Theo Epstein left the Red Sox was because he’d accomplished all he could in his hometown.
The same thing is happening in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers’ victory over the Golden State Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals altered the mood and outlook of an entire region. But what comes next might be just as perilous. Because rooting for a winning team can perpetuate a cycle of self-regard, the kind of braggadocious reputation that has transformed Boston, through more than a decade of professional athletic success, into the most obnoxious sporting fan base in America. It’s also why every fan base in college football’s Southeastern Conference thinks they should be enjoying the success that Nick Saban has at Alabama, to the point that successful coaches like LSU’s Les Miles and Georgia’s Mark Richt lose their jobs simply by paling in comparison.
“I think a perennially winning team just sets up high expectations in their fan base, so that they can get disappointed even with a good performance,” Hirt says. “Teams that win have fans that expect championships, not just playoff berths or NCAA tournament bids. So those fans are spoiled, and are often highly critical of their teams even when they’re winning.”
And this, it would seem, is yet another reason to root for a team that rarely wins, and to teach your progeny to do the same. Maybe nice guys finish last, but I’d rather be a loser than a spoiled jerk.