I remember vividly where I was when I realized that all my assumptions about sports fans were wrong. It was on a sweltering September morning in South Carolina, in the driveway of Chris and Paula Bice--hard-core fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I‚Äôd met the Bices through an Internet fan site; I posted a notice explaining that for a book I was writing about fans, I hoped to get invited aboard a stranger‚Äôs RV for the football season. Without so much as a phone conversation, the Bices responded, ‚ÄúYou‚Äôre welcome to join us! Roll Tide!‚Äù So I‚Äôd huffed it from Manhattan before the season opener against Vanderbilt in Nashville, solidified my bond with the Bices over the ritual consumption of ‚ÄôBama bombs--maraschino cherries soaked in pure grain alcohol--and got ready for some football.
Before we could leave, though, there was the matter of packing the RV: a 28-foot Hurricane, white with a big green swoosh down the side, like a sneaker. And this is where my epiphany occurred, for on Friday morning I saw, scattered in the Bices‚Äô driveway, all we were going to take: half a dozen chairs, a folding picnic table, an AstroTurf rug, two coolers, a grill, two bicycles, a satellite dish, a TV and a tangle of cables and hoses. There were provisions: pretzels, Pop Tarts, beer, more ‚ÄôBama bombs, milk, mayonnaise, Tater Tots, a trawler‚Äôs worth of ice. And there were odds and ends: walkie-talkies, good luck charms and two bumper-mounted whistles, which at highway speed made a high-pitched sound that supposedly sent deer scattering. You didn‚Äôt want to miss a kickoff because you were scraping mammal from your grill.
The point is, we were going to pack this stuff, drive to Nashville, unpack; then pack up again, drive home and unpack. This exercise would be undertaken 13 times during the season. Like a lot of people, I bought the idea that fans were watchers, not doers, that they liked spectating from a couch with a beer. The Bices, though, would expend more energy going to a game than some Alabama players would expend on the field.
A number of scientific studies challenge the idea of fan-as-couch-potato. Sociologists have found that sports fans are much more likely to be physically active than nonfans--and that they work harder in school. In 1993 researchers compared basketball fans at Ball State with students who didn‚Äôt care about the team; 64% of the fans graduated in six years or fewer, compared with 48% of the nonfans. The average GPA for the hard-core fans was 2.55; for nonfans, 2.46. To me this was not surprising: I got to know a ‚ÄôBama fan who painted his face and named his daughter Crimson--and had a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
Plenty of other fan stereotypes have fallen to scientific scrutiny. The notion that fans are loners who turn to sports to fill an inner emptiness was challenged by a study that found fans at the University of Kansas had higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than nonfans. In 1995 sociologists asked hundreds of couples to characterize the effect of spectator sports on their relationships; 93% said their partner‚Äôs interest in sports actually had a positive or neutral effect. And as for the notion that fans are violent, studies in ‚Äô95 and ‚Äô99 comparing the aggression levels of fans and nonfans found absolutely no difference.
Of course there are die-hards who confirm the stereotype of the nutty fan. During my time on the road I met a man who put his need to go to ‚ÄôBama games over a heart transplant. Whenever he left the hospital his name was taken off the waiting list for a new organ; still, he couldn‚Äôt stay put and miss the Tide. Then there was the couple who skipped their own daughter‚Äôs wedding to go to an Alabama-Tennessee game. Makes you wonder who handed off--I mean, gave away--the bride.
Warren St. John‚Äôs Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania has just been published by Crown.
CORRECTION In SCORECARD last week, a pessimistic quote about Kobe Bryant‚Äôs chances of avoiding conviction at his sexual assault trial in Colorado was attributed to Shaquille O‚ÄôNeal. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has since learned that O‚ÄôNeal did not speak those words or, to the magazine‚Äôs knowledge, express an opinion similar to the quote. SI regrets the error.
‚ÄúVan Hellemond admits he asked refs for loans.‚Äù --BLOWING THE WHISTLE, PAGE 20
ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER