What is it about sports that causes fanaticism and devotion from athletes and players alike? People are so willing to buy the jerseys, the tickets, to self-educate on stats and player information, and devote their time and energy to a sport with an amount of loyalty that is quite uncommon. It’s a strangely universal practice regardless of the usual limiting factors, such as race, class, etc. Within the participation of sports and observing sports there is some deep seeded social aspect, sports have a unique way of bringing people together.
Moreover, there can be no denying the strong connection between sports and identity—whether it be the on-field feeling of belonging in team situations or the sense of camaraderie that occurs during watching sports in a group. This is what is known as the social identity theory developed by Henri Tajfel. In his theory, Tajfel explains that as individuals, we derive our identity from the groups we belong to and further our sense of belonging in the social world. Through this we are able to enhance our self image by raising the status of our group and discriminating against other groups. More specifically, through social categorizing there are in-groups and out-groups.
The groups an individual is a member of are the in-groups and other groups are the out-groups. This occurs in stages, with the first being categorization. In the categorization stage individuals place people into groups as a way of better understanding the social environment. By placing people into categories, it is easier for an individual to find the groups in which they belong. This is second stage—social identification in which the individual adapts to the identity of the in-group. With this comes emotional significance and a bond closely linked to group membership. The third and final stage is social comparison, this stage involves the comparison of the in-group to the out-groups in order to maintain self-esteem. The in-group must compare favorably to out-groups which causes not only hostility, but competing identities; hostility is more likely if the comparison is unfavorable one way or the other.
Through the social identity theory an individual that is strongly connected to their in-group will always see it in a positive light, even after failure of some form. However, if an individual is only loosely connected to the in-group they will continue by use of BIRGing and CORFing (Basking in Reflected Glory and Cutting Off Reflected Failure). In general, these behaviors can be easily observed in athletes and sports fans: for example, team rivalries can get intense and quite often the loss of an important game results in reckless behavior. More often than not, however, sports provide a context for bonding in spite of the normal bounds of separation—it has the ability to bridge the gaps of time and culture. There is nothing quite like joining fellow enthusiasts in watching a game or playing with a team of people that share your passion. But this also has negative aspects such as deindividuation. As I mentioned earlier a team’s poor performance in a game can cause sports fans to engage in reckless behavior, this can be seen as an act of deindividuation in which self-awareness is impaired, individuals are more responsive to social and situational forces and tend be more aggressive. Further, sports can act as tool for unification at higher levels, for example the World Cup and Olympics create a strong sense of unity on a national level and aid in forming a national identity.
Many countries are defined by their sports almost as much as their politics, economy, and geography. Politicians have recognized this and often use international sporting events as a breeding ground for foreign diplomacy. The scope of power sports holds surpasses that of many other organized events. Its influence on identity reflects this and must be remembered as a useful agent for stronger social interactions. Sports are critical in a large aspect of everyday life and should be credited as such, but it’s dangers should also be acknowledged.