In my experience, explaining why I love sports to non-fans is much like explaining my Christianity to atheists. It usually ends in a debate I’m not so excited to participate in and I usually end up feeling a little less intelligent than when I started. There are certain groups of people who by default are bestowed a certain intellectual (and sometimes moral) superiority including non-sports fans, atheists and people who don’t own televisions. (They are by far the most intimidating people. WTF do you do all day?) It is sometimes easy to see where this superiority comes from. There are more than enough historic examples of horrific things done in the name of Christianity (and religion) and sports fans have not often been credited with exemplary decision-making skills.
Case in point, the St. Louis Cardinals whose fanbase, along with those of the St. Louis Rams, have done an excellent job in displaying everything wrong with fandom in the midst of the protests for Michael Brown which took place outside of Busch Stadium and the Edward Jones Dome respectively. Chants of “Let’s go, Darren” referring to Officer Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, rained down on protesters along with myriad racist comments.
As we see in the video there is a very simple formula to make a group of people absolutely horrible. Alcohol + Matching Shirts + People Not Wearing Your Shirt + A Dash of Racism = Horrible People
In reality, those fans were a great example of groupthink: Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.
Of course, in addition to wearing the same shirts they were, more importantly, all the same race. And though the protesters have become an increasingly diverse group they, by no means, resembled that group of Cardinals fans. Sports, at its heart, is in fact sanitized tribalism. The tribes may vary be it school, city, country or other affiliation but in the end we all root for the laundry we are handed. Most of the time the competition is healthy. Unfortunately, like everything else, under the right circumstances anything healthy can be consumed in hatred. We have seen it time and time again, most notably with many European soccer leagues.
It is very easy to lump all or most of the sports experience in with the flashes of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance. We live in a world where the ugliness is often louder and brighter than the beauty. The vision of a hate-filled few becomes the paint that drips off a broad brush. The majority of St. Louis sports fans aren’t what you see in this video. The majority of sports fans at large aren’t what you see in this video. For us, the average fan, sports is a unifier. We care about the color of the jersey more than the color of the man or women wearing it. We cheer because through everything that pollutes our brief existence in this world, for a few hours we get to come as close to a pure existence as we can ever hope to. Whether it’s an end zone, a basket, a goal or home plate, how we judge victory and loss are clear. It is a feeling that exists nowhere else I’ve ever known.
Somewhere along the line, long before Michael Brown, the fans in the video forgot what it meant to be a fan and along with it their humanity. Here’s hoping that one day, for them, Cardinal red means more than black and white.
Upon Further Review is a new weekly column in which I will examine off the field sports news and when possible, find correlations between sports and everyday life. It has been my belief that the world of professional sports can and has served as a sort of hyper-reality that shows real American culture, good, bad and ugly. I hope that UFP helps further the conversations and understanding of where we stand as Americans of all types.