Constructing the enemy: Inside the mind of a sports fan

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SchadenfreudeSchadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

This post is perhaps a week late, but it took me that long to process some of the recent banter between Vikings and Packers fans. Before we get to it though, a quick exercise–a short-answer pop quiz, if you will. Fill in the blank: Vikings/Packers fans are __________.  This obviously works better if you’re fully invested in this border rivalry, but if not, simply substitute other teams or groups–political parties works great.

So, did that get your dander up a bit? If not, try a different combination and consider the following recently excerpt from totalpackers.com:

“Perhaps a less discussed, but equally if not more important . . . is that we Packers fans get to bask in the joy and ecstasy of not just a Packers playoff victory, but also in the delicious Schadenfreude that comes from a debilitating Vikings loss. That makes it twice as sweet!

That has to hurt — for Vikings fans. But their loss and pain is our gain. Why? Because the Minnesota Vikings and their fans are our enemies. They and so many of their fans epitomize all that is soulless and wrong, albeit inept.

Given the good nature of most Packers fans (Lambeau Field is probably the most friendly venue to visiting fans, even of hated rivals in the league), the importance of this is sometimes lost. We know how to love our Packers, but sometimes we forget how — or why — to hate the Minnesota Vikings and those who support them.

While there are doubtless many venues that illustrate what a disgraceful breed most Vikings fans, and while so much of our history with the Minnesota Vikings ought to inspire hatred and bloodlust . . .”

Now, relax. This propagandizing is just all in good fun right? To be fair, surely Vikings fans use this sort of language too. And so do Bears fans, and Pistons fans, and hockey fans, and soccer fans, and liberals, and conservatives, and terrorists, and hate groups. The key step here–and it’s amazing how easy this is to do–is to separate or distance oneself from another in order to create an “other”: an entity that is not like you. Then it’s much easier to disassociate with that person or group. Once that distinction has been made, and the idea that the person is clearly not like you takes hold, this “other,” just naturally becomes less human. This “other” may then become the enemy, and the more pain and misfortune the other suffers, the better.

In any contest, we prefer the side that is more like us. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the Association Principle. The distinguished and prolific author, Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he (or she) wins, you win.”

The self is clearly at stake. Our public prestige rises when our side wins, and it falls when our side loses. We feel real and escalating emotions of joy and pride the higher the perceived stakes. Just listen to the language fans use after a victory. We say, “We won!” and “We’re number one! We’re number one!” not “They’re number one!” or “Our team is number one!” Unless, that is, our team has just lost, in which case we will often distance, and protect, our fragile self by saying, “They lost.” The devil is in the pronoun.

Looked at objectively, this is insane. Seen through the lens of a sports fan however, not only does this make perfect sense, it’s an admired trait! The more emotionally invested a person—the better fan he or she is. The more pain they feel after a loss, the more euphoria they feel after a win. We call these people true and diehard fans.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I am Viking fan myself. Over the years, this association has given me the unique opportunity to feel the very real and physical stress responses during the course of any game—muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms—as well as the emotions of joy and agony. Love me or hate me, because it is clear that somewhere deep within my warped and fragile psyche, I believe the Vikings really are me.

Perhaps however, bigger questions loom, like: Who are you? Are we really that much different? Do our associations really make us winners and losers? And, what is it, exactly, that I win, when you lose?

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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