Last week I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the much-anticipated Game 3 of the NBA playoffs between the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks. In the midst of a record crowd (nearly 21,000) filled with ambitious expectations, my thoughts drifted to a sociology class that I took over a decade ago. I had a terribly interesting course that identified the general sociology and associated behaviors during organized sporting events. At first glance the topic may seem quite trivial, but my energetic professor went on to explain the euphoria that envelopes a crowd of strangers huddled in team spirit.
At any given sporting event, all fans have at least one thing in common-their love of the game. Although people from all walks of life are forced to sit elbow to elbow with perfect strangers, a camaraderie is naturally formed out of the passion one feels towards a favorite team. Even though most fans don’t know the players personally, they feel a sense of familiarity and comfort as if they’re cheering on an old friend. Fans become fascinated with the game, the intrigue, and the awe-inspiring feats. Before long, fans become completely encapsulated and caught up in the intensity of the game. Watching the game at home is like watching a DVD in your living room. Someone is always vacuuming down the hall, walking in front of the tv, or flipping during commercials. The intensity of a live game, not to mention a playoff game, is unrivaled.
The rambunctious Warrior crowd was cheering and chanting in unison for their beloved team-regardless of age, race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. I saw a cornucopia of fans that would no doubt make the United Nations proud; there were representatives of nearly every nation in the house that night. Not only did the crowd contain diverse cultures, but it encompassed various lifestyles. Regardless of marital woes, joblessness, or heartache, fans become completely absorbed with the business at hand, and lay down their burdens for just one night. There were single fathers with children, friends, college classmates, co-workers, families, and romantic couples. Older fans celebrated with teenagers, blacks celebrated with whites, and businessmen celebrated with college kids. Some fans wore scruffy tennis shoes, weathered jeans, and complimentary, golden “We Believe” t-shirts, while others sported Lacoste polos, True Religion jeans, and Christian Dior sunglasses. The apparel may have varied from Wal-Mart to Saks, but the sentiment was the same; the focus was on the Golden State Warriors, and the crowd slowly morphed into one singular fan.
Because of my aforementioned knowledge, I was able to watch the compelling drama play out with different eyes. For example, one person picked up their “thunderstix”, clacked them together and shouted, “Let’s go Warriors! Let’s go!” By the next click clack, several people had joined him, and by the time the chanting subsided, my neighbor had united our entire section. He didn’t have to beg or even ask for them to cheer with him; all he had to do was beat his stix, enlist a familiar chant, and shout with confidence in order to ignite the immediate area, and then it spread like wildfire. Whenever the Mavericks blocked a shot, caused a turnover, or scored a basket you could hear a pin drop. Everyone seemed to hold their collective breath whenever a Warrior released a shot, but then a tremendous sense of relief permeated the crowd when the ball sank through the hoop. A great sense of pride and accomplishment seemingly rushed the court whenever Baron Davis sunk one of his many field goals. The excitement was mesmerizing and infectious. There wasn’t a dry armpit in the arena.
Athletes earn ridiculous amounts of money, yet faithful fans skip work, spend millions of dollars a year on tickets, jerseys, and other sports memorabilia just to feel connected to their favorite team and/or athlete. Enthusiastic fans brave the rain, snow, and extreme heat. They paint their naked bodies and don ferocious or ridiculous costumes for no other reason but to display passion, solidarity and tremendous loyalty. The unity and commonality that one feels at a game is a healthy, vital part of the community that promotes tolerance and understanding.
An unfortunate example of sporting event sociology gone wrong is when opposing fans collide. At some venues, alcohol sales are closed after the 3rd quarter of basketball to prevent excessive aggression or violence. Fans from different sides of the court have been known to yell and scream obscenities, taunt each other, and at times regrettably attack one another (or the athletes–remember when Antonio Davis rushed the stands after an overzealous fan berated his wife?) all in the name of sports.
After the third quarter of Warrior playoff action, a downtrodden Maverick fan began shuffling towards the exit. As he walked past my row, boisterous Warrior fans booed him and yelled, “Get outta here! Go home!” Not only was the man a stranger, but he was completely innocent of any wrongdoing. His jersey alone was an obvious symbol for abuse, ridicule, and hostility. Another negative illustration of crowd sociology occurs when fans release their anger by dangerous, illegal means. In the past couple of years, there have been occasions when fans have resorted to fighting, looting, setting cars on fire, and assaulting police officers because of a team loss. Ironically, fans have nothing to gain or lose by the outcome of the game (unless they placed a wager), but they take a win or lost so absolutely personal, mostly because of the angry mob mentality.
During my first trip to the NBA playoffs, frenzied fans were even more animated than usual, giving random high fives to anyone in the nearby vacinity, hugging one another, and jumping around like they had winning lottery numbers. Under the bright lights, loud music, and steamy quarters the contagious electricity shot through the crowd effortlessly.
Ultimately, the passion and excitement closely resembled a one-night stand; the fans didn’t know each other before they met in the arena, they shared a heart-stopping, exhilarating night, but slipped back into the seediness of the dark, anonymous parking lot without exchanging numbers.