What We Do For the Love of Sports A new book examines the obsessive sports fan without quite answering what it means to be a sports fan.

Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom

By George Dohrmann (2018, Ballantine Books) 203 pages with photos

“Why do I care so much?” asks David Shields toward the end of his 1999 memoir, Black Planet, “That’s what I would like to know. It’s a safe love, this love, this semi-self-love, this fandom; it’s a frenzy in a vacuum, a completely imaginary love affair in which the beloved is forever larger than life.” The beloved, in Shields’s case, is the Seattle Supersonics, and the frenzy leads him to go to great lengths to follow, cheer for, and obsess over the NBA team and its players. But Shields’s sharpest insight, in this moment of frustration, is his recognition that his fandom is inwardly focused. It is “semi-self-love”: an attempt to articulate the self—to build one’s own identity through the bodily exploits of world-class athletes.

Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter George Dohrmann embarks from a similar insight in launching his latest book, Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom. “The importance of having allegiance to a sports team has been reinforced and heightened,” Dohrmann writes in his introduction, “to the point that it comes up on first dates and during job interviews and in almost any setting when we are asked to define ourselves. For many people, a fan group has usurped church membership or another community organization as the primary binding agent in their lives.” Rather than bemoan this usurpation or stigmatize the fans he profiles, Dohrmann opts for compassion: “this book is not a vehicle to lampoon people who have made rooting for a sports team the central focus of their lives,” he maintains, but rather an effort “to get to know the people … to better understand them and their fandom in all its neon-Mohawked, shirtless-on-the-frozen tundra glory.” The reader is to study these fans through the lens of Dohrmann’s reportage, in other words, not gawk or laugh at them.

To aid in that study, Dohrmann enlists the help of Daniel Wann, professor of psychology at Murray State University and author of the influential academic book Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators (2001). Dohrmann profiles the academic—a fan of the Murray State Racers men’s basketball team—alongside the rabid fans of soccer, football, baseball, and basketball that each merit a chapter of the book. This profile, in tandem with Wann’s research, provides the critical scaffolding from which Dohrmann reaches for insight into why fans paint their faces, scream at the television, seek out team-specific sports bars, form booster clubs, and travel thousands of miles to see their team in action. Wann’s “Sports Spectator Identification Scale,” developed to “differentiate between an individual who spends a good portion of every day thinking about, say, the Miami Dolphins, and a person who just watched the team a few Sundays during the fall,” forms the backbone of Dohrmann’s attempt to engage these rabid fans—a gateway to the kind of reflexive insights into their identities to which Wann himself is naturally inclined. “If a fan can make the jump from ‘I am a diehard supporter of this team’ to ‘the team is a huge part of my identity,’” Dohrmann asserts, paraphrasing Wann, “it frees them up to rethink their actions and behavior.”

The reader is to study these fans through the lens of Dohrmann’s reportage, in other words, not gawk or laugh at them.

Even so, many “sports fans resist” this kind of self-reflection. Per Wann, “you are taking this thing they think of as otherworldly, an abstract, and trying to make it scientific and concrete … Deep down they don’t want to hear an unromantic explanation for fandom.” It’s up to the scientist (Wann) and the storyteller (Dohrmann), then, to break down and reassemble the complicated motivations that lead people to attach their sense of self-worth to the exploits of a team of muscled strangers.

Fortunately for the reader, they make for a pretty good team. Profiling Teddy Kervin, the Milwaukee Brewers self-appointed “Rally Banana” (complete with banana costume), and Rich Madole, proprietor of a Chicago Bears “Fanbulance,” Dohrmann leverages the psychological theorem of “optimal distinctiveness” to position “some fan behavior as people striving for their own balancing point between being part of the group and standing out from it … an effort to find a harmonious balance between being one of the fans and feeling like your own person.” Merely calling yourself a Brewers fan and being the team’s Rally Banana are different things, and the need to make yourself into the latter is driven by the desire to particularize and publicly articulate one’s fan identity both within and apart from the larger fan community.

Then there is the matter of alleged bias from those outside the fan community. “Among sports fans,” Dohrmann writes, bias is “the harshest of the four-letter words,” and he notes the frequency with which the charge is leveled against purportedly objective sports journalists. Dohrmann, being a sports journalist himself, is particularly sensitive to this matter, but he does well to explore the motivations behind such accusations without, well—let us just say he tries to remain neutral. Dohrmann cites the annals of psychology and the study on “in-group/out-group bias” led by Henri Tajfel in the early 1970s. Bias, the study showed, is ingrained in all humans. When it comes to fans, then, it is not that the journalists they accuse are not biased—everyone is, after all—it is that those journalists’ particular biases are likely unrelated to the fans’ perceptions of them. The bias, when it comes to coverage of a favorite team, belongs primarily to the fan, not the people reporting on that team.

Dohrmann’s own bias in the book, if you can call it that, is plotted on an arc that bends toward empathy. While he briefly chronicles those who burn jerseys and threaten athletes, none such fans receive the chapter-long treatment he affords to those whose lives he attempts to understand empathetically.

