Carolina-Duke, Duke-State, UNC-State … the juices begin to flow.
Longstanding rivalries feed the competitive spirit nurtured by athletic competition. The outcome of any game has little or no actual effect on our lives; only the gambler and the participants are directly afftected by its outcome. Yet we behave as if the win or loss is important to us, as if we, the spectators, are as much a part of the game as the players.
From whence comes this bond between team and fans? To what can we attribute an athletic devotion whose intensity can border on fanaticism? The answer is to be found in the human capacity for “identification.”
We identify with and bond with a team; it becomes to be an alter ego, another expression of who we are. But that identification has important emotional consequences. At the emotional level we’re no less involved than the players and coaches.
Indeed, we fans are the proverbial “sixth man” on a basketball team. We make our contribution in our cheering, in our attempts to distract the foul shooter, in our willingness to overlook bad seasons and come back for more. Indeed, for the fan, there is virtually no sin that a player can commit that merits “eternal damnation.”
LeBron James, much reviled for “deserting” Cleveland for Miami, is welcomed back because he can again bring victory. We Cleveland fans count again in the NBA and underneath that Cleveland “we” is a fan “I.” Emotional identification of whatever kind can reach incredible depths. Whether it is our team, our city, our state, or our country, its fate becomes ours. In the religious domain it is being played out in the youth joining ISIS. For me, its epitome is expressed in the soldier who gives up his life by throwing himself on a hand grenade intended for him and his buddies. At a less dramatic level it is reflected every time a stranger unexpectedly falls or stumbles in our presence and, without thought, we reach out to help.
This capacity for emotional identification is also a powerful unifying force and its group effects are observable on Franklin Street whenever UNC wins a national title. We’re joyful, exuberant, exultant and just plain happy. It’s a shared joy and its power is such as to perceive as a threat any effort to weaken its source. Thus it is that athletic scandals come and go and resist efforts at reform.
While we know that “TV money” is the great corrupter in big-time college sports, the price of reform can touch something very precious to our identity and it is that emotional tie that must be loosened if we’re to support the kind of reform necessary to our athletic health.
George S. Baroff