On Being a Fan

February 2nd, 2011 by Charles Siebert

A lifelong sports fan reflects on ecstatic wins and crushing losses to figure out why exactly people care so much about their favorite teams.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Recently my favorite football team, the New York Giants, lost a game in a particularly painful manner. No, painful doesn’t nearly capture the nature of this loss; try shameful, unforgivable, disgusting. Even to recall the game now induces nausea: giving up a 21-point lead with only seven and a half minutes remaining, and then allowing a last-second punt return for a touchdown as the final humiliation. But I revisit this misery by way of addressing a larger question, one that my wife posed that night as I sat in bed fretting over what had happened hours earlier:

“Why do you care this much?”

All fans ask themselves this very question at one point or another. You’re carrying on like a complete idiot – either thrusting your fists triumphantly in the air, or clutching your gut in a chair – when all at once you briefly hover above yourself and realize just how bizarrely you’re behaving.

“This may sound odd,” I responded, “but in some way I feel responsible for what happened.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant. But the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve come to realize how much responsibility you take on when you take a team into your heart. This responsibility begins at the most basic level, with the certain belief that your rooting and occasionally outlandish behavior can in fact affect a game’s outcome. Your active allegiance matters.

I remember in grade school watching a baseball game on TV in which the pitcher for my team, the Mets, was throwing a no-hitter. The further the game progressed, the more obsessed I became with apparent insignificances, like the correct positioning of the golf-club-shaped ashtray on the den table beside me. At last I decided to give it the slightest turn – and with just one more out to go, the whole game came crashing down with a bloop single just over the second baseman. I ran into the living room and fell to my knees, pounding on the floor, screaming.

“Get up!” a voice boomed. My father stood over me, fuming. “Take it like a man!”

This from the man who had regaled me with the story of how, back in 1951, at age 31, he’d gleefully sent an entire desktop of neatly packaged sample parts flying across his sales office on hearing the radio broadcast of Bobby Thompson’s ninth-inning, three-run homer that had propelled my father’s beloved N.Y. Giants to the World Series. Still, I got the point: the greatest and most burdensome responsibility of a fan is to suffer loss responsibly. To take it like an adult. Of course, fan allegiance is inherently immature; it is superstition and primal passion elevated, barely, to a level of respectability. To this day, whenever an old friend and I don’t watch the triumphant performances of teams whose most miserable losses we’ve witnessed together over the years, we invariably say to each other: “They only won because we weren’t watching.”  

For the diehard fan, wins and losses could hardly be more personal: the sudden bounce in your step that you feel after a triumph, or the oppressive sense of ennui that ensues with a loss. In 1987, after watching our team win its first Super Bowl victory, my fellow long-suffering Giants-fan friends and I filed out of a bar and into the streets deliriously chanting, “No ennui! No ennui!” Chanting, screaming, booing, fist-pumping, high-fiving; dressing in pelts, robes, masks, and helmets; wielding banners with war-painted flesh: fandom is a sanctioned way of publically reverting to your bestial self. But it can also be, and especially after a loss, a surprisingly serious measure of who you are as a person: a dignified loser or a ghastly beast.

Numerous studies have found that incidents of domestic violence are more frequent in the days after especially close games. One autumn night in 1986, after my Mets beat the Red Sox in game seven of the World Series, I met the beast face to face. It had, as I recall, five male heads: a group of my fellow Mets fans drunkenly wandering the stadium parking lot. They spotted my friend’s Red Sox cap and quickly surrounded him. I dashed to his defense, my fists flailing wildly, but soon found myself with my arms being pinned back by two behemoths as a third knocked me unconscious into a puddle. My last fruitless appeal to reason and civility before the lights went out? “But I’m a Mets fan!”

My lip took months to fully heal. Yet each time I worried that scar with my tongue, I felt a strange sense of superiority. Just a few nights before my knockout, my friend had angrily tossed that same Red Sox cap out of window as we sat watching his beloved team blow a seemingly insurmountable lead over mine. In an act that would have made my father proud, I made my friend go outside and retrieve that cap from the sidewalk below.

The true fan recovers; he bounces back from profound disappointment, and is resilient and steadfast in the face of certain defeat. Even as my beloved Giants were letting that game slip away a few weeks back – even as I and Giants fans everywhere sat watching that inexorable, slow-motion tumble toward horror – I refused to leave the room. Refused to listen to my wife’s suggestion that I be proactive for once about the coming pain and instead take the dogs for a walk.

“No,” I told myself, “I’m going to stay here and take it like a man.”

Granted, I didn’t express myself so articulately at the time. But the idea (however retrospective) that I did offers some consolation – just as it helps to share one’s post-game outrage with others. Call-in radio sports shows aren’t for me, though; phone calls and e-mails to my family and friends suffice. I got my older and equally fervent Giant-fan brother on the line first. Before I could say a word, he muttered: “I’m sick. I can’t talk.”

My Red Sox fan friend also happens to love the Giants. He was away in Mexico at the time. “I am so, so very glad,” he e-mailed, “that I did not watch that!” The friend with whom I’ve shared that abiding superstition about our power to affect disastrous outcomes now lives in Paris. He e-mailed later that night: “That’s impossible!! We weren’t watching together.”

A third friend, who’d grown up in a blue-collar town in northern New Jersey and had inherited his Giants mania from his father, got a call from his dad, near tears; he stayed on the phone with his dad for at least a half an hour. Then he went outside for a long walk. All over his neighborhood, he said, others like him were doing the same thing, their heads buried deep in their coat collars at dusk.

I keep thinking of that image: grown men wandering the streets around their homes, muttering in disbelief, walking off steam, doubtless asking themselves the very question that all fans ask at one time or another: Why do I care this much? It’s a question for which, I now realize, there is only one answer: because the responsible fan has no choice.

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”