Pittsburgh fans love to tell you that they "bleed black and gold" -- and some of them may. Last year, a Pittsburgh man had a heart attack during the Colts playoff game; legend has it that the first question he asked in the hospital was, "Did we win?" A few days later, we had the story of the local teacher who allegedly punished a Broncos fan in his class. And who could forget the photos of the late James Henry Smith -- laid out for his final rest in black-and-gold pajamas, with remote in hand and a Steelers blanket covering his legs?
Pittsburgh boosters and bashers alike seem to think we've cornered the market on sports obsession. Fans point to such ardent fanaticism with pride; detractors cite it with contempt. One side asks, "Why don't you sports fans get a life?" The other insists that if you don't have the hypocycloids tattooed on your posterior, you're not a real fan. It's kinda like the Comcast "Steelers 24/7" ads. (Those are jokes, right? Riffing on the very stereotype we're talking about here. Right?)
But what if Pittsburgh fans are not so special? What if we're not much different than fans anywhere else?
There are, of course, subtle differences in sports fandom from town to town: Pittsburgh will probably never embrace an NBA franchise, and Los Angeles has been a lousy home for professional football. But such window dressing aside, empirical evidence suggests that sports fans everywhere share a similar psychological make-up. With the exception of Philadelphia Flyers fans, of course.
Sports have the power to unite disparate groups in a common cause, even if for only a fleeting moment. Maybe you've noticed the jubilation surrounding the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina. Or all the overblown prose about what the Tigers meant to Detroit this summer.
And despite the stereotype of Steelers fans as fat slobs, being a sports fan can be good for you.
"Sports provides a ready-made connection, a ready-to-use social network," says Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University and author of Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. Wann has conducted over two decades of research on sports fans. His studies all show that sports fans have lower levels of loneliness and alienation, and are more alive and more energetic. "Identifying with a sport team has a robust effect on social, psychological health," Wann says. "You can find the same benefits through religiosity, social groups and so on."
Journalist Jeffrey Mahler brilliantly chronicled the effect in his book, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning. It's the story of New York City circa 1977 -- a time of citywide layoffs, a mayoral race, the Son of Sam killings, and the infamous 1977 blackout. And it's all set against the backdrop of Reggie Jackson's first year with the Yankees. Jackson led the Yankees to their first World Series victory in 15 years, a feat viewed as a turning point for New York.
Maybe the victory didn't actually mean much to New York in a larger sense. But don't tell New Yorkers that: As the New York Post editorialized at the time, "Who dares to call New York a lost cause?"
"There is a prevalent negative stereotype of sports fans which is not rooted in reality," says Merrill Melnick, Ph.D., professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Brockton. Melnick teaches one of only five full-semester courses in the nation about sports spectating. "The stereotype is that sports fans are beer-guzzling, out of touch with reality, out of condition, out of shape," he acknowledges. But while "that subset of fans exists everywhere, research shows that sports fans are actually more engaged with life than non-fans, that they have more and broader interests."
Still, it's always easy to paint with a broad brush, especially for the media. Reporters, says Melnick, are "largely responsible for feeding into that image. It's sexier to show the overweight, shirtless fan in 10-degree weather than it is to show the ordinary fan sitting there just rooting for his team."
That same fan could just as easily spend his time at the movies, or even at the Pittsburgh Opera. But no matter how beautifully the soprano performed "Un bel di" during Madame Butterfly, he couldn't expect a high-five from the patron in the next seat.