Sports bring people together with the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the light of reflected glory and the humanity of a shared experience

Sometimes we need an adversary to vanquish to turn our I and me into an us and we.  We may think of ourselves as independent individualists, yet we can be transformed into enthusiastic citizens, fans, members, or followers by a team championship, a vaunted NCAA ranking, or a team victory when failure was expected. 

Researchers call it Basking in Reflected Glory.  After a team victory, far more students show up to classes wearing clothes with their university's name and symbols plastered on them.  When they talk about the team's win, they are more likely to use the pronouns "us" and "we" instead of "them" and "they."  They stress their connection to winners, but after a loss they cut their ties. 

The social psychological perspective on community and fan loyalty stresses the positive impact a common commitment that is shared across the community on relationships and overall well-being. Rooting for a team is entertaining, but when everyone is rooting for the home team then it builds cohesion and strengthens relationships. Remember in the old days TV with only three channels, when everyone watched the same programs and sporting events? The next day at school and work, people could talk to each other about shows they followed, the games they watched, and even the commercials they loved and hated. Now there is little to bring us together, so that we don’t share the same focus and set of interests. Unless, our team is capturing everyone’s attention, and giving everybody–both traditional fan and new initiates–a commonality. 

So, its the impact of this shared identity–as a supporter and fan of the team–that brings people together. People can wear team-related clothing, they can talk about the team in their everyday conversation, and they can even change their day so that they can do things that are connected to the game. They become one with others, and so they escape the feeling of isolation and individuality that sometimes plagues us in these hard times.  But its the increase in social connections that counts, and not just the distraction that having a winning team brings. People who root, alone, for the team don’t prosper, whereas those who share their interest with others find that their “social capital" climbs. 

Psychologists even offer some evidence to support the idea that rooting for a sports team can be healthy. My favorite statistic pertaining to being a sports fan and mental health comes from the 1980 Winter Olympics. Fewer people committed suicide on February 22, 1980 than on all other February 22s from 1972 to 1989, perhaps because on that particular day the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team beat the Russian national team. There is, of course, a down side. Researchers have found that in some towns–towns that are known for having extremely committed fans–that when the Florida Gators or the Ohio State Buckeyes teams rose up in the sports rankings suicides decrease in Gainesville and Columbus, but when the teams dropped in the standings suicides climb. One should not forget  that the word fan derives from a slightly longer word: fanatic.

Donelson R. Forsyth is Professor, The Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Chair in Ethical Leadership at The Jepson School of Leadership Studies University of Richmond

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Donelson R. Forsyth is a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies, where he holds the Colonel Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Chair in Ethical Leadership. He is the author of "Group Dynamics" and "Our Social World."

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