Agony of Defeat
What does it mean to be a Die-Hard fan? Everyone knows somebody—and if you don’t then the author of this paper is a prime example—who loves his/her favorite team and could not live without that aspect of fanaticism in their life. The term die-hard is thrown around and most pass it off as a simple exaggeration that is used to describe over the top husband, boyfriends, or brothers. What if I told you that in some cases and in the truest sense of fandom the sport fanatics of this world very literally died hard emotionally, and morbidly. To completely understand the concept of the die-hard fan its parameters must first be defined and explained fully, an examination of its psychological impacts must be stated with elaboration, and the physical effects of a die-hard must be addressed.
While normally not an educational source, the best available definition of a die-hard was provided by Urban Dictionary “a fan who wins and loses with their team. Knowing that their team wasn’t won…yet…but knows one day it will”. A die-hard fan more scholastically is “stubbornly resistant to change or unwaveringly loyal even in spite of inevitable defeat, failure” (Your Dictionary). While dictionary definitions provide a tangible resource to an initial understanding of what the concept entails, a real world example must be explored to expand the grasp of such a broad concept. Just this year Jonathon Siminoe, an American currently living in Bangkok, Thailand, traveled over 8,500 miles to watch a college football game, and refused to pay his bills for a month in order to have enough money for the trip. His reasons for risking so much to attend the game was captured when he indicated “last year’s game almost killed me physically and emotionally” later stating that he is also going to see “the vengeance we justly deserve”. While this case is on the utmost of extremes it provides a glimpse into the life and perspective of die-hard fans.
Emotionally, die-hard fans experience the most widespread and traumatic of the effects of fandom. To begin with, one most look at the degrees the toll of each loss takes on die-hard fans. Even the most die-hard of fans will not be traumatized by a middle of the season loss when there team is drastically out of contention or an end of the year cupcake with a playoff berth already clinched. Levels of Losing 2.0 by The Sports Guy Bill Simmons gives an in depth perspective to the deeper explanations of which losses hurt the most and do the most damage, literally. His article which starts at level sixteen and counts down to one, details the most crushing types of losses from crushing, to utterly debilitating. To start, in Level XVI (the top of the heartbreak pyramid) the Princeton Principle is explored; when you team far out performs any realistic expectations the fan had, yet still leaves you questioning what could have been. As we progress down the pyramid the psychological damage becomes even more prevalent Level VII—Drive-By Shooting depicts the horror of Michigan Football fans as they saw their team lose to a Division II Appalachian State. This loss was so impactful that despite being the first game of the season Simmons details the rest of the Wolverine Season utterly “meaningless”. The final and most impactful disappointment in the Levels of Losing is actually a combination of two previous levels—The Guillotine and The Stomach Punch. The names alone express the shear agony experience by this final and must devastating level of loss. Simmons, like many sports fans, has personally experienced the horrors of such a crushing defeat, what makes him unique is his allegiance to the Boston Red Sox one of the most psychologically tortured fan basis in all of sports.
Trenton Schlom head reporter for Lancer Sports Network, known Southern California sports personality, and employee of Fox Sports Net shares this treachery of Red Sox fandom. When responding to how it felt to root for a team –that previous to its 2004 World Series had not won in 86 years—let him down so consistently he said “it makes you feel empty and hopeless…whenever things were going right, you still knew that you couldn’t let yourself get excited…they would break my heart.” Furthermore, “it affected my work I am supposed to be a TV personality, but it is hard to be personable when you are so sad.” Some biased sports personalities will not resonate with most people, however the psychology of the sports fan is so queer that the government sponsored radio station NPR did a segment of “The dark heart of the sports fan”. Richard Deitsch explains that “Buffalo…treats its football team the same way people treat religion…If on Monday, if the Bills have lost on Sunday, you would see the atmosphere in the city palpably change.” The impact is so immense that people tend to show up to work later and be less productive, in contrast to when the Bills won “people were excited (and) they got to work earlier.” (NPR) And conversely were more productive. Later in the broadcast Prof. Ed Hirt of Indiana University explains that this extreme fandom—while not limited to—occurs predominantly in males. Prof. David Potter of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor also states that this reaction is not unique. In modern times, similar extreme fandom and heartbreak is documented as far back as Ancient Rome when chariot races in the 4th century would invoke the same emotions and psychological impact. In Ancient Rome being a fan of a Green team, or Blue wasn’t just a choice it was a part of who you were and meant every bit as much to your standing as your particular profession.
