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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 4. Our Town

by Bob Andelman
"I'm a die-hard. I love college football. My two brothers and I were Rutgers undergrads. I donate a pretty good sum of money. I watch the games live and if I can tape it, I'll watch it one more time. During the off-season, I'll watch again. It's a sickness."
Peter Hendricks
New Brunswick, N.J.

Sports fans sustain a good-guy view of their hometown team and a bad-guy view of other teams. The hometown team's players are the community's champions, its gladiators, sent into the world to defend the community honor and reinforce community pride.

In Green Bay, the Packers represent far more than just random violence and mayhem committed against out-of-town guests. They are the good guys, superior athletic specimens who triumph due to their virtue and self-discipline, motivation, extraordinary willpower, training and teamwork. At least that's what fathers tell their sons in Green Bay.

In Chicago, where the Packers are mortal enemies of Windy City denizens, fathers regale their sons with tales of Packer misdeeds and ill-gotten gains, of the cheeseheads' cheating and miscreant ways.

When our team goes out and just totally shellacs another team blasting them into the next county, we are a part of it. We revel in the victories. When Cincinnati meets cross-state rival Cleveland, a "W" by any margin gives fans a year of bragging rights. "Your team sucks!" "We're a better city!" The bigger the win, the bigger the boasts. Even though the city had nothing to do with it. It was just a team. It has nothing to do with the city per se but we use it to brag about our community.

Communities assign their values to the athletes who wear their names to the world. New Yorkers expect the Giants to be bold and brassy; Los Angelenos demand the Rams be sleek and stylish. Chicago Bears take no shit from anybody. Denizens of these cities blindly trust their chosen warriors to fight for truth, justice and the NFL way.

The teams themselves nurture their local popularity by dutifully dispatching their young men to feed the poor, help the disabled, entertain the elderly and autograph broken limbs for hospitalized youngsters. (And be photographed doing it.) They invest thousand of hours to be one with their hometown, to veil themselves in an other-worldly mystique in order to mobilize fan support.

Newspaper reporters covering the NFL beat are assiduously courted to provide friendly articles even in a franchise's darkest days.

"I think most teams feel very protective of their good-guy image on their home turf because that is what the fans expect," says Dr. Gregory B. Collins, a psychiatrist and section head of the Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio. He is also a consultant to NFL teams. "They feel that bad publicity hurts the team and hurts the team with the fans. If they just valued mayhem as an athletic skill I don't think they'd mind so much that the players were arrested for violent behavior but, in fact, they don't like that. They really feel it is detrimental to the overall mission of the club and they take offense when that kind of thing happens."

The people in the stands become convinced their own lives rise and fall with the people on the field. Sometimes a whole city can be depressed on Monday. It becomes a real attachment.
* * *
When you watch football you root for a team identified with a city. If your city does well it gives you a stronger sense of identity and a stronger sense of being special, important and central. There is something about rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles if you are from Philadelphia or the Kansas City Chiefs if you are from Kansas or Missouri that hooks you in with that community and puts you on the map if your team does well.

It becomes another way to feel good about yourself. If you identify with Dallas being No. 1 you actually feel you are part of No. 1. The same might apply to individual players or stars that people might follow.

"When I first came to Chicago," former Bears offensive tackle turned sportscaster Dan Jiggetts says, "the Bears had struggled for a decade. In 1976 and '77, we turned around. There was an uplifting of the spirits of people in the city. It's a civic thing. If you're winning, you've got a lot of teammates. In Chicago, they may not like the way the team is going, but they're so supportive."

The Spear brothers, Andrew and Jeff, spent their formative years in Denver developing a love-hate relationship with the Broncos.

"Denver is soooo caught up in Bronco-mania," Andrew says. "You have to get swept away with it. Other markets have other pro teams. Denver fans are more loyal; until the Rockies came along, they didn't have as many choices. Losing all those Super Bowls, the loyalty is still there. I stood by them. And I always will."

"I'm a diehard Denver Broncos fan," Jeff says. "So I know pain. I can't tell you what it's like to root for a winner."
* * *
No. 2 just isn't good enough for frustrated Bronco fans. Buffalo Bills fans know that feeling, but they hesitate to disparage the only game in town.

Football is very important, economically and otherwise, in places like Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. While the natives deny the winters in Buffalo are as bad as you've heard, there's no denying that endless weeks and months of snow make for some long days in the dead of winter. The Bills provide relief; a winning season can carry the community into late January and buoy its spirits clear through to spring.

