Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It’s Game Day: Identity and college sports fandom in the United States

For some students in the United States, college (university) sports are more than entertainment— they are a way of life. These students aren’t necessarily athletes or connected in any way to the athletic department; they are simply fans. Some grew up in families that have attended the same school for generations. Some defied family expectations and attended a rival school. Some are first-generation college students who wholeheartedly embraced game day culture. All of them strongly identify with their college’s sports teams, rejoicing over victories and despairing over losses.

Back home, I attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the first public university in the States and North Carolina’s flagship school. Unlike a lot of my peers, I did not grow up hearing about Carolina sports and dreaming of attending Carolina. When I arrived in Chapel Hill as a fresh-faced freshman, I was ignorant of our sports history and had only my experiences attending high school (American) football games to draw upon. I soon learned that college sports, and particularly Division I (the highest level of intercollegiate athletics) sports, were a lot different than I’d expected.

Football is huge in the south, and even though Carolina isn’t a member of the football powerhouse Southeastern Conference (SEC) that boasts perennially strong teams like Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia, football game days are still a big deal. We dress up in our school’s colors (Carolina blue and white), dress according to themes, or paint up if you’re really dedicated, yell chants that we all know by heart, and cheer on “our boys.” But as much as we love football, it’s nothing compared to basketball.

We refer to ourselves as a “basketball school,” proudly displaying our five national championship banners and the jerseys of notable famous players like Michael Jordan. The basketball players, some of the best in the country, are campus celebrities, and our basketball coach, Roy Williams, is a campus folk hero. Our campus attitude wanes and waxes with our team’s victories and losses. When we beat Duke University, our fiercest rival, we rush Franklin Street (the main street bordering north campus), thousands of jubilant students shouting chants, singing our alma mater and fight song, and burning anything that says “Duke.”

This April, the men’s basketball team made it to the national championship in Houston. Hundreds of students made the twenty-hour drive in the middle of the week to cheer on our team, only to be heartbroken in the final few seconds as one three-pointer cost us the national championship. We were shocked and devastated. The difference in campus atmosphere between the two days was astounding: one buzzing with optimistic anticipation, the other silent with stunned defeat.

Why do we, and American college students in general, take sports teams’ performances so personally? First, we have a sense of community. As students at one of the oldest universities in the States, we join an over-two-hundred-year-old tradition and hundreds of thousands of alumni. When we step foot on campus that first August on freshman move-in day, we become part of Carolina. This feeling of community is amplified when it comes to sports, as we are united against a common enemy, whoever the opposing team is that day. When people join groups, they tend to “think of that group as superior to any other group (or out-group), thereby enhancing their own self-image” (Jacobson, 2003, p.4). Furthermore, in addition to the in-group bias, college sports fans experience what is called “basking in reflected glory,” or BIRGing (Cialdini et al., 1976). This is the tendency for people to publicize their connection with another person who has been successful— such as sharing their support of a winning sports team. This is reflected in speech patterns as well; people tend to say “we won” rather than “they” or “the team won.” Together, these phenomena create a collective identity: we are one, we fight together, we win together. 

For fair-weather or bandwagon fans, the community stops here, where the reflected glory ends. For the rest of us, we lose together as well. On that warm April night not too long ago, we all mourned together as a national championship slipped through our fingers. More recently, our women’s soccer team, the nation’s most successful program that has produced Olympians like Mia Hamm, lost in the semifinals of the national championship. It hurts all of us to have something so great at our fingertips and then ripped away. But the losses make the wins that much sweeter. After all, I still really enjoy saying we won the national championship in both men’s and women’s lacrosse this year. We did it. We are Carolina, and we are Tar Heels, and we win together and lose together, because we are together.

Cialdini, R. B.; Borden, R. J.; Freeman, S.; Sloan, L. R.; Thorne, A.; Walker, M. R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(3), 366-375.
Ervin, J. S. (2014). Runnin’ with the Rebels: a phenomenological analysis of the experiences of highly identified college student sports fans. UMI Dissertations Publishing.
Jacobson, B. (2003). The social psychology of the creation of a sports fan identity: a theoretical review of the literature. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 5(2).

Images: “F-A-S-T” paint: (; face paint closeup: Pinterest (; student section: UNC Sports Photography (; all others: personal photos

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