From Fans to Fanatics

Interview with Justine Gubar, ESPN Producer and Author of Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan

Published in partnership with the Jewish Book Council.


Let’s start with you. What do you get out of being a fan?

For me as a fan, sports provides connection. Growing up, as the only child of a crazed and committed New York sports fan, if I wanted to spend time with my dad, we watched games together. My dad started taking me to Shea Stadium at the age of 3 to watch our beloved New York Mets. As an adult, a love of sports is the currency of many of my friendships.


Do you think being a sports fan is more healthy or unhealthy? Where is the line?

Studies show most fans are well adjusted folks with a healthy dose of self-esteem. Commitment to a team can prevent depression.

Where fandom can go bad is with too much “team identification,” as psychologists call it, the extent to which a fan feels psychologically connected to a team. The more “highly identified” a fan is, the more likely that fan is to engage in bizarre and sometimes abusive behavior.


Tell us about the psychological dangers of fandom that you discovered.

One psychological danger is when a fan engages in unhealthy worship of an athlete, putting a sports celebrity on a pedestal that they don’t deserve to be on, detracting from the team concept of sports and potentially undermining their own emotional and psychological state. When a fan subscribes to an unhealthy obsession, they may then engage in ugly, compulsive behavior. These behaviors can show up as nasty and threatening tweets and stalking.


Sports also play up fans’ loyalty, to their city, country, and more: “tribalism.” Tell us about the dangers that can present.

Our brains are literally primed to bond with members of our tribe and to protect ourselves from those outside the tribe. For millions of years, humans lived in groups, hunted together, and competed for limited resources. This type of wiring lives on in us as an evolutionary adaptation. Tribal bonding leads to hostility toward other tribes. We must protect ourselves from those outside. Aggression can be a natural outcome. What does this tribalism sound like to you? Sounds like a good explanation of why Auburn and Alabama, Yankees and Rex Sox, Packers and Bears fans don’t mix.


What about the sports industry, including professional leagues, marketing, media, etc. In what ways are they responsible for the worst aspects of fandom?

Managing fan behavior is a challenge for the industry. In Fanaticus, I spend time with technologists who use hi-tech solutions to secretly monitor fans. No one wants to bite the hand that feeds them, especially when competition is as fierce as ever to put butts in the seats. Security measures are expensive and detract from the bottom line, but as more and more fans express that they fear bringing their kids to professional sporting events, teams and leagues realize fan misbehavior needs to be addressed.


Our audience consists of people at Jewish day schools, grades pre-K to 12, worldwide. What did you learn about parent-fans of student-athletes?

People always ask me to pinpoint the worst fan base out there. I think they just want to hear me name fans of their most hated rival. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the worst fans out there are actually youth sports parents. No spectator at a sporting event cares more about an athlete than a parent watching his or her own child play, and this dynamic can be a recipe for bruised egos and sideline rage. What’s really disturbing is that kids will mimic a parent’s lack of sportsmanship because they don’t know any better, and that’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.


What advice would you give to schools that want to cultivate a healthy attitude towards sports?

Make it fun for the kids, engage families early and often, call out overbearing, helicopter parents, foster a healthy attitude to sports celebrity worship, dissuade kids and parents for the belief that playing youth sports will lead to money and fame. Dreams are important but not at the expense of sportsmanship.

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015