Buffalo is an interesting case, as blue-collar as you can get. The people are hard-working, family-oriented, with strong loyalties. The Bills represent the only game in town to many people. And it's not like New Orleans or Philadelphia, Boston or New York where there are a lot of entertainment options. Buffs hunger for any type of national exposure, anything that says, "Buffalo is a big league city." Cleveland is another city that really wants to be recognized. Tampa is also going through that. Professional athletics have a lot to do with it. In a town like New York, people can afford to be fickle and very demanding of their athletes because there are a lot of choices. In Buffalo, you have a much closer relationship between the team and the community.

William E. "Bill" Price, an associate professor of mathematics at Niagara University, was at the first Bills game ever played back in 1960. He's been a fan ever since, rarely missing a game.

"We have hockey, but football was here first, like a first son," Price says. "Buffalo is a nice city, but it's not glamorous. Other cities have other things to be proud of. We need football. When we're on a roll, you can see half the people in town wearing Bills stuff."

That's why his city can hold its collective head high even when the Bills pile up three successive winning seasons only to fall flat in three straight Super Bowls. It matters, but then again it doesn't. "To make it is a tremendous achievement," Price says. "The long season, all the wins -- I'll take it. Those who don't think so are missing the boat. You had all the enjoyment of those playoff wins. Just being in the Super Bowl is really something. The Bills are our gateway to national recognition. One game is overrated. Second place doesn't get the credit it deserves."

Fellow fan Buff Ralph Weisbeck agrees.

"If we lose a game, I may be down for an hour or two, but I think, 'We'll do better next year'," he says. "Even when we lose the Super Bowl I think, hey, we got there! We had some great games to watch. That team doesn't owe us a bit."

Some years ago, when Price feared Buffalo might lose its team, the college professor did his part to show support. He bought an extra season ticket and ran a newspaper ad offering rides to the games.
* * *
In Green Bay, in the fall of the year, even though a man might go hunting or fishing on game day, he'll always carry a radio with him, tuned to the Packers.

"Financially, nationally, the Packers put little Green Bay on the map," Green Bay banker Jerry Pigeon says. "If we ever lost the team, I think we could survive, but it wouldn't be the same. There's a lot of Packer in me."

As a kid, Pigeon and his buddies used to scale the fence at old City Stadium and sneak into Green Bay games. "They'd walk you out and then you'd jump back over the fence and come back," he says. He used to wait on Packers coach Vince Lombardi when he was a teller at the bank where he's now an officer. And he went to the same high school as Vince Jr.

"It's different being in Green Bay," Pigeon says. "It's the only game in town. That's instilled in us. If I was raised in Chicago or Dallas, I might not have the same interest in the Bears or Cowboys. You'd have to experience it to understand it."

* * *
Larry Mayer says the love of football in Chicago isn't that different than in Green Bay. Chicago is a Bears town, he swears, no matter how many championships Michael Jordan and the Bulls win. People mark the seasons there by Red Grange, George Halas and Mike Ditka. They pass season tickets along in their wills.

"When Mike Ditka got fired," the Chicago Bear Report managing editor says, "you would have thought the president had been killed. The fans were mad at everybody. They said unprintable things about (team owner) Michael McCaskey. A lot of these people, I think, take it too seriously. The 'superfans' are people who live and die with Ditka. He epitomized the city, the work ethic. He was one of us, even though he makes tons of money. It crushed people when he got fired. I know a guy, 6-4, he pulled off the side of the road when he heard Ditka got fired and cried."
* * *
The day H.R. "Dick" Williams relocated his retirement home from ritzy, sleepy Palm Beach, Florida, to Houston, Texas, he says, "I went nuts. In Palm Beach, we had spring training. When I got to Houston, I got season tickets to all three professional sports -- baseball, football and basketball."

A superfan of his own making, Williams created The Derrick Club for Oilers fans. "I won't say I'm the biggest Oiler fan, because some guys paint their faces blue before the games, but I'd say I'm in the top five." It gets him invited by the team to be a guest on road trips and created the enviable opportunity to befriend most of the coaches and players. Getting to know them personally makes all the difference in his enjoyment of the games they play: "It's more than sports; it's your friends out there."

The '60s song lyric that went "You've gotta love the one you're with" couldn't be applied more aptly than to Williams. The former cleaning services contractor lived in Denver and was true to Bronco blue before retiring to Palm Beach. Now that he's in Houston, the Denver loyalties are long forgotten.

"Because I had lived in Denver, my friends there got seats for my wife and I on the 50-yard-line for a Broncos-Oilers game," Williams says. "We (the Oilers) were winning by a tremendous margin. But in the last 16 seconds, John Elway pulled it out for the Broncos and I wound up wearing a Broncos tie to dinner. Very humiliating."

