Why do sports fans like injuries? Are they evil?

Dear Sports Fan,

My partner seems to really enjoy when an athlete gets hurt playing their sport. Usually it’s when it’s an opponent but sometimes even a player on the team he roots for. What’s up with that? Why do sports fans like injuries? Are they evil?

Thanks,
Violet


Dear Violet,

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot over the past couple of weeks, since the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs started. Even though I’ve been a hockey fan for over twenty years now, the intensity, violence, and sheer excitement of the playoffs surprises me every year. Injuries are one of the most noticeable ways in which the playoff games differ from the regular season games. Hockey playoffs are set up as best four game out of seven series between two teams. During the course of one of these playoff series, the injury rate for players seems to approach 100%. Just off the top of my head, from the series I was following most closely, I can think of countless times when players got hit in the face with sticks or with the puck, injuries resulting from players blocking shots and taking the puck off a unpadded or insufficiently padded area, twisted knees, and crunched shoulders. And of course, the dreaded specter of concussions looms over hockey as it does every collision sport.

All of these things happen during regular season hockey games but not nearly as often as they do during the playoffs. Your question begs me to consider my love for the playoffs and their higher rate of injury — am I a masochist? or is there another reason for enjoying seeing other people get hurt?

Over the years on this blog, I’ve suggested that one of the primary and primal reasons why people love watching sports is because they enjoy watching other people do things they absolutely could never do themselves. In this case, I think there’s another similar rationale that comes into play. People love watching sports because they enjoy watching other people do things they absolutely would never do themselves. The thrill of watching other people in danger and the admiration of our sport heroes courage are palpable. A hockey player who slides in front of a 100 mph slap shot, risking broken bones, smashed teeth, or worse simply to prevent his goalie from needing to make a save is doing something as unthinkable to most sports fans as LeBron James dunking a basketball or Bryce Harper hitting a home run. The distance between us and the hockey player is simply mental, not physical. Hockey injuries are a visual reminder of the mental distance between NHL players and normal fans.

The other aspect of enjoying injuries, especially in hockey, is that they, and how quickly hockey players return to play from suffering them, are a testament to how much hockey players care about winning. Sports fans live with the constant nagging fear that in the entire ecosystem of sports, they care more than the owners, coaches, general managers, players, and media members. It’s okay to be the person who cares the most about something, but when you care the most and have the least control over the outcome of something, you’re generally the rube. The way that hockey players play in the playoffs — recklessly, relentlessly, and despite injury — shows that they care just as much as the fans.

So, the next time your partner gets excited by blood dripping onto the ice, just know that he sees that as a sign that his passion is matched by the players he roots for and that he is admiring someone for doing something he would never, ever do.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

My girlfriend convinced me to watch a Golden State Warriors game last night by saying that teams as good as them only come along once every twenty or thirty years. I watched the game. They were legitimately great but it seems like sports fans have something they need to watch for that reason pretty frequently. Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?

Thanks,
Cesar


Dear Cesar,

The Golden State Warriors are a magnificent basketball team. They won the championship last spring and, unlike many championship winning teams, have started this season strong. They’ve won their first 23 games. In doing so, they obliterated the previous record for consecutive wins to start a season, which two other teams had set at 15. They’re closing in on the Los Angeles Lakers record for wins in a row, (any time during the season,) which is 33 and has been since the 1971-72 season. Their start also has the folks over at Five Thirty Eight frantically modeling to see how likely it is that the Warriors match or beat the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls season record of 72 wins and 10 losses. The conclusion they come to is that the Warriors certainly can but will probably choose not to, since breaking that record is likely to be a harmful distraction from their true goal of winning another championship. The Warriors streak is so impressive, that the Harlem Globetrotters (who were once a very real, very formidable competitive basketball team but who now only play exhibition games against a team of stooges called the Washington Generals,) jokingly worried on Twitter about the safety of their own “record”:

Beyond numbers, the Warriors are a wonderful collection of characters to root for. Their super star, Steph Curry, is barely big enough to make you look twice at him if he passed you on the street, and yet he’s as unstoppable a force as any the NBA has known. He is the best long-range shooter in NBA history and plays with a fluid, captivating style. He’s surrounded by teammates who benefit from and augment his skills. Klay Thompson, who pales in comparison to Curry, may also be one of the top 20 shooters in NBA history. Draymond Green was a popular college basketball player who most thought would not amount to much in the pros. Now he’s the new prototype for a power forward, one who can do a little bit of everything well enough to be extraordinarily effective. The next five best players on the team, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livington, and Festus Ezeli all have their own talents and their own attractive stories. From a sports fan’s perspective, the Warriors really are a comet passing through space: rare and wondrous. To give you a sense of how much people want to see them, their presence as the away team playing against the Boston Celtics this Friday has launched tickets on the secondary market from starting at between $13 and $20 to starting between $150 and $200.

