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Excerpt from Chapter Four, "Critical Reflections on Being a Carolina Fan."
A final lesson I took to heart early from North Carolina basketball is that when all was said and done, I was only a fan. Not a participant, but a spectator. That being the case, how could I as a rational person make my self-esteem, what I thought about myself, rest on the accomplishments of other people, or more specifically, on the outcome of a game over which I had no control?
Yes, it is appropriate and instructive to appreciate and enjoy the talents and accomplishments of others. It is in the nature of human beings that we enjoy other people performing in various activities, striving to do their best. But something goes amiss when consumption of other people's accomplishments crowds out full engagement with one's own endeavors.
Sociologists of sport like to use the term "bask in reflected glory" to describe the positive feeling sports fans enjoy when their favorite team wins a game or a championship. Yet there is a natural propensity for sports fans to want to go beyond basking in someone else's glory, and to feel like one is actually a participant in the accomplishment. What complicates the issue is that in college basketball, fans present at a home game sometimes can indeed be active participants and help influence what occurs on the court, albeit indirectly. However, that contribution is inherently a collective effort, not reducible very often to the actions of any one person. Furthermore, only a very small percentage of the people who see any given (televised) game see it in person. And only the superstitious among television viewers or radio listeners believe that anything they do during the game could possible have any effect (however small) on what happens on the court. (Of course, one or two Carolina fans have been known to be a little superstitious!)
My own conclusion with regard to Carolina basketball is that my ability to take pride in the accomplishments of the players and coaches would increase to the degree that I put as much effort and persistence into my own pursuits as they did into theirs. I couldn't share in their accomplishments, but I could share their ethos to some degree. Most important, fully recognizing that what the Carolina basketball players do is essentially their accomplishment, not my own, made it less likely I would feel cheated if they didn't win or didn't play well. One could point to days in one's own life where one wasn't as productive as one hoped to be, or didn't make quite the extra effort. And separating out one's accomplishments from those of the team would make it possible to appreciate the wins and high moments for what they are--gifts given to the fans that are earned by the hard work of the players, not entitlements. Gifts, not entitlements, not something that fans deserved.
Of course, it's hard for highly committed fans to live up to that ideal of recognizing the distinction between one's self and one's team. When it doesn't happen, as Daniel Wann and co-author Nyla Branscombe have found, highly committed fans are susceptible to depression and rage following a loss. Probably most fans can avoid the rage that the sociologists focus on, but first hand experience leads me to think that depression or feeling down in the aftermath of a loss can be harder to shake. Even fans who rationally know better feel pain, sometimes profound pain, at losses. The psychological trick is to try to get more pleasure out of wins then pain out of losses. Maximizing pleasure from wins implies maximizing identification with the team on the occasion of wins. Minimizing pain implies reminding one's self sharply that one's self-esteem shouldn't rest on the outcome of a game (particularly one played by someone else.)
With some practice, it is possible to condition oneself to emphasize identification in the aftermath of wins and separation in the aftermath of losses. This is why you don't often hear winners of big games saying, "It's only a game." The inherent tension in this process of alternating between wanting to identify with the team and recognizing one's own, very limited place as a fan and observer is not easy to negotiate, though common sense, experience, as well as the data collected for this book suggest that it does get easier with age.
Perhaps the best practical test of appropriate fanhood is what I call the "Carolina Basketball Can't Ruin My Day Test." The test is simple--witnessing Carolina lose a basketball game, even by 26 to Duke in the ACC Tournament in a dreadful performance--should not ruin one's day. Carolina losing the day might make for a less happy day, and might even spoil's one mood for a while. But it shouldn't stop one from going jogging, taking time to reach out to someone at church, working on a project, enjoying time with family, or any other constituent part of a given individual's day. I know firsthand that this is a hard test to pass for Carolina fans. It doesn't apply to Carolina's actual players and coaches. I also hesitate to apply the test to the small minority of spectators who see a given game in person, especially those who have made significant effort or borne significant cost to be at a game. But I don't think it's too high a bar for the fan who simply watches a game on TV or listens to it on the radio, be it alone or with friends. Feeling bad about a game someone else played shouldn't cause someone to waste a day of his or her life--even if a couple of hours of hurt and low activity is inevitable.