It's easy to switch allegiances when you live in the city where a team plays. "I can't understand people who live in Houston who root for the Cowboys. That's impossible for me to comprehend," Williams says.
* * *
Human resources executive Roger W. Brummett was born to be a Colts fan. As a kid in Indiana, he got a white football helmet and painted a blue stripe in the middle and a horseshoe on each side. When he played football in the yard, house rules were you could only wear the helmet on offense, so you could be Johnny Unitas.

"When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up," Brummett recalls, "I said I wanted to be quarterback for the Baltimore Colts."

This is all the more significant because Brummett grew up in Indiana, not Baltimore. He chose the Colts as his team long before Bob Irsay ever dreamed of relocating the franchise to Indianapolis.

The year Irsay did shock the football world by moving out of Baltimore in the middle of the night and unloading the trucks at the Hoosierdome, Brummett founded the Thundering Herd fan club. The club hosts tailgate parties, travels to away games, sponsors an annual banquet for players and awards a $1,000 scholarship to a high school football player who is injured and cannot complete a season due to injury.

In 1988, the team recognized Brummett's contributions by presenting him with a jersey that had his name and the number 12, for the "12th man." The jersey was even from a Baltimore Colts uniform, he notes with relish, "so I really got my wish."

The Colts' real impact on Indianapolis is only just being felt in the 1990s as the first generation of area youth grows up with an NFL team. "I think it's taken some time for the community to embrace a professional sports team," Brummett says. Meanwhile, the team has a positive social and economic effect on a blighted area around the Hoosierdome.

"They have contributed to civic pride," the Indianapolis superfan says. "We're one of 28 cities fortunate enough to be part of the NFL. In 10 or 15 years, we can be lucky enough to be like a Green Bay or Buffalo."
* * *
At least one guy relocated to Indianapolis because the Colts moved there.

John Cimasko was raised in Northern New Jersey and, like Brummett, became fascinated with Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts from afar during the '60s. When the team moved to Indiana in '84, Cimasko's interest was oddly rekindled. He and his brother became charter members of the Thundering Herd Fan Club.
On a lark, the brothers Cimasko packed suitcases and went to see the Colts in person at the Dome. It was just short of a religious experience for John. Just before getting on the plane to go home, he picked up a real estate magazine and stuck it in his luggage.

"My wife Maryanne started looking at the homes," he says. "I used to kid about moving to Indianapolis and she called my bluff."

It took some time, but Cimasko caught on with Pepsi-Cola's Indianapolis operation as a route salesman and lived out a fantasy in 1990 by moving his family to the Hoosier State. "This is my place," he says proudly.

That's just the beginning of Cimasko's story, however.

WNDE, the Colts flagship radio station, broadcasts a live, weekly Colts-oriented program from Union Station in Indianapolis. During an open mike segment, audience members can step up and speak their mind. Every week, Cimasko did exactly that. The station quickly recognized this was no ordinary NFL fan from Jersey and soon they looked for him each week. Now Cimasko enjoys his very own segment during the off-season.

"New York is big -- what are your chances of getting a radio thing?" Cimasko says. "That doesn't happen to the common man. And we went to Bob Irsay's mansion! How many people get to talk to the team's general manager about the draft? It's great."

Maryanne Cimasko, the woman who dared her husband to relocate, didn't know what she was setting off.

"She thinks it's a little wacky," Cimasko says.
* * *
There are only 28 NFL franchises, but hundreds of college teams, so far more people have college football loyalties around the country. These folks may live in a college town, but the school's support is spread farthest and widest by students who pass through to pick up a degree on their way to greater glory.

• Attorney Peter Hendricks, on the other hand, is one of those guys who went to Rutgers University and never left New Brunswick, New Jersey.

"I'm in the Scarlet R, the 12th man club," he says. "We have meetings with the coaches to go over prospects. We have a countdown on our calendars to kickoff. Our law firm has had occasion to represent some of the players in a legal capacity. We yell and cheer and scream. It hurts when they lose. I've adopted the same attitude of the coaches and players. You hate to lose but you move on, hoping that the next week is going to bring victory."

• Dr. Robert L. Arnstein, retired chief psychiatrist of Yale University Health Services, is the son of a Yalie who took him to his first game, Yale at Army, in 1927.

"The cadets marched and that was colorful," he recalls. "I saw two or three games that season. I can still remember some of the things that happened. If you asked me what happened yesterday, I'm not so good. I'm not sure what would have happened if I hadn't gone to Yale College. That might have made a difference."

There's no shaking Arnstein's loyalty.