Your question wasn’t about whether the Warriors were amazing, it was about how rare they are. There’s a saying I love: “You’re one in a million… which means there’s a thousand people just like you in China.” One in a million seems like a giant rarity, but not when viewed against a country with a population of over a billion! The same thing is true about sports. Say the Warriors truly are a generational team. That would put them alongside the Chicago Bulls that set that 72-10 record in 1996. That’s awfully convenient, because it was 20 years ago, exactly the number most people use in estimating a generation. Go back farther, and most people point to the 1985 Celtics as another generationally good team. That’s only 10 years before the Bulls, but that’s okay, sometimes data falls randomly in clumps. No big deal. The thing is, sports fans follow many sports. Most fans follow at least three of the big four American professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) pretty closely. Add a college sport or two, international competitions like the Olympics and World Cup, as well as a few individual sports like tennis, golf, boxing, or car racing. That’s close to 10 sports that a fan will follow. The chances of a generational event (one every 20 years) happening in a sport, if you follow 10 of them, is 50% in any given year.

Of course, when something this eventful happens in a sport a fan doesn’t follow closely, there’s a good chance that she’ll hear about it on Twitter, Facebook, Sports Center, from a podcast or a friend, etc. And anything so magnificent, so rare, as a generational sporting event is worth following, even from an unusual sport! There are also two or three close calls for every one truly generational event (the Carolina Panthers are 12-0 in the NFL right now… if they get to 16-0, they will be only the second team to ever do it. Earlier this year Serena Williams almost became the first person to win all four major tennis tournaments in a year – called the Grand Slam – since 1988). So, if you’re a sports fan who wants to see something with the potential to be truly remarkable, you’ve legitimately got a chance to watch one every couple of months at most.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

 

What's so enjoyable about the NBA draft?

Dear Sports Fan,

The NBA draft is tonight, which means half of my friends will be glued to the television and the other half will be glued to their phones, getting constant updates and reading Twitter. I have to say, I enjoy basketball as much as the next guy but I don’t get the whole draft obsession. What’s so enjoyable about the NBA draft?

Thanks,
Josh


Dear Josh,

Sports fans come in many different flavors. Some people love a particular team but won’t watch a game between two other teams. Some people will watch any game but don’t really want to be bothered with having a favorite team. Some people care only about the on-the-court tactics. Some people love to watch beautiful bodies in motion. Some people follow a sport for the celebrity lives of its players. Somewhere in that mess of flavors, is a variety of fan who loves the draft. Here are some of the characteristics of that type of fan:

  • Love of the unknown – This is a key characteristic for most varieties of sports fan. Sports, after all, are one of the few types of entertainment (literally reality TV) where anything can happen at any moment. Still, during a game, the possibilities are limited by the players involved. LeBron James is unlikely to forget how to pass the ball. The New York Knicks aren’t going to miraculously become the best team in the league in an instant. Deron Williams isn’t going to dunk over Marc Gasol. During the draft, everything is possible, anything can happen, and it often does. Trades between teams involving picks and players happen frequently during the draft, as well as surprise player selections. Despite all the research, no one really knows how good each of the players eligible to be picked is going to be, so any pick could be the one that launches a team to the promised land of NBA greatness.
  • Hope springing eternal – For the type of fan whose primary focus is the fortunes of a single team, the draft offers the promise of success in the upcoming year. The pinnacle of this excitement comes when a favorite team has a high pick – one of the first five – or has stockpiled several reasonably high picks. The draft is set up so that generally teams who did worse last year have the best draft picks in this year’s draft. That optimizes the excitement of the draft for this type of fan.
  • Enjoys the setup more than the conclusion – For some fans, and I count myself in this category, enjoying the NBA draft is an extension of how they feel about all types of activities. Some people just like the setup more than the conclusion. I find examples of this all over my life. When watching movies or reading books, I gravitate towards beginnings over endings. For example, I love the first half of the famous movie, the Seven Samurai, with its long recruitment sections when each samurai is individually introduced, more than the final half when all the fighting happens. I love the first two thirds of the Usual Suspects for the same reason. It’s the same way with books. How about video games? I’ll start a dozen games without finishing any of them. Movies? Half the time, I spend more time browsing titles than actually watching them. Sometimes that’s all I do! The draft is all the setup with none of that pesky playing of games to get in the way of my enjoyment.

