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

10 Responses to “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”

  • Great post! Have you seen the new facebook page “I Hate Sidney Crosby”? See
    It’s people coming together to hate someone else, usually a member of the out-group.

  • Very interesting that less people commit suicide when their teams are victorious, as generally people contemplating suicide feel disconnected from community.

  • The very fact that you include rates of suicides with sporting events destroys your contention that the mass hysteria of sport in a community or nation is healthy.

    Sport is not just “March Madness; it’s terminal, political, cultural suicide. What does it really matter who wins the World Series or Super Bowl (except to Budweiser).

  • I’ve sent this to a couple of buddies and re-tweeted. Thanks once again.

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  • Truthfully, fans always look forward to become victorious. But it is sad to know that those people who cannot accept reality of defeat, results to committing suicide. In sports, one must learn how accept the two sides of the coin.Full Lace Front Wigs UK

  • I truly agree and empathize with this. Thank you.

  • woahhhhh!!!!!! that rocks mann!!

  • great really good very inportant things espessily at the top

  • Silence filled the gym as a basketball flew through the air. Whoosh, it went straight through the hoop. An uproar soon broke the silence as the crowd cheer. I sighed with relief, and smiled broadly as we had just won the game. Looking around I saw people laughing while some teammates hugged and others jumped up and down. This is why I loved basketball. Being able to see my friends was one of the things I enjoyed most. Also with all the practices and games I’m able to get good exercise. Lastly, winning isn’t an important when playing it’s how you play, but it sends a thrill up my spin when victory does come. All of these things makes basketball my favorite sport.

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