Fans of the legendary English soccer team Liverpool FC display their support
Fans of professional sports are a derided bunch. Usually associated with belonging to the lowest common denominator intellectually and culturally, others have gone as far as to claim that they represent the most prevalent form of social conditioning present in our modern society.
An observer in first century Rome coined the phrase bread and circuses to describe how Romans of that era chose food and fun over freedom, thus giving up their civic duty in favour of decadence. To people like Noam Chomsky, little has changed. In Manufacturing Consent Chomsky explains the role of sports in social conditioning:
Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.
Is being a fan of professional sports all that bad? New research by economists and psychologists suggests that sports fandom actually has some benefits.
The Boston Globe tells us how being a sports fan is not necessarily the bad thing it’s made out to be in The Secret Benefits of Fandom:
But a few scholars have started to suggest that there may indeed be another kind of benefit from big-time sports. There’s a catch, though: the team has to be good. In a forthcoming paper, economist Michael Davis and the psychologist Christian End say that having a winning NFL football team increases the incomes of the people who live and work in its hometown by as much as $120 a year. And while the study doesn’t identify exactly what causes the boost, the authors point to psychological literature suggesting that winning fans are at once harder workers and bigger spenders. In short, buoyed by the team’s success, we work longer hours, take bigger risks, and shop more avidly, all of which helps the local economy.
“This collective mass of people in a good mood, that is something that could really bolster the economy,” says End, an assistant professor of psychology at Xavier University.
The new work suggests that this kind of success on the field can shape a positive mind-set that affects the rest of our lives. Studies have shown, for example, that fans are not only happier when their team wins, they feel smarter, more athletic, luckier, and even more attractive. Other research shows that happy, self-confident people tend to be more successful – at work, in school, in any realm they’re competing in – suggesting how the successes and failures of our sports heroes become our own.