This past weekend saw football move into high gear, as the NFL regular season began and several big college games took place. As fans don their favorite team's uniforms, paint their faces, and affix team flags to houses and cars alike, it's a good time to ask why do people do these things.

I had thought about writing this column a couple of weeks ago, but the events of yesterday truly compelled me to do so now. As a resident of Cincinnati (a city long deprived of professional football, but that's a topic for another blog), I was struck by several events yesterday.

In the late morning, I was having an early lunch at my favorite neighborhood spot. It was a couple of hours before the kickoff of the Cincinnati Bengals season opener, and many fans were grabbing lunch wearing Bengals uniforms. Of course, none of these fans (1) play professional football for a living or (2) actually know anyone who does, so the reasons why these nonplayers were wearing these uniforms is clearly psychological in nature.

As a professor who needed to get some work done over the weekend, I dutifully set my DVR to record the Bengals game so I could watch it later if I was fortunate enough to complete my work. While working in my home office later in the afternoon, I heard a many people (in my otherwise very quiet neighborhood) cheer loudly, then suddenly groan. I knew that my neighbors' self-esteem had, in just the course of a couple of minutes, risen and then plummeted, at the hands of the local NFL franchise.

How can sports teams impact one's self-esteem?

In psychology, the phenomenon of Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRGing) helps to explain how the performance of one's favorite sports team can change one's sense of self-worth. Specifically, people will symbolically associate themselves with others, such as sports teams, in order that their successes rub off on themselves, increasing one's own self-esteem. By wearing a sports team uniform, attending their games, or watching them on television, the team's successes becomes the fan's successes, and as a result, wins on the field translate into bolstered self-esteem.

Interestingly, some of the best evidence for BIRGing actually come from experiments involving success (or failure) of one's college football teams. In one study by Bob Cialdini and his colleagues, the clothing choices of college students at several universities (e.g., Arizona State, Ohio State, Univ. of Southern California) on Monday mornings following football game Saturdays were monitored. On Mondays after the university's football team won their football game, students were more likely to wear university-related apparel (e.g., shirts, sweatshirts associated with the university) than on Mondays following losses (63% vs. 44%).

Perhaps even more interesting, in another study conducted by these researchers, students were contacted following football games and asked to describe the game that took part over the weekend. When their university's team won, the students were far more likely to use first-person constructions (e.g., "WE played great") than following losses. In other words, people tried to "own their team's victories" by describing wins in the first person, symbolically linking themselves to the victory.

Costs of relying on one's team for self-esteem

Although the symbolic association with one's sports teams may seem harmless, I suspect there are some real costs involved. For example, many communities spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep their sports teams happy and to prevent them from leaving the city in moving vans in the middle of the night -- and one might reasonably ask if there are better ways to spend money in the service of civic pride and economic development. This year, the new Cowboys Stadium opened (estimated construction costs in excess of $1 Billion), and the City of Arlington provided over $900 Million in bonds to build it, supported by an array of tax increases to include things in the new stadium such as the world's largest high-defintion TV screen (at over 150 feet in width).

In my hometown of Cincinnati, Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000 at a cost of about one-half billion dollars (also paid for by a sales tax increase which currently is not generating enough revenue because of the economic downturn), to house a football team that has only experienced 1 winning season in its new home (and has only had 2 winning seasons in the past 20 years).

Given that the football team has been a running joke in the community for so many years, one could make the argument that Cincinnati is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to inflict regular blows to its self-esteem... if a clinician were to provide such "services," certainly such an individual would be removed from practice and sanctioned!

On its face, such a statement sounds a bit absurd. Yet, let us return to the groans I heard reverberating through my quiet neighborhood yesterday. Indeed, as I would later discover when playing the game on my TV, the Bengals finally scored in the game with just 38 seconds left, taking the lead 7-6 against the Denver Broncos. Yet, on a fluke play just moments later, a deflected pass would skip miraculously into the hands of Broncos's receiver Brandon Stokely, who marched 87 yards down field and deliver Cincinnati an opening day loss. For Bengals fans, such twists of fate are almost expected, and I'm sure it won't be the last groans of the season from my neighbors. Yet as a psychologist, I find myself wondering more and more about the impact of such a horrendous team on my town's sense of self-worth and less about whether the Bengals will ever field a winning team ever again.

About the Author

Allen R. McConnell

Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., is the James and Beth Lewis Professor of Psychology at Miami University.

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