Freaks! Studies show that self-esteem of sports fans, like these watching the World Cup final, is bound up in their team’s performance. (Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos)
This summer was tumultuous for the mood of nations, as you may have read in the sports section. In Argentina, Reuters reported, a “weary nation” was able to find “rare joy” in the achievements of its beloved World Cup team. In Spain, with its economic problems and Catalan secessionist rumblings, The New York Times found World Cup elimination hangover: a “mist of mourning” over the country that “spoiled” the arrival of a new king. And Brazil. Before the World Cup, a Bloomberg Businessweek headline wondered, “Have Brazilians lost their love of soccer?” Apparently they still loved it sufficiently for an ESPN writer to find winter rain a portent from the gods as the team crashed out of the tournament. Or maybe not? Fans took to Twitter and the comments to declare themselves glad that the team was losing; four days later, the Times discovered a bunch of Brazilians who seemed just fine—“pleased,” according to the lede, about the outcome, and focused “as much on domestic politics as the event’s final match.” The gods, and the Brazilians, had quickly chased away their emotional trauma.
The World Cup and other major sporting events, like the Olympics or LeBron James returning home, turn sports journalists into travel writers, assigning them the challenging task of describing the character of millions of people based on a handful of interviews. The takeaway of stories becomes, unsurprisingly: Sports exercises a lot of power over some people.
But how? And how much power? And which people? These narratives of fans, identity, and meaning underlie some testable hypothesis about how sports affect people but offer little in the way of empirical backing. Perhaps that’s because numbers would challenge the hypotheses. On the subject of national narratives and soccer, for example: One poll conducted before the start of the World Cup by YouGov and the Times asked people in 19 countries how much they cared about soccer. Now, soccer is a big deal around the world, but of the countries surveyed, only in Colombia did 50 percent say there were “very interested” in soccer. In Brazil, 40 percent said they were very interested, while 47 percent said they were “slightly or somewhat interested,” and 12 percent didn’t care at all. Twelve percent of Brazil’s 200 million people means that there were 24 million people in Brazil who did not weep with the gods over the World Cup results, a Texas-size gap in the narrative. It’s entirely possible, in other words, that the narrative of sports fans and national identity is based on a minority of a country’s people—like the myths of “real” America based around a heartland ideal, resonating somewhere with someone, yet utterly ungrounded in math or reality.
When sportswriters turn inward, “we” and “us” replace “them,” but the form tends to remain the same: broad generalizations based on an n of 1. “As fans, we . . .”; “There’s nothing we love more than . . .”; “Sports fans like to . . . .” You can find dozens of these in any given month, in publications big and small, from writers brilliant and otherwise, in longform and in listicles. Almost all of it is guesswork, narrative simplification that underlies a complex reality. What really lies in the hearts of sports fans? Multitudes, of course; these are human beings and human beings are complicated. But that is a tough narrative to write. So writing about sports fans, like writing about politics, becomes the kingdom of writers remaking the world in their own image.
Bill Simmons, one of the most influential American sportswriters, once wrote after his team lost the Super Bowl, “I have never been able to answer the question, ‘Why does this matter to me so much?’ That’s just the way it’s always been. Ever since I can remember.”
“Why does this matter to me?” is a scientific question. “That’s just the way it’s always been” is a nifty dodge.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "About that thrill of victory..."