You Are Who You Root For

Perspective on our psychological connection to the love of the game from a Chicago sports fan

Art by Weiying Zhu

Art by Weiying Zhu

For some, watching professional sports is a convenient excuse to consume copious amounts of beer and queso with friends on a Sunday afternoon. But for many others across the globe, following professional sports teams is nothing short of religion, a way of life, even an integral part of one’s identity.

What is it that feels so natural about screaming at the top of our lungs at grown men and women chasing each other in an arena?

Some psychologists believe the pleasure we derive from watching sports is primal. Dr. Robert Cialdini, psychology professor at Arizona State, stated in a NY Times that he believes, “Our sports heroes are our warriors.” Their jerseys are the armor of a modern day Gladiator, and their stadium, our shining, new Colosseum. To true sports fans, a team’s record of wins and losses are more than statistics, they’re bragging rights, prestige and on a more personal level, your sense of pride. Dr. Cialdini insists, “Whoever you root for represents you.”

A couple weeks ago, my roommates came home to me nervously rocking back and forth in front of our TV, the Chicago flag draped over my shoulders and my face shielded behind my hands. I looked nothing short of possessed. The catalyst for my paranormal activity: the Chicago Cubs were a single out away from winning the World Series. A smile erupted on the face of the Cubs’ third baseman, Kris Bryant, as he scooped the final grounder into his glove. The Cubs were about to break a 108-year curse. The effects of this final out were larger than any of us. This was going to change an entire city.

To true sports fans, a team’s record of wins and losses are more than statistics, they’re bragging rights, prestige, and on a more personal level, your sense of pride.

I’ve experienced that level of euphoria contingent on a team before—three times to be exact—when the Chicago Blackhawks not only ended its championship drought but built a dynasty, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

I, similar to nearly every kid from my neighborhood, come from a Chicagoan hockey family. To us, the Blackhawks are far more than a team. They’re the featured ornaments on our Christmas trees, the main contributors to our TV bills, and the unofficial 40-plus members of our extended family.

Last February, my roommate Bridget and I were lucky enough to attend the Blackhawks vs. Wild Winter Classic game at TCF Bank Stadium, a couple blocks outside our freshman dorm. Surprisingly, despite bitingly cold weather, being hopelessly outnumbered by Minnesota Wild fans, and generally being averse to anything involving eye-black and/or a scoreboard, Bridget says she loved the entire experience: “That day was one of the best memories from freshman year. And honestly, I think I had so much fun at the game because of how much fun you were having. You knew all the players’ names, their best friends, their hometowns—that’s insane.”

The deep connection I have to my favorite sports teams, although subjectively insane, isn’t entirely atypical. Having a common cause to root for is, at its core, the most human connection there is. Whether you’re competing for the NHL Stanley Cup or the global prestige of Olympic Gold, the connection between fans and their beloved teams has the power to make a city of one million or even a country of 300 million feel more like a home.

Eric Simmons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession,” explains to the Seattle Times, “The more we follow a team, the deeper the bond becomes. They’re us, and competing on a literal level as us…it’s phenomenal.”

I was horribly sleep-deprived and barely able to scrounge up enough money to buy a plane ticket home, but I don’t think I’ll ever regret spontaneously cutting class to catch a 4 a.m. plane back to Chicago the morning of the Cubs World Series parade. Did I ace my Biogeography midterm that following Monday after spending an entire weekend screaming “GO CUBS GO!” and hi-fiving drunk Chicagoans in Wrigleyville? In a shocking turn of events: no. (However, if you’re reading this, Mom, then the answer is yes. I passed that test with flying colors due to what I can only conclude was divine intervention.)

With an estimated five million in attendance, Fox 32 Chicago reports that the Cubs World Series parade was the seventh largest gathering in human history. That’s history being made in real time and an experience that stays with someone for a lifetime. Celebrating a championship with my closest friends in the city we grew up in takes precedence over everything, regardless of whether the victory contributes to an already growing dynasty or has been 108 years in the making.