One of the things I love about my job is the unbridled passion of our fans. I’m continuously in awe of the many ways people express their love for the San Jose Sharks. When was the last time someone tattooed the logo of a technology company or bank on their body?
Being a supporter of a team gives a person a psychological connection to the team and a sense of belonging. In a very real sense, they feel like a member of the team. It’s why fans refer to the team in the first person: ‘we won’ or ‘we lost.’ Research by Daniel Wann, psychology professor at Murray State University, shows that the more someone identifies with a team, the less they feel alienated or lonely and the more self-esteem and positive emotions they have.
The challenge is when passionate fandom evolves into excessive fanaticism. It’s one thing to have unwavering support for your team; it’s yet another to lash out against supporters of another. As Tamryn Spruill wrote,
A fan has a measure of control about his or her enthusiasm; a fanatic does not. A fan may not like seeing a person wearing a rival team’s jersey in their city, but it’s a fleeting moment of disdain. An [excessive] fanatic, however, will mad dog the rival fan until he or she challenges the person to a fight or gets the hell out of there.
There’s an old saying that ‘sports don’t build character, they reveal it.’ If people are already angry, sports gives them an outlet to express their emotions – often by hating the opposing team. The hate is based on little more than team identification. Sadly, there are way too many incidents in which it has escalated to violence. This is simply unacceptable and there is no place for it in sports.
According to Kathy Samoun, founder of the non-profit Fans Against Violence, “fan violence is really an adult form of bullying.” To help combat bullying, the San Jose Sharks have teamed up with Pizza Factory to educate kids about the negative impacts of bullying. The theme is ‘be a buddy, not a bully.’ For every win in the 2019 playoffs, the Sharks are donating a buddy bench to a local-area school. Education might not stop fanaticism in sports, but it does help show people the [unintended] impact of their actions.
So, go ahead and root for your team. Be loud and proud. Just live by the Golden Rule and treat the opposing fans the way you would want to be treated. With respect.
[This article previously appeared on Becher’s Bytes.]