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We Need to Cheer

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Is it social glue or manic behavior when we root for our favorite sports team?

Okay, I confess.  I spent most of this afternoon watching “my” NFL team win after 3+ frustrating hours of not-as-good-as-we-fans-have-come-expect football.  That’s over 10% of my day and almost 20% of my waking time watching someone else play a game.  I am embarrassed to admit that—or at least I was.

I was particularly distressed once I realized that I’d done that with the time I needed to write this post.  But everything—even getting waylaid by a football game—happens for a reason.  This time around, it was to teach me that cheering for favorite team is an okay way to spend time.  So…since I have finally learned that, you get the short course.

The vast majority of us end up rooting for some team to win at something while we just watch at some point in our lives.  Many of us do it all year long, switching from sport to sportas the various  seasons begin and then end.  We spend a lot of energy at it, too.  Jumping up off the couch on a good play.  Stomping out of the room when “our” team does something awful.  Yelling at refs.  Then we rehash the weekend contests at work—or wherever–on Monday… Tuesday… Wednesday…

Why do we do this?  That’s the question I asked myself after I realized I had spent my Sunday afternoon at it.  Why did I do that instead of cleaning the garage?  Or writing the great American novel?  Or even calling a good friend for a long phone conversation?  My assumption was that I’d chosen the potato chips rather than the veggies in how I had used my time—and that everyone who chooses likewise is just as derelict.

But when I started to research why we cheer, I came across two things that have given me a major change of heart.  The first is TJ Dawe, one of the guys behind Beams and Struts, an online magazine that carries the tagline “A Project for Hungry Brains and Thirsty Souls”.  TJ is not a sports fan.  Usually those who aren’t are rather aloof about all this cheering and whoopla.  Instead he embraced discovering the “why” of it.  It was not “How do I show how wrong all these people are for doing something I don’t do?”  It was “What makes us, as a culture, do this?” TJ and his cohorts dedicate the magazine to this kind of thinking.  It’s 180 degrees from all the “we/they” stuff we’re mired in these days and was incredibly refreshing—so much so that I ended up watching his entire TEDx Manitoba talk before I got back to the task at hand.  He wrote an article on why we cheer for Beams and Struts that’s worth checking out, too.

But I digress.  What I learned—which he learned, in part from Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich–is that our current mores around sports teams have deep, important roots.

As Dawe put it, “For hundreds of thousands of years, there’s been a strong adaptive advantage in feeling the pull to be part of a group. I am them. They are me. Their efforts are mine, and vice versa. I look out for them, they’ve got my back too.”  In other words, the grumpy guy who doesn’t bother to get involved with the rest has been, over the millenia, more likely to meet a quicker demise as a result of his separateness.

We don’t hunt woolly mammoths together anymore.  We don’t go out to gather acorns or wild rice and millet with huge wild animals on the prowl.  But that sense of banding together is still wired in.  So we gather to urge “our” team on to victory instead.  A symbolic successful hunt.

When I started this article, I had a second question in mind:  Why don’t we cheer for ourselves instead?  Why don’t we use that energy to make something happen in our own lives instead of going crazy over a bunch of overpaid jocks?  I honestly believed that’s where this article would go—to a “we can do better than this” conclusion.

I can’t say that.

When we go nuts as sports fans (assuming “nuts” is legal and that you’re not so obnoxious you get kicked out of the venue), it’s a chance to be part of a “we.”  And we need “we” opportunities.

So connect and go crazy for a few hours every once in a while.  Even the zany fan behavior is consistent with the carnival nature of the sporting events of the Middle Ages, when we were closer to those “you have my back, I have yours” days.   It really is very old, important behavior for the sake of the species.

Plus, life is not always about getting things done.  Even if they lose, you’ve been a part of something bigger than yourself for a while.  And that is good for all of us.  Besides, no one ever died saying, “I should have had less fun.”