Biologically speaking, an explanation to such drastic psychological conditions caused by the victory or defeat of a certain sports team can be attributed to the high raise or immense drop in testosterone experienced when sporting events happens. This acts as a drug psychologically pleasing the die-hard fan and begging him to come back for another chance to experience such Euphoria. Due to this development it can be assumed that die-hard sports fanatical behavior can be viewed similar to that of a drug addiction. The brain experiences pleasure that it directly attributes to success of a sports team; naturally it wants more and is not satisfied until it once again the brain experiences the pleasure.
In addition to these two perspectives Daniel Wann writes in his 2001 book Sports Fans: The Psychological and Social Impact of Spectators about the self-esteem appeal that sports creates for many die-hard fans. “the individual uses sport fandom to help maintain a positive self-concept.” (Wann 36). Furthermore, sports provide an escape when fans are dealing with a tough time, situation, or national crisis. “…the escape motive may be particularly prevalent during personally difficult and/or stressful times…historically, many individuals have used sport spectating as a diversion during wartime.” (Wann 39). The diversion that sport provides was so vital to American moral that President Roosevelt mandated that Major League Baseball should continue its operations during World War II to allow Americans to get their minds off work. This practice has continued throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as the government has established the Armed Forces Network which airs all major sporting events and weekly football and basketball games for American Soldiers to enjoy during their downtime serving our country.
Similar to a drug addiction, the impact losing has on die-hard fans also affects them physically. Schlom states “when watching Aaron Boone’s Walk-off Homerun in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (which allowed the Yankees to beat the Red Sox, go to the World Series, and continue the Red Sox tradition of Heartbreak), I couldn’t function I knew I shouldn’t have expected more from the team who has let it’s fan down 86 consecutive years, but it felt a stomach punch…not figuratively I literally felt as if someone had socked me.” Physical ailments are most commonly seen through nausea, vomiting, and lack of sleep. On certain occasions it can propel its fans to anger, Schlom continues to state “I wasn’t even alive for the Bill Buckner (a costly error in the 1986 World Series which many feel cost the Red Sox the Series)play, yet find myself visibly angry just watching it twenty years later on the internet or ESPN Classic.” Perhaps the most telling, disturbing, and yet ironically appropriate physical ailment of die-hard sports fans is actual death. As shocking as it may seem, death, due to stress created from watching a favorite team is not uncommon throughout the world. This current NFL season unfortunately started off on a somber note as a father attending a New England Patriot game with his 6 year-old son died of an apparent stress related heart attack. In addition the New England Journal of Medicine in a 2006 article documents that on days in which the German National Football (Soccer) Team plays matches the number of heart attacks significantly rise in both men and women, they also continue to be elevated 2-3 days after the game has been completed. The problem is so severe that the report concludes “Viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event (Heat Attack)…preventative measures are urgently needed.”
Whether it is a World Cup Match, College Football Game, or Ancient Roman Chariot Race die-hard fans have been around as long as sports and competition have existed. What separates them from other fans, and possibly other sane members of society are the drastic emotional and physical toll winning a losing plays on their well-being. The failure to show up at work on time, professionally approach their job, or even physical pain is all a part of a strange cycle of fandom that seemingly never lives up to glory that seems just fingertips away. Though the methods and reactions may not make sense to those around them for a die-hard fan that opportunity to be on top of the world makes it all worth it. That one chance to truly feel the Euphoria of victory at the highest level and achieve what every die-hard fan truly desires the ability to say—best summed up by Bill Simmons upon the Red Sox capture of the 2004 World Series—“Now I Can Die in Peace.”