The Psychological Link Between Fans and their Poor Sportsmanship

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Over spring break, a friend and I traveled to Seattle to watch Portland’s hockey team, the Winterhawks, take on the rival Seattle Thunderbirds. During this heated game, players were pumped as they fought hard for their team and their fans. After Portland scored the first three goals of the game, I, along with the few Winterhawks fans spread sparsely throughout the arena were in good spirits, cheering our team on.

Within the next few minutes, the Thunderbirds scored their first goal of the night, causing the Seattle fans to go wild. It wasn’t until then did I learn that Seattle’s ritual was to chant “Portland sucks” after every goal they scored.

Over spring break, a friend and I traveled to Seattle to watch Portland’s hockey team, the Winterhawks, take on the rival Seattle Thunderbirds. (Photo: Christina Spires '16)
Over spring break, a friend and I traveled to Seattle to watch Portland’s hockey team, the Winterhawks, take on the rival Seattle Thunderbirds. (Photo: Christina Spires ’16)

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the worst of it. During the game, when a Winterhawks player tripped over his own feet, a couple sitting not too far from me yelled at the player, telling him “Go back to your locker room and go get your purse!”

As I continued to observe thousands of drunk adults and their children scream at the top of their lungs, I began to wonder why fans decided to chant negative things, rather than cheering their own team on with positive comments.

In Thomas Van Schaik’s article “The Psychology Of Social Sports Fans: What Makes Them So Crazy?” on Sportsnetworker.com, he states that disinhibition is the main reason why fans tend to participate in negative behavior. In psychology, disinhibition is defined as a lack of restraint, poor risk assessment, and impulsivity.

Schaik writes that because of this phenomenon, “the normal constraints on behaviour, such as long-term norms, self-monitoring, and self-awareness, are no longer present, causing fans to act on the basis of their immediate emotions and motivations, without considerations that might otherwise prevent their behaviour.”

In relation to disinhibition, another reason for this negative behavior is deindividuation, another social occurrence linked to the loss of self-awareness in a group setting.

In a social psychology thesis by Mike Perry, he writes that this loss of self awareness in group settings is the catalyst for the many fights and riots seen after sports games. This lack of self awareness causes groups of people to no longer care about their individual behavior as they feel their responsibility diffuse, creating a sense of anonymity.

“It’s a kind of tribal thing,” says Catlin Gabel Head of Upper School Dan Griffiths, “where like minded people come together and support each other. This causes people to behave in a way they would never act.”

This sort of behavior is what impeded Griffiths’ ability to go to soccer games as a child because of the violence before and after games, not to mention during the games as well.

On top of the impairments from these phenomena, most sports fans are consuming alcohol as well, causing them to act out more so than other fans. According to a report by ABC News, one out of every 12 fans at a sporting event is drunk. With behavior fueled by a mob mentality, drunk and buzzed behavior greatly affects those who are sober, peer-pressuring them to behave in a way the normally would not. This peer pressure comes from the idea that “you’re never a fan alone,” which was stated by Nick Grudin, Director of Media Partnerships for Facebook at a MIT Sports Analytics Conference.

“When I first started playing, it was really bad,” says Portland Winterhawks Defender Conor MacEchern. MacEchern has played minor professional league hockey for the past two years, one for the Cariboo Cougars in his home country of Canada, and his second year in Portland. After having experience with individualized taunts from fans, MacEchern states that these negative comments actually encourage him to play better.

Although fan negativity can become positive for the players, whether it be on the ice, court or field, the people bothered by this poor sportsmanship the most are fans of the opposing team.

“It’s kind of a downer,” says Sunset High School student and avid hockey fan Sidney Bolin ’16. “Since I’m around the same age as the players, I can imagine how they must feel to hear [obscenities] or jokes about their family. It just pisses me off but makes me get more into the game because I want them to win and destroy and kill.”

“I find it ridiculous that grown adults say such awful things to these children. It turns me into a more rude person than I already am,” reflects Bolin. “If you’re going to be a fan, support your team. It’s all good fun, so make it fun.”

When asked what could be done to solve this problem, Bolin stated that it probably is something that won’t ever be fixed because of how long this behavior has been going on.

“The solution lies in stopping the process of deindividuation. Offline or online, the best way to do that is to encourage fan self-awareness,” says psychology professor Rick Grieve in National Geographic article “Sports Riots: The Psychology of Fan Mayhem.” “It may be the fans themselves who can best prevent such incidents. Peer pressure can curb unruly behavior before it begins to escalate.”

Although I was consumed with anger during the game from these negative fans, the song “Sweet Caroline” played throughout the arena. As angry as I was, I couldn’t help but sing along with the Seattle fans. In that moment, there was peace between all fans, and I felt hopeful that the fans weren’t completely awful and civility between all was possible.