There Is No Divorcing Your Team
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
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My dear wife Carla is getting a divorce.
Not from me. She is divorcing Gonzaga basketball.
We go through this ritual every March when the Zags fall short of the long-sought national basketball championship as they did again Saturday night.
“I’m done,” she will say. “Burn the T-shirts.”
Of course, every October, it is a different refrain. “This is the year,” she will say.
Still, this time there is a ring of resolution in her vows to divorce the team she follows so loyally.
Perhaps there are others in Eastern Washington who feel the same.
But do not bet on it.
There is considerable brain science behind loyal sports fandom. Science tells us that losers, even perennial losers, retain their most loyal fans because our brains demand it. Of course, Gonzaga is far from a perennial loser. In the last several years, the team has been the most successful in college basketball.
But the annual March disappointment has the same effect on our brains as perennially losing. It is just that fans’ brains do not care, at least they do not care in chemical terms.
A marvelous — and witty — 2019 Men’s Health article helps explain why.
When we watch an athletic team in which we have some investment, our brain goes to work. When Drew Timme makes a great move under the basket, the fan’s brain releases a shot of dopamine, which is released when we experience pleasure. In every upbeat moment, we get that shot and we crave it more and more.
The irony is we get that shot of dopamine even when Timme misses an easy layup or is called for traveling, as happened in Saturday’s game.
Wrote Evan Romano, “We don’t even need to win to get that dopamine hit — we just need to think we have a chance of winning to receive a jolt of the feel-good stuff.”
Once we are invested in a team we are addicted, win and lose.
That explains why I was a ridiculously loyal fan — some might say loyally deranged fan — of my Oregon Ducks for 30-plus years when they failed to win much of anything. Year in and year out, I would follow recruiting, study the spring roster, anticipate fall practice, look to that first game. And I would tell myself, maybe this is the year.
But the regular losses came — along with the shot of dopamine that kept me hooked.
As the Ducks began to win, as the stakes got higher, the dopamine kept coming. My addiction grew because winning does not really change the brain calculus. Dopamine shots may come with more intensity. But as the stakes increase, our addiction to the team deepens and the inevitable losses shoot us with a double shot.
So, Gonzaga fans — and us Ducks fans — will be super-hooked through incredibly successful seasons, only to get that loser’s double-shot that carries them into the next season as hopeful as ever.
Most of us have that level of loyalty to only one or two teams.
In a 2015 New York Times article, the writer describes a study by Daniel Funk and Jeff James, who developed a Psychological Continuum Model that explains fandom.
“According to the model, one’s path in fandom can be isolated into four ‘floors,’ awareness, attraction, attachment, and allegiance.”
According to The Times, we most often become aware of a team and establish our first connection because of a geographic link. I grew up in Eugene, the home of my Ducks. Carla is a Spokane girl, born and raised.
We might became aware through a spouse or significant other.
From awareness, fans follow a progression. For some, loyalty ends at one of the first three levels, often attachment. But that is a loose connection that can be broken when the next attractive team comes along.
For other fans, there is the highest level — allegiance.
“Essentially, at the point of allegiance for a fan, a sports team can do no wrong — even if the team consistently loses,” The Times reported. In fact, fans who have an allegiance to a perennial disappointment may view losing as a badge of honor.
With allegiance, a loss can cause real pain, physical pain. And such losses are inevitable in any sport. In the end, only one team can win it all. All of us are doomed to disappointment.
Annual disappointment may shake our loyalty for a moment, but we will always come back for more.
And for Gonzaga this is a good thing. An annual loss in the March Madness tournament will not disrupt the fan base.
As we have learned, addictions can be cured, though it is not easy, and relapses are more common than cures. Like any addiction, abstinence is crucial. You can’t have just a taste now and then. It is all in or all out.
Is there a 12-step for team addiction?
So, there will be no T-shirt burning this spring. Carla’s Gonzaga shirts will stay in the drawer until next October.
“This is the year,” she will say. And the dopamine shots will begin again, win … and lose.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.