Still, Dohrmann’s own bias in the book, if you can call it that, is plotted on an arc that bends toward empathy. While he briefly chronicles those who burn jerseys and threaten athletes, none such fans receive the chapter-long treatment he affords to those whose lives he attempts to understand empathetically. Among the fans he profiles, he admits being fondest of Steven “Nevets” Lenhart, a diehard fan of Portland’s professional soccer team whose decades-long leadership of the “Timbers Army” fan group has fostered its growth from a tiny band of fans struggling to catch games in local sports bars to one of the most fervent fan bases in Major League Soccer, numbering in the thousands. Nevets is the opposite of the stereotypically violent English soccer hooligan of the type famously depicted by Bill Buford in Among the Thugs (1990)—his passion for the team drives him to deliberate organization rather than drunken outburst. Though he was once motivated by “entertainment” and “group affiliation,” two of the plotted points on Wann’s “Sports Fan Motivation Scale,” Nevets has pivoted toward “aesthetic” appreciation of the game, which, for Dohrmann, “seems like the healthiest reason to be a fan, to appreciate the beauty of the sport and all that surrounds it.” Wondering aloud if Nevets is “the perfect sports fan,” Dohrmann ends the book on a sanguine note, emphasizing sports fandom’s positive possibilities. But Nevets himself rejects this praise, asserting that he is “just another fan.”

The reader, too, should reject Dohrmann’s offering Nevets such praise, or at least the complacency that undergirds it. There is, after all, a great deal of ugliness surrounding sports fandom, much of it built on an edifice of white supremacy and toxic masculinity and manifested in violence, misogyny, racism, and homophobia. And while it is meaningful that Dohrmann seeks to understand fan attachment and behavior without rejecting fandom out of hand on account of that ugliness, he nevertheless ignores or underestimates the degree to which all fans, even the Nevetses, have constructed their fandom upon these structures of dominance. While Superfans has two chapters on female sports fans, the consideration of gender in the larger book is largely muted. In “Is There Such a Thing as ‘The Female Fan?’: Oh, So She Is Letting You Watch Sportscenter,” Dohrmann profiles the proprietors of “Jersey Girl Sports,” a woman-run website that panders to stereotypes about female fans—rating male athletes’ sexiness, providing fashion tips, and offering up demeaning explanations of rules and regulations by relating them to activities like dating. While Dohrmann recognizes that this “viewpoint … can feel like a step back, an embrace of a 1950s version of a female sports fan,” he does little more to critique the inherent inequalities implicit in the notion that female fans are motivated by factors external to the games themselves. To his partial credit, Dohrmann also interviews women fans who are usually more knowledgeable about their preferred sports teams than the men around them, yet must grapple with the fact that “their fandom was perceived as illegitimate until proven otherwise,” and recognizes that, as Australian sociologist Kim Toffoletti puts it “we can’t just universalize women’s fan experiences. We must see them through an individualized lens.” But Dohrmann stops short of allowing this feminist critique to resonate within his larger work.

… while it is meaningful that Dohrmann seeks to understand fan attachment and behavior without rejecting fandom out of hand on account of that ugliness, he nevertheless ignores or underestimates the degree to which all fans have constructed their fandom upon these structures of dominance.

I cannot help but think that Dohrmann would have benefited tremendously from interaction with Emory philosopher Erin C. Tarver, whose dynamic recent monograph, “The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity” (2017), uses critical theory to examine the power dynamics of fan behavior along gender and racial lines in a manner that psychologists like Wann cannot or will not. Had he done so, Dohrmann might better have been able to investigate the degree to which, as Tarver puts it, “boys and men use their sports fandom both to create and reassert their own masculinity and to keep girls and women subordinate—either excluded as outsiders or dependent on masculine approval for legitimation as fans.” To examine sports-obsessed men without considering gender dynamics, in other words, leaves us unable to truly understand how power operates in sports fandom.

As for race, while Dohrmann profiles several fans of color, the question of how race operates in fan communities is never broached in Superfans, except to say that, paradigmatically, “sports is the rare piece of popular culture that exposes people of differing cultures, races, religions, and classes to one another.” The terms on which that exposition takes place are not articulated, however, and the especially problematic power dynamics of sports, in which largely-white audiences thrill to the exploits of largely-black athletes, are ignored. Here again, Tarver’s insights, particularly those pertaining to black athletes’ social function as “mascots”—a term for tokenism borrowed from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)—would have extended the reach of Dohrmann’s subtitular journey Into the Heart of Sports Fandom.

Ultimately, Dohrmann’s subtitle itself reveals both the book’s strengths and shortcomings. His is not a journey through the heads of sports fans, but into their hearts. He is focused on what David Shields calls fandom’s “semi-self-love” as just that: an inwardly-oriented manifestation of self-esteem and engine of self-care. Whether fans think through how their passion affects the larger narratives, language, and culture of sports and American society is immaterial. While Wann’s psychological framework for analyzing fandom helps Dohrmann understand what motivates fans to care, it does not help him critique the power dynamics within which sports fan cultures are constructed and perpetuated. Superfans’s profiles are powerful and compassionate narratives of the men and women who identify as such, but they are not particularly insightful considerations of the broader ramifications of fan behavior.

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