Why We Love Sports

The genteel yachtsmen who launched the America’s Cup race in 1851 wouldn’t recognize it today.



The genteel yachtsmen who launched the America’s Cup race in 1851 wouldn’t recognize it today. Crews wear drysuits, armor and helmets — which include head-cams to give video spectators an up-close and intense view of their struggles to stay in the lead, avoid collisions and keep their stiff, wing-like sails from capsizing their catamarans. And fans no longer watch distant sails from shore or look at photos of pretty boats in news reports. Thanks to a deal between America’s Cup Television and YouTube, online viewers now follow each race with a choice of video and audio streams. To orient them, a graphics-plus-live-action feature (modeled on the first-down line in football broadcasts) superimposes lines and statistics on live shots taken from helicopters and speedboats. (Earlier this year, the technology won an Emmy Award for innovation.)

These departures from the wool sweaters, cotton shorts and Top-Siders of yachting tradition are part of a strategy to interest a wider public in the race. The rebooted America’s Cup, as Richard Worth, chairman and CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority, promised journalist Chris Museler, is designed to be “watchable, dangerous and courageous, engaging, understandable [and] packed with interesting characters.”

High-end yacht racing is going through a transition that has touched many other sports that began with a few passionate enthusiasts. People can paddle, run, hike and birdwatch privately, so why do we have Olympic kayaking, marathon races, competitive orienteering, even a World Series of Birding? Because when you want to move your sport beyond the ranks of hobbyists and get the rest of us to care, when you want to see us roaring and hugging at your triumphs or groaning in pain at your defeats, there is only one path. It’s one that has worked for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years: set up a scoreboard and form competing teams. However beautifully a sport tests the laws of physics and the limits of human endurance, the public won’t be passionate about it until it involves a struggle among organized groups of competitors for supremacy.

As far as we can tell from history and archaeology, it has always been so. Whenever a civilization attains prosperity and complexity, it builds places where athletes can compete — and that competition spurs trade, political posturing and cultural razzle-dazzle. Greek merchants traded at the ancient Olympics while their rulers proclaimed alliances and poets celebrated the winners. The Central American ball game known as ulama, which has been played since 1400 B.C.E., helped regulate relations among city-states. Roman politicians staged games to get ahead with the public, and in the early Byzantine Empire, fan clubs for the Green and Blue chariot-race teams functioned like social-welfare organizations, political alliances, news sources and tailgate party organizers.

That ball courts and arenas and racetracks should be found in ancient ruins from Central America to North Africa to Asia points to the way organized sports expose the psychic bedrock of human nature — those inbuilt tendencies that define us and mark us as different from our close cousins, the apes.

Orangutans, chimps, bonobos and gorillas like to group up with those they know, preferably for their whole lives, and that’s the end of it. They don’t like newcomers. Human beings, on the other hand, don’t mind joining with strangers, especially if there’s a clear goal and the new-formed troupe works well. We don’t automatically welcome every new person who comes over the hill, but we do welcome a fair number, especially if we can use a good hitter and they have the chops.

This essential “teaminess” can get out of hand, of course. Byzantine chariot races sometimes ended in riots, one of which, in 532, almost overthrew Emperor Justinian, leaving Constantinople in ruins and 30,000 people dead. El Salvador and Honduras fought a “soccer war” in 1969, when tensions between the two nations came to a head during their World Cup qualifying matches. At the 2004 A.F.C. Asian Cup match between China and Japan, Chinese soccer fans drowned out the Japanese national anthem with their chanting, booed the Japanese team throughout and rioted after Japan won. And of course soccer hooliganism (often perpetrated by “hooligan firms” organized expressly for the purpose) is a constant in a number of European nations. On a smaller scale, every few years a baseball or football fan in the United States is injured or killed by fans of a rival team.

Nonetheless, the striking aspect of organized sports, for a cranky species that can get violent, is how often things stay civil. Sports may be unique in the way they express both our violent feelings and the peaceful ones, in a way that lets the peaceful ones prevail.

Given that they stem from an important part of human nature, it’s not surprising that team sports should have the power to move us deeply. Lately, scientists have investigated this phenomenon.

Consider testosterone, that hormone so famously associated with sex and aggression. It’s actually a more subtle chemical than its reputation would suggest, as it is associated with confidence, openness and curiosity — with feeling engaged with life. It turns out that, in the body of a player of a team sport, testosterone production is exquisitely sensitive to how things are going in the game.