It’s also possible that your friends are college basketball fans in addition to being NBA fans. In that case, they have a vested interest in the draft because they already know the characters. One thing that almost every brand of sports fan likes to do is to think about who is better and who is best. The NBA draft is a form of ranking college (and international) basketball players from best to worst. Since that’s something college (and international) fans already do in their spare time, it’s fun for them to see if their instincts are similar to the collective wisdom of 30 NBA teams.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why do soccer fans whistle?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is it that when you watch a soccer game on TV, especially an international one, you always hear the crowd whistling? Why do soccer fans whistle? What does it mean?

Wondering,
Whitney


Dear Whitney,

When international soccer fans whistle, they are expressing displeasure with what they see on the soccer field. It’s very similar to how fans in the United States boo in sports stadiums, with only minor differences. I don’t really know why we use booing while most of the world whistles to express themselves in this way. As far as I can tell, there internet doesn’t know either.

You’ll hear wide-spread whistling from soccer fans for three main reasons:

  • The crowd disagrees with a foul the ref has called or not called
  • The crowd is holding a grudge against a particular player for some reason and he or she has the ball
  • The crowd feels a team is playing cynically through “simulating fouls” by diving or time wasting or playing too passively by passing the ball backwards excessively

It’s the last scenario that is a little different from how American fans using booing as a weapon. I would say booing is a little more aggressive and whistling a little more derisive. The only direct parallel to a crowd that whistles at their own team for playing too passively is a crowd that boos an American football team for running when they think they should throw or for conceding the end of a half when they think the team should try to score.

The roots of whistling to express these feelings are, as I mentioned before, pretty obscure. The Wikipedia page about whistling gives plenty of speculative meat to chew on even if it doesn’t make any of its own conclusions. In its section on superstition, Wikipedia states that whistling “is thought to attract bad luck, bad things, or evil spirits” in many cultures. Examples given are in the UK, where whistling is thought to “foretell death or a great calamity” and in Russia and its surroundings where whistling indoors is “believed to bring poverty”. I imagine that the flip side of repressing your whistling instincts to avoid bad things happening to you would be wanting to whistle aggressively in situations (like sporting events) where you fervently (if somewhat light-heartedly, I hope) wish bad things would happen to others.

As for why international soccer fans whistle to express negativity while American fans boo, I do have a wild guess. In American arenas, even during the most exciting games, the prevailing noise is applause, rhythmic but non-melodic chants, or scattered, disorganized shouting. In international soccer arenas, the prevailing soundtrack of the games is the organized singing of fans supporting their teams. If you’re trying to cut through the normal background noise to express your displeasure, a long, drawn out “boooooooooo” on one tone might work against the noise of an American sporting event but it definitely won’t against the singing of an international soccer game. A high-pitched whistle on the other hand is shrill and loud enough to break through even the most fervent supporters song.

Hope this answers your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why do Sports Fans Care More Than the Players?

The other day I was talking to my Mom about the post I wrote following the United States’ loss to Canada in the Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey semi-finals. She complimented me (thanks Mom!) on how well I expressed the emotions of a fan who has just watched their team lose. Our conversation led into a discussion of why it seems like fans take losses harder than the athletes themselves. I decided to turn that conversation into this short essay on why sports fans care more than the players.

sad fans
Toronto Maple Leaf fans react in horror to their team’s collapse in last year’s playoffs.

The day before the U.S. vs. Canada game, I had the opportunity to hang out in the USA house in Olympic Park. There I met the mother of an Olympic Snowboard Cross competitor. When I asked her how he did, she grimaced and said “Not so good.” I commiserated with her and when it was clear that she hadn’t let the loss get in the way of her enjoying the Olympic experience, I asked her if her son was able to enjoy himself after the loss too. Of course he was, was her answer. She explained that he usually takes fifteen minutes to a half-hour to get over a bad performance and that she and her family have learned to give him space until he’s done processing. By the time another American racer had won the competition, her son was already able to enjoy it with him, grinning and lifting him up in celebration.

At the depths of my despair about the fate of the United States Men’s Ice Hockey team, I felt as though I had come thousands of miles for nothing — just to see them lose. But then I thought of this woman and her son. If he was able to get over his loss, which he had traveled thousands of miles for, not to mention the thousands of hours of training, then certainly I should be able to get over my feelings of loss. That’s when my Mom mentioned that when my brother and I were kids and our soccer teams lost, she was always more upset, for longer, than he or I was. She said that our behavior was a lot like the snowboarder’s — by the time we got home from the game, it seemed like we had moved on.

Why is that, we wondered? Why do sports fans care more than the players?

