While the NBA playoffs have been a great source of entertainment lately, something happened at the end of the Utah-Oklahoma City series that I thought was really interesting and brings into question the role of and rights of a fan. For some reason over the years, the focus of being a fan has gone from cheering for your chosen team to deriding the opponent and trolling their fans. OKC star Russel Westbrook was walking off the court while being jeered by Utah fans. Rather than walk on by, Westbrook exploded on the fan and took aggressive steps towards him until he was held back and ushered towards the locker room. Westbrook is a polarizing player to begin with and many observers and pundits just chalked it up to an emotional player losing it. I’m no Westbrook apologist, but after hearing his post-game comments when questioned about it, I found myself moving towards his corner on this one;

“I don’t confront fans, fans confront me…Here in Utah, man, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players here with these fans. It’s truly disrespectful. (They) talk about your families, your kids. It’s just a disrespect to the game and I think it’s something that needs to be brought up.

“I’m tired of just going out and playing and letting fans say what the hell they want to say. I’m not with that. If I was on the street, they wouldn’t just come up to me and say anything crazy, because I don’t play that (expletive).”

He’s got a point. Why do so many people think it’s ok to say things as a fan that we would never say to someone in another public setting? I’ve heard many people argue that by paying for a ticket, you have the right to do it. I might just be a prude, but I don’t see the logic in that sentiment. The family that bought tickets to the seats next to you has the right to not deal with your vulgarity and antisocial behavior…

While most of us might not be the fan who would try to heckle an athlete or coach from the stands, I would bet most of us have been the fan that screams at the ref, boos an opponent for a play that we’d cheer if it was our guy, or called for the firing of the coach or benching of players. Why is it that we care SO much that sometimes our very personalities change when we are in “fan mode” ?

There’s a simple theory used in psychology and sociology called “social identity theory” that posits that people form at least some if not most of their identity and self-concept from the social groups that they identify with. It’s easy to support this idea by simply asking someone to tell about themselves. It is almost certain that they will mention various social groups that they are a part of; family, town they are from, church group, school they attended, sports teams, community organizations, etc. Building some of your identity around your social groups certainly isn’t a bad thing, but what does it look like when too much of a person’s identity is built around sports?

I believe very strongly that a cultural shift has taken place in the past 50 years or so that has pushed sports groups higher and higher up the list of social groups we identify with and build our identities around. In the past half century, the traditional social institutions of Religion, Family, and Country have been torn down off their pedestals by various forces in society. Sports groups including being a fan of a certain team and political identity have risen to fill the need for social identity. This is why we see so much tribalism and confirmation bias in these areas of life. When we build our identities around these things, it makes some sense why we become unhinged and combative when our beliefs about our group are challenged. Emotions are intuitions are STRONG when we’ve built up an “Us Vs. Them” framework in our social minds. Sports environments are specifically designed to get our adrenaline pumping and our aggression is brought to the surface. Community bonding happens in ways we don’t fully understand when we connect with other fans who share our beliefs about our team. While these experiences are undoubtedly positive the excess energy and feeling of “being alive” in these instances can certainly go overboard and make us lose perspective.

I’m not trying to be the fun police. I jumped off the couch when Jordan Poole hit that game winning miracle three pointer for Michigan in the NCAA tourney this year. I’ve yelled at my share of officials who I doubt were out to screw me over. I’m just trying to encourage some understanding of the phenomenon of fandom and why we get so emotionally attached to wins and losses when in the grand scheme of things, they don’t really matter that much. Go to games, cheer your heart out, feel the rush of being connected to your community, but try not to get punched by Russell Westbrook for being a mindless jerk…