Testosterone in competitors, for example, will go up before a match — if they think it will be a challenge. If they don’t feel the need to bring their A game, the hormonal boost doesn’t happen. During the game, the hormone seems to track a player’s sense of his value to the group. In one study of male basketball players on winning teams, testosterone levels rose higher in those who had contributed more to the victory than they did in less-important players.

It may seem strange that your glands can respond so precisely to a play-by-play, but it’s well documented. For example, one recent study compared testosterone levels in 17 players from two basketball teams, immediately after each had won a game. Testosterone surged among the players on the first team, but not the second. The difference? The first team faced opponents of equal ranking, and they attributed their victory to better playing. But the second team had been pitted against a better squad; they thought their win was sheer luck.

Similarly, in a laboratory experiment with volunteers playing a computer game, researchers compared gamers who played to win with another group, in which winners and losers were randomly chosen. Men who had won by skill had higher testosterone afterward than did men who won by chance. To get that testosterone boost from winning, it seems, you have to own the success. If you think it was just luck, you won’t get the same psychological and physiological boost.

One aspect of the testosterone research may illuminate why millions of us are so deeply invested in sports and how sports can become the focus of our deep team-oriented feelings: the hormonal effects of wins and losses aren’t limited to men and women on the field. After a game, we know, testosterone levels of winners are generally higher than those of the losers. The striking thing is that this is true for fans as well.

In the late 1990s, the late social psychologist James M. Dabbs of Georgia State University and his colleagues took saliva samples from eight men as they watched their favorite teams play basketball. They did the same for 21 men watching their teams fight a World Cup soccer match. Fans of the winners experienced a spike in testosterone after the match. Testosterone levels went down in fans of the losing teams. The effect has since been found in other forms of peaceful team competition. For example, after the 2008 U.S. presidential election, supporters of John McCain showed lower testosterone levels than they had registered before. (Interestingly, though, the hormone levels of those who supported the winner, Barack Obama, stayed steady. Much as politicians love sports metaphors, these two forms of peaceful contest don’t seem to move fans in the same way.)

Of course, researchers’ measurements of hormones in saliva samples would be of purely academic interest if they didn’t correlate with changes in behavior. But researchers lately have found that sports matches have a big impact on observers’ states of mind, and their actions, both as individuals and as a group.

Last year’s Vancouver riots after the Boston Bruins’ upset victory in the Stanley Cup may be a textbook case. Researchers have found that violence spikes in communities that host intense sports matches, and upset victories are associated with the biggest jumps in violent behavior.

In one study, economists Daniel I. Rees and Kevin T. Schnepel of the University of Colorado matched crime statistics with information about Division I-A college football games and found that game days were associated with jumps in arrests for assault, vandalism, disorderly conduct and alcohol offenses in host cities or towns. The sharpest rises came after upsets, they report. Similarly, University of California San Diego economists David Card and Gordon Dahl used data on domestic violence on Sundays during the N.F.L. football season to find that upset losses by a city’s team correlated with an average 8 percent increase in reports of male-on-female “intimate partner” violence. When the home team was playing a traditional rival or vying for a playoff spot, losses were followed by much bigger jumps in domestic-abuse arrests.

In similar work, economists Stacy Wood, Melayne McInnes and David Norton recently looked at the aftermath of 271 college and professional basketball games between 2001 and 2008 that either decided playoff status or involved long-time rivals — in other words, games that mattered a great deal to fans. When the final scores were close, the researchers found, fatal traffic accidents increased in the winning team’s hometown (and, when it was a different place, in the immediate vicinity of the match). Since the deadly crashes only increased in places where there were fans of the winners, Wood and her co-authors believe the accidents stem from a surge of excitement (and probably testosterone) triggered by the closeness of the game.

The recent work on the aftermath of games isn’t all about beatings and crashes. Some effects of an exciting game are positive, at least for some people. Incumbent politicians, for example, are probably right to want to associate themselves with winning teams. When a good thing (like a championship) arrives to make us feel good about our group, the leader gets some unconscious credit.

