This Sunday, a large number of Americans will devote their day to the Super Bowl. For some, the game will be a temporary diversion. But for many loyal fans of the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, the day will be filled with anxiety.
Longtime fans of the Falcons and Patriots will be on pins and needles, hoping and wishing and maybe even praying their team will win. That’s what dedicated fans do.
I understand the anxiety of these fans because the word “fan” is a shortened form of “fanatic.” What I have been trying to figure out is why some fans are so intensely fanatical.
My primary case study is myself. My team, the Chicago Bears, is not in the Super Bowl – far from it. But if they were, I would feel as I did in 1985 when they last played in this championship game (and won it), when I experienced more anxiety than enjoyment.
Why do I root so hard for “my” team that I can hardly stand to watch a game in which they’re playing? I’m not alone. I know many fans (aka fanatics) who are like me.
Any sane person would stop doing insane things that cause anxiety. I recognize that, and I do my best to avoid the insane stress of being a fan. Often I will purposely avoid watching a game involving my team and do something else, almost anything else – go for a walk, read a book, write a column, watch the news, even pull weeds.
Often, to avoid the stress of watching a game live, I will record the game in which my team is playing, then wait until it ends. If my team wins, I’ll watch the recorded game. If my team loses, I’ll delete it.
These behaviors, on any given day, can be highly therapeutic for me. I sleep better, pay more attention to family members and take deeper breaths. On the whole, I’m a more grounded and congenial person.
But like a moth drawn to a flame, I find myself being drawn to my team and how they’re doing while the game is unfolding. I’ll succumb and watch the game live, get involved, feel my heart pound faster and ignore what others around me are saying. In short, I’m not an easy guy to be around.
Strangely, if my team wins, I feel less a sense of elation than a mild relief, which soon fades. If my team loses, I feel a sad depression that often continues after I’m lying in bed trying to sleep.
There are many fanatical people who take sports to heart much more intensely than they should. The Super Bowl is a good example. Watch the faces of loyal fans in the stands during Sunday’s game and notice the high degree of what might objectively be called pain.
Many fans, upon honest reflection, will ask, “Why is it that I am so magnetically attached to my team? After all, the players on these teams don’t care about me. Why should I care about them?”
Having pondered at length this puzzle of a fan’s fanaticism, I’ve come up with a few possible explanations:
1. Fans need to escape. But there are many other, saner ways to escape: movies, music, exercise. Generally, after you engage in these escapes, you feel better, not worse.
2. Fans need to connect with something larger than themselves – a team. But there are many other less-stressful associations that a sane person could connect with.
3. Fans like to bond with others from the same region or background. That bond is nice, but really not worth the stress.
My explanations, as you can see, don’t really explain a fanatical fan’s fanaticism. This illogical behavior trumps a logical approach to life. I’m guessing that many people reading this column, especially Giants and 49ers fans, understand exactly what I’m saying because they suffer from the same symptoms of fanaticism that I do.
Are we trapped? I’m not sure. I have been trying for more than 60 years to extricate myself from this syndrome. There are days when I think I’ve advanced and am not so fanatical. But just then, I’ll catch myself watching my team play and getting way too caught up in the game, and I realize maybe I’ll probably be this way for the rest of my life.
Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a California Newspaper Publishers Association first-place award recipient for 2014, are encouraged, and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.