"It has something to do with my feeling that the team embodies a kind of abstract ideal," he says. "I sour on a team if I think that they are not really living up to my idea of what the ideal should be."
* * *
For some men, allegiances can also be made without deference to geography.
These guys typically spend their whole lives in the same city without ever seeing it through the eyes of a visitor, like the New Yorker who's never been to the Statute of Liberty or the top of the Empire State Building. They associate with Dallas or San Francisco or Miami because they're more glamorous, more colorful, or more successful than the locals.

"We used to go to Tampa," former Chicago Bears offensive tackle Dan Jiggetts recalls, "and we'd get cheered more than the Bucs. We thought, what is this, a home game?"

• "I tend not to like the local team," says Larry Selvin, a West Roxbury, Mass., financial accountant. "The local reporting is so biased, I tend to rebel against that. I've always liked Dallas. And I like San Francisco a lot; my brothers are in San Francisco."

• Boston textbook buyer Kenton Blagbrough feels equally strong about four favorite teams. "It's not just the home team I'm rooting for," he says. "Although when the Patriots were on their drive to Super Bowl XX, I was in seventh heaven. That was just awesome."

• Joe DiRaffaele owns a chain of temporary help services, Labor World, based in Coconut Creek, Florida. He got hooked on Notre Dame without ever being a student of the school or traveling to South Bend. Because New York City, DiRaffaele's hometown, doesn't have a high-profile college team, local television stations would broadcast Notre Dame games. It didn't hurt that the Irish played a couple of high-profile games at Yankee Stadium in the '60s.

• Hospitality industry management consultant Mark von Dwingelo also began a love affair with his team by accident. When Yankee Stadium was being refurbished in the mid-70s, the Giants temporarily relocated to von Dwingelo's home state, Connecticut, playing home games in the Yale Bowl. "I was able to go to some games and it was instant attraction," he recalls.

• Banker Shawn Cahill went to Florida State University from 1977-80. He was in school when coach Bobby Bowden took the Seminoles to their first major bowl game; "It was my classmates playing," Cahill says. "You're rooting for guys you know and it continues after you leave school. When these guys go to the professional ranks, you follow them. I still root for guys like Deion Sanders, who was good at Florida State."
* * *
Keith Farber, a Buena Park, California, courier and native of the city, loves any team if its name starts with the words "Los Angeles." He views the games as a social outlet, making friends through the Rambassadors fan club and relying on the Raiders, Rams, Lakers, Kings and Dodgers for contributions to his own self-esteem.

"I was a short, pudgy kid," he says. "I wasn't an athlete when I was young because I didn't grow out of it until I was 14."

There are some things some guys never grow out of, though. The shoelaces on his tennis shoes are blue-gold. He wears a Rams watch and Rams pendant every day. He dons team sweats to the games. And he has, on several occasions, painted his face in Rams colors.

"When my team wins, I win," Farber says.
* * *
One of the most revealing studies of sports and community identity was overseen by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. He confirmed through research that, as a general tendency, fans prefer to associate themselves publicly with winners and to distance themselves in the eyes of any audience from losers.

Cialdini even coined the phrase that describes this phenomena: "basking in reflected glory" to describe the phenomena.

Winning and losing teams influence the morale of a region, a city or a college campus. The community may actually have clinical features of depression when its team loses. People become blue for several days, disoriented and non-productive, whereas if they win, they are pumped up and active.

For example, after the home team wins a football game on Saturday, scores of university students at seven major NCAA schools systematically chose to wear apparel to class on Monday that announced their school affiliation. They wore sweatshirts, T-shirts and team jackets with insignias and emblems that designated them as part of the university after the team won in far greater numbers than after it lost. The larger the victory margin, the stronger the tendency to show off.

"There is a great tendency on the part of the fans to literally dress themselves in the success of their team," Cialdini says. "The other thing that we have found is that this doesn't just apply to such things as the way people dress themselves. It also has to do with the way that they associate themselves and the pronouns that they use to describe a victory or defeat of the home team. We find, for example, that college students here at Arizona State University were significantly more likely to use the term 'we' to describe the outcome of a game that the football team had won but to use the term 'they' to describe the outcome of a game that the team had lost. Again there is a tendency to incorporate victors within the concept of the self and a tendency to distance losers from that concept."

The tendency to use "we" to describe victories and "they" to describe defeats was by far more powerful among those people who had recently experienced a personal failure.

"People who have experienced some sort of recent setback were people who have a sense of low self-worth because they carry around this sense of themselves as losers," Cialdini says. "Especially likely to fall into this category are people who choose to bask in reflective glory but avoid the shadow of another's defeat. Those are the fair weather fans. We're not saying that people who support their teams and get behind their teams and like to associate themselves with their team are people with low self-concept. We are saying that fair weather fans are people with low self-concept. They are the ones who jump on the opportunity to connect themselves to a victor but then bury their connections with a loser."

