This is the first of a five-part Sunday series examining the impact of sports on American
society and vice versa.
Behind the east end zone in Cleveland Browns Stadium is a double-deck section of bleachers known as the Dawg Pound.
Donning costumes that include dog noses, dog masks and bone-shaped hats, the most voracious Cleveland Browns fans sit. So impassioned are these fans that team officials banned the carrying of dog food into the stadium because the bleacher fans would shower the visiting team with Milk-Bones.
In right field of the new Yankees Stadium, section 203 to be exact, are the Bleacher Creatures. This particular sect of fans sing and chant their way through home games, beginning each with what has become known as the roll call, where they announce the Yankees starting lineup in their own unique fashion.
Housed in stadiums and arenas across this country, versions of the Dawg Pound and Bleacher Creatures exist. At Turner Field alone there have been McCann’s Cans and Francoeur’s Franks — ardent fans of Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur.
Etymologically, the word fan derives from the word "fanatic" and means an enthusiastic devotee — the aforementioned fit that definition to a tee. But with personifying the word fan comes a certain mentality, a psychology, that goes deeper than the excitement or sense of community derived from cheering for a team.
In a 1991 study conducted by college professors Dr. Nyla Branscombe and Dr. Daniel Wann, it was stated that fandom allows individuals to be a part of the game without requiring any special skills.
Case in point, Gillsville resident Ken Silvers who hasn’t ever played baseball but has a deep-rooted passion for the Atlanta Braves.
A fan since the 1970s, Silvers moved his family of four to Georgia from Florida for one reason: "They stopped showing (the Braves) on TBS," Silvers said. "So we figured if we couldn’t get the Braves in Florida, we’d move to Georgia to get them."
Now, when Silvers isn’t watching the Braves on their various broadcast stations, he’s watching them in person.
"I like the camaraderie of being around a bunch of other people that are there for the same reason I am," he said. "Even though sometimes I feel like a freak when I’m hollering and people look at me."
Silvers openly admits that even when watching in the comfort of his own home, his emotions get the best of him when it comes to the Braves.
"Oh, I scream at the TV," he said. "I mean, if we win everyone’s hyped up and it’s cool. If we lose, it’s a downer."
A study in Georgia, conducted by Georgia State University psychologist James Dabbs, tested testerone levels by taking saliva samples from different groups of male sports fans before and after games. The result was that testosterone levels rise drastically in male fans after a victory and drop just as much after a defeat.
In both the study by Branscombe and Wann, along with the testing done by Dabbs, the psychology of fandom comes down to indentification and living vicariously through a team or members of it, consciously or not.
In the book Sport, Games and Play, authors Jeff Goldstein, Drs. Dolf Zillman of the University of Pennsylvania, Jennings Bryant of the University of Alabama and Barry Sapolsky of Florida State University that fandom offers such social benefits as feelings of camaraderie, community and solidarity, as well as enhanced social prestige and self-esteem.
That said, why not align yourself with your favorite team?
If a part of the psychology of fandom boils down to having something to identify to or with, where does that leave women when the most popular and accessible spectator sports are played at the highest levels primarily by men?
"I do think there’s a lot of identification by males," said Dr. Margaret Carlisle Duncan, a professor in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin. "But it’s a little different for women because in the big three sports — football, baseball and basketball — there’s really not a lot there for women to go for."
Under Duncan’s supervision, and accompanied by Dr. Barry Brummett of the University of Minnesota, two notable studies were conducted regarding fandom. In one, a co-ed group was placed in a room to watch a football game; in the second, it was an all-female group.
"We talked a lot about what women would find interesting or identify with (in the first group)," Duncan said. "And basically, it was that if (watching the game) was what their mate or partner was doing then that’s what they wanted to be doing."
The all-female group later observed by Duncan and Brummett spent what Duncan called a fair amount of time making fun of the players.
"They appreciated the skill involved, but there was also an undercurrent of, ‘Well, these guys aren’t too smart,’ or ‘they make dumb moves.’
"If I can grossly oversimplify, it can be said that a lot of women who watch men’s sports do it to support their male friends or partners and they want to be a part of whatever their friends are a part of — sort of an odd identification."
Duncan pointed to the lack of audience-building for women and women’s sports as a possible reason for why women identify more with the ones they’re with than the sports they’re watching.
"A typical response of those responsible for what goes on TV say, ‘But we’re only doing what the public wants and the public doesn’t really want to see women’s sports,’ Duncan said. "There are conscious, intentional strategies used to build an audience for any sport, but those strategies aren’t being used for women."
For instance, according to Duncan, the technical wizadry is missing from women’s sporting events such as super slow motion, use of the telestrator and instant replays. And when it comes to promoting a women’s sporting event, the fervor with which the men’s games are advertised is also lacking.
"When you present women’s sports with a low-budget feel, and there’s no one who’s enthusiastically talking it up, people aren’t interested," Duncan said. "You know, the bottom line is that there are so many things going on, that are a big part of fandom, that it’s impossible to look point to one thing and say, ‘That is what makes a fan,’ or ‘That is why people aren’t fans.’"