Recently Neal Malhotra of the Stanford business school and his colleagues compared major-election voting results in 62 counties from 1964 to 2008 with the wins and losses scored by those counties’ Division I college football teams. When a home team won within 10 days of an election, the researchers found, incumbents got a boost at the ballot. In fact, the researchers calculate that such a victory gives the incumbent senator, governor or president an extra 1.6 percent of the vote. The authors also surveyed some 3,000 people during the 2009 N.C.A.A. college basketball tournament about their team preferences and their political views. Basketball fans whose favorite team had just won a game gave President Obama a favorability rating that averaged 2.3 percent more than others’ ratings.

There’s a good evolutionary reason for us to be so passionate about our teams that their fortunes can change the way we feel about life, not to mention how we drive, vote and obey the law. Teams (the kind with jerseys and cheerleaders) matter so much to us because teams (the more loosely defined kind that involve cooperating with others for any goal) are the human race’s key weapon in the fight for survival. Stacked up against a tiger, elephant or eagle, an individual human is a poor competitor — no claws, no tusks, no wings. Only teamwork — our ability to cooperate with each other — gives us an edge against other creatures.

That being so, perhaps the sight of teamwork gives us pleasure for its own sake. It could be that we like to see teams in action for the same reason we like to see trees and grass — because both sights signaled a safe environment to our ancestors. A well-functioning team never fails to interest us, and often, to make us wonder if it’s with us or against us.

Certainly we often speak about giant collections of people as if they were single individuals — as in “Facebook won’t sit on its laurels” or “Iran wants a nuclear weapon” or “Dallas is hungry for a win.” As the psychologist and philosopher Donald T. Campbell has noted, the more such a collection of people resembles a finely honed team, the easier it is for the mind to see it as one thing.

When we see people who are physically close together, who look alike, and who clearly share the consequences of their actions, we are inclined to see them as parts of a single entity, a close-knit team. To those evident cues, Campbell added a fourth, which he called “good figure.” “Elements forming part of a spatial organization or pattern,” he wrote, “tend to be perceived as part of the same unit.” Consider an elite military unit on parade: The soldiers march in close order, they look alike in their uniforms, and they’re trained that survival depends on knowing that they’re in it together, that they share that common fate. But the sharp discipline of their drill, making them turn in unison and snap their rifles in perfect coordination, adds “good figure” to the impression.

Nations and 30,000-employee corporations, of course, don’t march around in formation. Yet it’s interesting to note that when we speak of these entities in the singular, we forget about the individuality of the people inside them. We have to remind ourselves that not all employees are alike, not all Iranians are the same. In other words, even without the deliberate cues, we tend to see teams. That’s why companies put so much effort into making sure each employee gives customers a positive experience, and why travelers feel responsible for representing their entire nation in the way they conduct themselves. We know instinctively that observers won’t say, “I didn’t like that woman named Jane with the blue shirt at the front desk.” They’ll say, “I had a bad experience at that hotel chain” and unconsciously expect the next employee to behave like the previous one.

The power of team membership to affect perceptions was confirmed in an experiment by psychologist Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania. He and his colleagues showed psychology students a set of eight photographs, each of an ordinary-looking young man or woman, wearing a gray jersey. At the same time, each volunteer read about how the people in the photos had been in some kind of a conflict (with phrases like “They were the ones who started the fight!”). After distracting the students with an irrelevant chore, the experimenters then asked them to match photographs with sentences about the battle.

The photos were a mix of black and white faces. Despite clear indications that both “sides” in the “fight” had been a mix of blacks and whites, the students tended to retell the story with all the whites on one side and all the blacks on the other.

This is a common memory trick in a race-sensitive society, but what happened next was more surprising. In the next go-round, Kurzban showed the same pictures and asked the same questions — but this time, the people in the photos were wearing jerseys that were either yellow or green. And this time, when people recalled the “fight,” they mistakenly lumped all the green-shirts together, and all the yellow-shirts. “Despite a lifetime’s experience of race as a predictor of social alliances,” the researchers wrote, “less than four minutes of exposure to an alternate social world was enough to deflate the tendency to categorize by race.”

Many animals, including people, cherish their own troupe and see a world of “Us” and “Them.” But only humans are keen to keep reformulating the boundaries; only people love to form new teams. Organized sports have the same mix of the eternal and unchanging loyalty to us (“I’m a lifelong Jets fan”) and constant newness (“as of this year, Tim Tebow is a Jet”). When we play or watch them, and experience their intense highs and lows, we’re reveling in one of our most important, and most human, traits.


David Berreby (david@davidberreby.com) writes the Mind Matters blog for Bigthink.com and has written about the science of behavior for a number of leading publications.

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