Sports fandom and the dangers of overidentification

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There’s an inherent weirdness to being a fan of professional sports. People align with teams based on arbitrary circumstances such as where they were born and which squads were exciting during their formative years. Middle-aged men with cheap beer on their breath wear the names of young athletes they’ve never met on their backs, while children worship questionable role models merely for their on-court accomplishments.

Of course, arbitrary alliances are not always the norm. Oftentimes, individuals align with teams or players that personify qualities they see in themselves — or at least would like to. The scrappy 2004 Detroit Pistons, for example, were a defensive-minded group that captured the hearts of an industrious urban Michigan population.

The pendulum swings back, however, in light of recent incidents involving NBA crowd interactions. Radical fandom has reared its ugly head in the form of thrown food, spit and airborne objects.

In the span of four days, the Wizards’ Russell Westbrook had popcorn poured on him, the Hawks’ Trae Young narrowly (and unknowingly) avoided spittle from a fan at Madison Square Garden and the Nets’ Kyrie Irving was nearly struck by a weaponized water bottle.

The patheticism behind each of these acts is impossible to overstate.

Players weren’t the only victims of what can euphemistically be called “heckling.” During Game 2 of the Grizzlies’ first-round series, family members of Ja Morant were on the receiving end of racist comments from Jazz fans. Undoubtedly, the Morant family’s attackers should take the energy they put into committing acts of bigotry and reallocate it toward propelling their favorite team to its first respectable playoff run in recent memory.

Personally, I believe that a lot of this idiocy is attributable to some people’s overidentification with the teams they follow.

Some forms of overidentification are benign. For example, I’m amused when people say “we” in reference to a team they support, as though they’re somehow a part of the team, but I recognize that it’s harmless. I choose not to say things such as “we lost the Big Game this year” because I’m not a member of the Cal football team — but to each their own.

But sometimes overidentification manifests itself in a malignant, malevolent manner. There are those who feel personally betrayed when a player leaves their favorite team. Perhaps this is what caused a Celtics supporter to hurl a water bottle at Irving, who left Boston for Brooklyn in 2019.

Sometimes, fans see their team’s opponents as their actual enemies, whom they consider villainous for often trivial reasons. Basketball games get beyond personal: They become so absorbed in rivalry games that they feel a duty to not only distract but demean opposing players.

When fans let their egos get too wrapped up in their favorite team’s success, the results can be disastrous. While no incident in recent weeks has escalated to Malice at the Palace levels of confrontation, individuals with too much invested in their preferred squad’s success are practically begging for its second coming.

The moral of this story? Don’t let your ego get too intertwined with the sports teams you support. Chances are you aren’t friends with any of the players involved, you don’t have anything tangible riding on the teams’ success and you’ve come to root for those teams on account of somewhat arbitrary circumstances, such as where you happened to be born and which jerseys caught your eye as a toddler. And if you actually do have something riding on a game’s outcome because you bet on it, that’s on you.

Yes, Westbrook and the 76ers’ Joel Embiid have played intense games against each other, and they’ve exchanged trash talk and taunts. No, that does not make Westbrook your mortal enemy if you support Philadelphia, and you can’t — or at least, you shouldn’t — pour popcorn on him. Try not to let your identity get too wrapped up in the success of a group of 20-and 30-somethings throwing a rubber ball through a hoop.

Ethan Moutes is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].