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Some Thoughts on Sports Empathy

I've been doing a lot of thinking about empathy and feeling your team's hurt as of late.  Wonder why? haha. This is something of a collection of thoughts that have crossed my mind. I am not pandering by saying this, for it isn't pandering if it is true. We have a very intelligent reading public here on this blog, so I would welcome what comments / observations / reflections you have about what it means to be a fan, why we feel so bad about the doings of people we don't know but feel like we do know, and how this all relates to this week's Sugar Bowl game.

I don't recall where I heard this said or read, but a commentator once made the point that sports / fandom is the area of society where men are allowed to show their empathy. Well, I know women sports fans, and they too can be crushed by a loss or elevated by a win. And it would be a very poor world if men only cared about the fate of sports teams. I don't think we live in that world. But I can't help but feel that there is some truth in that comment. Though some will roll their eyes possibly, our culture says women can cry at "chick flicks" and men can cry or moan over an interception. I am sure more than a few of us actually lost sleep over the outcome of the Sugar Bowl. I did. I had the many what-ifs playing in my head well after the dome had emptied. And many thoughts of why does this always happen to "us."

I don't think you can be a fan and not have a feeling of empathy for the team you are rooting for. Identifying with the ups and downs of others is at the heart of being a fan. What I find remarkable is that I doubt any of us lost much sleep Tuesday night over the situation in Darfar or the terrible floods affecting the people of Australia. Our empathy circle is much easier to draw together with a smaller population. I can feel the tragic nature of life, but I have to remove myself from breaking into tears at every news report of some horrible happening to my fellow humans, though strangers to me in a personal sense.  

At the game they had a nice moment of silence for the tornado victims of Northwest, Arkansas, and no doubt that we sympathize with those families, but if you don't know them, their loss still isn't as real / vivid as Ryan Mallett and company losing on national television, an image you'll carry with you possibly forever. I don't know any of the Hogs as people and doubt I ever will. But I ached for them at the end of Tuesday night's game. It is interesting to think about what the world would be like if we were all more capable of aching for one another as fellow human beings in other contexts as we do for our sports teams when they lose. Some alien observer would no doubt report back on that pecularity of modern homo sapien.

But in truth, I think you have to say that we identify so much with the Hogs that it isn't just a case of feeling bad for them. It is a case of also feeling bad for ourselves. Though we never punt, pass, or kick, we are by extension members of team Razorback. It is no revelation to point out that they represent us on the field of play. But I think it is remarkable that so many different indviduals that make up a fanbase can funnel together into one identity, that of being an Arkansas Razorback fan. Those 30,000 - 40,000 Hog fans in the dome would likely agree with one another collectively about very few things in life, but they can ALL come together behind the idea of supporting the Hogs. Religion, politics, tastes in music, you name it, you put it aside to shout Woo Pig Sooie right along with the guy or gal next to you.

Being a fan is similar, I think, to being a member of a tribe. We are tribe Razorback. And we admit people into the tribe who only need to wish the Razorbacks well. That's the qualification. You don't have to have graduated from the UofA or even have been born in Arkansas. Identify with the Razorbacks, and you are in! But it also doesn't hurt if you pay a small fortune in red and white clothing and tickets to games! haha.

Taking this tribe idea further, I wonder if there isn't something here tied to the human past that connects Ryan Mallett's interception to a miss shot by a member of a tribal hunting party of males out to score some meat for the members of the tribe. Okay, before you think I've gone off the deep end, haha, think about it. We are the people back at the cave. The trophy now is not a carcass, but a thing of metal, but it represents a victory for the tribe, another version of the antlers you put on the wall after a successful deer hunt. The trophy case. The trophy buck. Different versions of the same thing. And using the war analogy, so often used with football, we also have a long history of wishing the male members of our tribe to be successful in the rifle they fire. "He has a rifle for an arm!" you hear said.  All of which to say, that which is new only seems new in human history.

And for those of us who have seen the Hogs in many a bowl game and many a big game where they came up short after a hard fight, well, the Sugar Bowl wasn't anything new either, but an old pain revisited. But we march on to the sound of the fight song and Woo Pig Sooie, and the time will come again when our reach doesn't exceed our grasp and we score a big victory that we can put in the tribe's collective memory and talk about around the camp fires / television sets for years to come.

PS: There is a really excellent book out there about empathy and its evolution by a Dutch primatologist by the name of Franz de Waal called "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society." Though he doesn't go into sports so much, I think he could use a chapter on sports empathy! It exists.