Why Are Athletes and Sports Fans so Superstitious

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are athletes and sports fans so superstitious? You never see articles about stock brokers or opera goers doing insane things but for some reason sports seems to create so much craziness.


The team always wins when I wear my orange beard and headband. Right?

— — —

Dear Hugh,

It’s Halloween today, so it’s a perfect time to answer this question about sports and superstition. You’re right — sports do seem to inspire an enormous amount of mystical lunacy among the people who play them for a living and the people who follow them closely.  I happen to think that superstition is one of the more amusing elements of following sports, so I’m going to share a few examples. After that, we’ll deal with the question of why sports create this lunacy among us.

Much has been made about the World Series winning Boston Red Sox and their superstitious beards. After they won the series, Reuters posted an article with the headline, “Boston Bond and Beards drive Red Sox to Victory.” While we won’t get into the fact that the playoff beard is a well-known and thoroughly explored phenomenon in hockey, it is worth noting that a reputable news organization is suggesting that the growing of beards had an effect on the outcome of a sporting event. This is, of course, more or less the reason why hockey fans across the continent stop shaving when the playoffs begin — they are hoping their own shaving patterns affect the outcome of sporting events.

On the subject of beards, Deadspin.com ran a story about a man in Minnesota who decided he wouldn’t shave his beard until the local NFL football team, the Vikings, won the Super Bowl.  That man, Emmett Pearson, died this past Monday, 38 years after he made that promise, still unshaven. Long championship draughts seem to breed that level of superstition as well as wry humor. A long-time Cleveland Browns fan gained posthumous notoriety after specifying in his obituary that he “respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pallbearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.” The Browns didn’t go that far but they did send two representatives of the team to his funeral in appreciation for Scott Ensminger’s long-time support of the team which apparently included writing a song for the team and sending it to them each year.

Bud Light has an entire ad campaign based on the concept that drinking bud light will somehow grant good luck to the team you root for. The clever slogan is “It’s only crazy if it doesn’t work.” Business Insider[1] published a list of the 30 strangest superstitions in sports, including one of my favorites — that NBA player Jason Terry falls asleep with the shorts of whatever team his team is playing the night before the game. It makes such logical sense — if you want to win, you’ve got to sleep a night in your opponents’ clothes. Perhaps the best sports superstition I’ve read about in a long time comes from the New York Times article about the various compulsions of players and coaches on the New York Jets football team:

One Friday night about 20 years ago, the Jets’ offensive line coach, Mike Devlin, and his girlfriend, Julie, had a fight. Devlin, then an Iowa Hawkeye, had a great game the next day, and so the next week, he insisted that they fight again. Again he played well.

A tradition was born. Devlin and Julie did not add it to their wedding vows. But in sickness and in health, in Buffalo or in Arizona, they have staged a fake argument by telephone the night before every game — about 350 of them to date.

What is it about sports that inspires players, coaches, and fans to act so strangely? There are lots of fairly obvious reasons. For sports players and even sports fans, the outcome of a game can be very important. Yes, for players there are gobs of money involved as well as the downside of being fired, and for fans there is only the joy of winning balanced against the frustration of losing, but I would argue that most players who make it to the pros are likely to be people who are internally driven to win. Being driven to win has to explain the time and energy put into becoming a professional athlete for most people who do it. There’s also a lot of chance involved in the outcome of games. Sports are incredibly complex and it’s also very difficult to analyze why a game is won or lost. My experience with playing spots is that individual performance, like the result of a game, is highly unpredictable and it’s hard to tell why you feel strong and fast one day and slow and clumsy the next.

If superstition is an attempt to bring rationality to an inexplicable world defined by chance, then it makes sense that sports are the most superstitious area in many people’s lives; they are the most important and most unpredictable aspect in many people’s lives.

There may be another, more curious answer, as suggested in the conclusion of a scholarly study of superstition in top-level athletes done by Michaela Schippers and Paul Van Lange of the Rotterdam School of Management; that it works:

One may speculate, that in preparing for a match, the most important concern is to regulate one’s own psychological and physical state. Thus, sportspersons realistically may see a strong link between enacting superstitious rituals and a desired outcome.

As for fans — there’s no proof of any of our superstitions working, despite what your friend who hasn’t changed his underwear in six months says. The last word on this topic should come from Chuck Klosterman’s essay about why he doesn’t enjoy watching DVR’d sports:

If you think your mind and heart play a role in the game you’re watching, a DVR’d game is like trying to hug a dead body. Your hopes and desires immediately become irrelevant. Which, of course, they always were — but now you can’t even pretend.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I guess it’s inside the business of sports, but I’m guessing it’s mostly just a way to get views on their website.

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