There is another feature to Cialdini's study worth noting. Apparently the reason people bask in reflective glory and distance themselves from the shadow of failure is to boost their image in the eyes of others. They believe other people will see them as more positive if they are associated with positive things, even though they didn't cause the positive things.

In the apparel study, Cialdini's researchers found that the effect was just as strong for away games as it was for home games, even when the fan played no conceivable role in the success of the team. They weren't in the stands cheering the team on, but they still wore more home team apparel when the team won.

"We think it is a desire to connect themselves with victorious others so the audience will see the fans more positively," Cialdini says.

When there is a victory, fans feel as though they shared in the glory of the team. That has to do with the sedentary quality of modern life. American men rarely battle or do combat. (Urban guerilla warfare and 26-mile marathons not withstanding.) We use physical sports as proxies for the lost challenge of the physical environment, indeed, against one another. We get a vicarious, second-hand charge from watching people engaged in physical contests where they can identify with one side or another. It's primitive but we can do it without getting hurt or messing up our designer jeans. We can turn on the tube and watch our favorite gladiators fight on our behalf and if we feel as though our honor is somehow at stake, victory will be all the more rewarding.

Fans want to associate themselves with victorious teams in order to enhance their self-esteem and personal prestige.

Studies have shown that they do that if they have recently had some kind of damage done to their own esteem. If students perform poorly in their exams, when they are given an opportunity to bask in reflective glory they are more likely to do it when they have had recent damage to their esteem than when it has not happened.

Dr. Edward R. Hirt, an Indiana University social psychologist, conducted his own study of the basking in reflected glory phenomena. He used college basketball fans to determine how the outcomes of a game featuring their team affected them personally.

People flock when their team is doing really well. But when the team hits on a big losing streak or a bad couple of years, attendance and general interest falls off. Nobody cares about them. Hirt's study concerned itself with the people who stick with their team through thick and thin, enduring the losses to one day, again, relish victory. The hardcore fans don't disassociate themselves from their team when the waters turn choppy. They believe they have to suffer through those tough times because they are true fans of the team.

In brief, Hirt's methodology was to organize loyal fans into groups of six to eight and have them watch away games of their favorite college basketball team. They were asked to rate the performance of players and the teams. They also had to assess their mood and their feelings of self-esteem.

"Our assumption," Hirt says, "was that people's moods were going to be very much affected by the team's outcome, but also that it might carry over and affect their self-esteem as well."

Subjects were also put through what they were told was an unrelated study. They did tasks ostensibly designed to estimate various abilities from a motor-skills test (mini-basketball free throws) and solving anagrams to a simulated dating scenario where they were shown slides of the opposite sex, pre-rated for attractiveness, and asked how likely it was the person in the slide would go out with them.

"Under winning conditions, we found you did get some elevations and people's estimates on all these tasks," Hirt says. "But in the loss condition, we saw lowering on their motor skills, social skills and their mental abilities to solve problems. Then we had them actually do the task and we didn't find any differences. So this is all a perception of your own ability rather than actually influencing your ability to do things.

"The bottom line," he says, "was that there does seem to be this connection of the fan with the team so that the team's outcome does have effects on the fan's perception of themselves. But they didn't seem to carry over to affect performance per se, just their outlook and sense of self."

The one puzzler in the results was that the effects of the loss seem to be stronger than the win.

"I have two explanations for that and I don't know which one is right," Hirt says. "The first one -- the more boring one -- is that college students are already so optimistic about their own abilities that there is not a lot of room on the scale to go up. There is a lot more room to go down. They already believe that they are well above average. It may just be a scaling effect there that wins really do affect people in the same way losses do but we couldn't see it based on the kinds of scales we were using and the kinds of tasks we had.

"The second thing," he says, "could be -- and I think this may hold some water -- that for many fans, and especially here at Indiana, any win is expected and any loss is devastating. In that situation a win is good and what you expect but you don't get as up for it. In fact, people can be pretty critical even of wins. 'You should have won by more' or 'We didn't really play that well but we won the game.' The losses are uniformly all bad regardless of how badly you lose."

The most avid followers of a team really startled Hirt. They watched every game to the point where it was a major part of their lives. It was an obsession to the point where they would arrange their schedule around a game.

"I have no reason to believe that the results that we found with basketball are any different than football," Hirt says."I am not sure that this helps necessarily explain why people watch the stuff. Why would they want to put themselves through that?"

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1 comment:

Maroussia said...

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