The common answer to this common question, usually asked about professional athletes, is that they care less than the fans because it’s a job for them while it’s a passion for the fans. There’s probably some truth to this. There have been lots of stories in the past year that clarify that locker rooms are workplaces and being an athlete is a job. The Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito story was about workplace harassment. The brain injury story has been about assumptions of safety and fair disclosure of risk in the workplace. The Michael Sam and Jason Collins story has been about freedom of preference expression in the workplace. Meanwhile, players are being traded and cut by their teams left and right, each one clarifying that athletes are hires, not members of a team family. I’m suspicious of the logic that adds all of this evidence together and comes out with the conclusion that this is why professional athletes don’t seem to care about losses as much as fans. First of all, if this were true, then we wouldn’t expect to see fans of youth or amateur sports care more than the players. Secondly, the selection process to make it into a professional league in a team sport is so competitive that I think it selects for people who care more about the team than most rational people would.

My explanation is that fans care more than the players because they have less agency. Another thing I did on my trip was read a lot. My girlfriend (this is turning into quite a family post!) recommended The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker. In it, a psychologist treats victims of what they called “shell-shock” or “hysteria” during World War 1 and, despite mixed feelings on the matter, tries to cure them so they can go back to the front. Dr. William Rivers (who was a real person — much of the books is based on his and some of his patients’ writings which have survived) uses his few free hours to theorize about the nature of the psychological disorders that he’s working on. He theorizes that the connection between the common incidence of shell-shock among men at the front and the hysteria that during peace-time was a more common female issue, is lack of agency. He doesn’t think that what pushes soldiers or house-wives over the edge is the horror of war or an abusive husband but instead it’s the feeling of being completely invested in something that you have absolutely no power to influence in any material way.

The same, do a much lesser extent, of course, is true of sports fans. We sit in the stands or on our couches and invest ourselves in the success or failure of our teams but we have absolutely no control over what happens to them. As much as we try with lucky jerseys, lucky food, or other rituals, we know that we’re just observers and not a part of the action. My guess is that that is psychologically harder than what the athletes go through during most losses. At least they impacted the game — even if they kick themselves for a bad catch or an errant pass or a missed defensive assignment, they know that they did some good things and some bad ones; they know they had an effect on the game. The athlete who loses doesn’t feel the helpless meaningless feeling of the fan who knows that she cares so deeply about something completely uncontrollable… and that she’s going to continue to next season.

How the NFL can Ruin Your Life

Fan is short for “fanatic” and the fanaticism of NFL fans is never too far from the surface. Two articles recently struck me as being representative, in different ways, of just how important sports can be to a fan’s life. Read on to hear about how sports can make you fat and broke or svelte and rich!

One of my favorite quotes about sports, attributed to the late Sam Kellerman, talks about why fans treat sport like a matter of life or death: “Sports is man’s joke on God, Max. You see, God says to man, ‘I’ve created a universe where it seems like everything matters, where you’ll have to grapple with life and death and in the end you’ll die anyway, and it won’t really matter.’ So man says to God, ‘Oh, yeah? Within your universe we’re going to create a sub-universe called sports, one that absolutely doesn’t matter, and we’ll follow everything that happens in it as if it were life and death.” An article[1] from the New York Times by Jan Hoffman, suggest[2] that Kellerman might have been right in a very concrete way:

Researchers found that football fans’ saturated-fat consumption increased by as much as 28 percent following defeats and decreased by 16 percent following victories. The association was particularly pronounced in the eight cities regarded as having the most devoted fans, with Pittsburgh often ranked No. 1. Narrower, nail-biting defeats led to greater consumption of calorie and fat-saturated foods than lopsided ones.

In my life, I observe that it is more the act of watching football that leads to the consumption of nachos, hot-dogs, mozzarella sticks, and other delicious and waist-band stretching foods.

If putting your life on the line is not enough for some fans, there’s now a brand new way for them to put their money on the line. Gambling has long been a central focus for many who follow sports. If you don’t believe me, go watch the 1932 Marx Brothers’ movie Horsefeathers and it’s incredibly contemporary story about the fixing of a college football game. Fantasy sports has brought gambling on sports out of the alley and onto main street, in part because it distances the raw gambling from the outcome of the game. Now startup company Fantex has come up with a new way to gamble (or invest as they would have us think about it) on sports — by investing money in a player. Billy Gallagher reports on this story for TechCrunch:

Fantex strikes deals with professional athletes who give up a certain percentage of their income (presumably over an allotted period of time, like the length of their active career) in exchange for the proceeds of [an] IPO. People can then buy shares of that player’s brand, like a stock… presumably, if San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has a monster year and looks like he’s going to get a bigger endorsement deal or a larger contract in a few years, his stock would rise and a fan could sell their Davis stock and cash out with a real, monetary profit.

Gallagher argues that this is probably not going to be a great deal for the players (surely they can find something better to do with their money) but he is more optimistic about profit for the new class of fan/investors. I can’t wait until they create a market for people who blog about sports — I might be a penny-stock but who knows…

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Thanks to Patty Gibney for sending me this article!
  2. If you believe in the dangers of obesity