As sports fans, we wear our hearts on our sleeves, and our team’s name over our hearts. We’ll sleep out for days to get tickets, travel hundreds of miles to watch exhibitions, spend thousands of dollars, quit jobs and skip weddings to be at the big game or tournament—without necessarily even getting inside. We’ll stand in freezing cold, blistering heat, pelting rain. We’ll paint our faces, shave our heads, don moose antlers … just to show how much we care.
Yes, it’s crazy. But is it love?
As Valentine’s Day yet again approaches — a.k.a., the Groundhog Day of Love — it’s as good a time as any to ask.
Love, of course, is a many-splendored thing, that you can’t buy, that sometimes bites, is blind, conquers all, and means never having to say you’re sorry.
Most sports fans would say, yes, we love our teams. We all remember our first time. For some, it’s the longest ongoing relationship we’ve had, enduring the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
We’re hopeful admirers and hopeless romantics. We aren’t afraid to cry. We aren’t afraid to open up, to talk about our feelings — particularly after a terrible holding call on third down.
And we know only love will break your heart.
But sports fans are steadfast. We stick around. Even faced with the irreconcilable — an epidemic of concussions, the corruption of college athletics — we try to work it out. As with anything we care about, we’re scared of losing it.
If that isn’t love, well, it is chemistry.
In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown there’s reason to believe that your brain on sports looks like your brain in love. Research using MRI scans indicates that fandom and intense, romantic feelings are processed in the same part of the cerebral cortex. Psychologists posit that just a glance at a favorite team’s logo can produce dopamine levels comparable to those from looking at a picture of your spouse. And scientists in Holland have found that, win or lose, sports fans enjoy a significant release of oxytocin, the bond-bolstering “love hormone” that courses through the bloodstreams of new mothers and newly infatuated couples.
Eric Simons, author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, suggests that an emotional connection to a team offers many of the same benefits as a romantic relationship: knowing who we are, knowing what’s meaningful to us, and the self-satisfaction that comes from making a commitment and remaining faithful. The magnitude of the reward only goes up the longer you stick with it.
It’s not for everyone, of course. The esteemed cultural critic H.L. Mencken once said, “I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.”
No, being a sports fan is not rational. But you know what else isn’t rational?
So if you’re out there buying roses and teddy bears and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates just because it’s February 14th, is it really that weird that some of us own a Royals shirt for each day of the week ... and matching socks?
Because while Valentine’s Day is silly and fake, sports, at least for fans, is the real thing.
Victor Wishna is a regular commentator on KCUR's Up To Date.