Superstition and sports have a long and storied history together. Everyone’s heard the tales of strange rituals players and coaches have before and during a game. Some of them are so ingrained that we don’t even question them anymore. Everyone knows that you don’t talk to a pitcher who’s throwing a no-hitter. No one thinks it’s strange to see an athlete cross himself before coming on the field or after making a big play. Of course, some pre-game rituals are crazier than others.
For players, these rituals and superstitions actually do have a measurable effect on their performance. However, even fans have their own superstitions and rituals. Years ago, I had some friends over to watch the Seahawks, and one of them was looking for a snack. The only thing I had was a bag of candy corn left over from the previous year’s Halloween. He gladly took it, and munched on it gleefully the during the game – which the Seahawks won handily. For the rest of the season, every time he came over he ate candy corn… and the Seahawks kept winning (spoiler: they went to the Super Bowl that season and lost due to a combination of playing terribly and terrible reffing). He moved to another state a few years ago. But to this day, every once in a while during a Seahawks game, I see him posting on Facebook about “Magic Candy Corn”.
This superstitious attitude is pretty widespread. As discussed on this week’s episode of Ask an Atheist, a recent poll by Public Religion Research Institute says that half of Americans see some sort of supernatural force affecting sports, be it superstitious rituals or divine intervention. The study suggests that 25% of fans have believed their team has been cursed. 26% claim to have prayed to god to help a certain team, and 19% believe that God plays a role in determining the outcome of a game. Also, 21% of fans admit to having a game day ritual of some sort. Most of the rituals are pretty basic and merely include wearing specific clothing or jerseys, but there are more extreme examples such as a fan who said he puts a pair of dirty underwear on outside of his pants for the game.
And then he created the Seahawks, and saw that it was good.
These are pretty incredible numbers, and the implication is that sports fans hold some pretty ridiculous beliefs when it comes to helping out their teams. But before we jump on the Fox News crazy train and suggest that the Seahawks and Broncos are in the Super Bowl because their fans prayed harder, I think we need to take a look at some alternate hypotheses that could produce these numbers.
When I read the questions asked in this study, I was immediately struck that the wording the poll used left open a wide variety of interpretations of the data. For example, the question, “Do you have a ritual that you perform before or during games, such as wearing a favorite jersey?” has a follow-up question ask for further details about the ritual. There is not, however, a follow-up question asking if the subject actually believes these rituals have an outcome on the game. I assure you that I have all sorts of rituals involving sports. It never occurred to me to think that wearing a jersey on game day might be considered superstitious. I wear a jersey to publicly (but silently) profess my support of the team and the game. Even when I did have silly rituals like the Magic Candy Corn mentioned above, I never seriously thought they effected the game itself. It was silly fun. That’s why those beer commercials are so funny. They’re laughing at the very idea that these rituals have any real effect on a game.
Believe it or not, but these guys might dress like this just because it’s fun.
Even the questions that directly ask about God leave doubt as to whether the subjects believe their actions have a real effect. For example, it asks, “Have you ever prayed to God to help your team?” Yet, it never asks if the subject believes that praying will actually help. Plenty of people will pray for their team to win, but I think it’s safe to assume that much fewer people believe that god actually listens to those prayers, or changes the outcome of the game due to them.
The study also asked if fans ever felt their teams were cursed. But the term “cursed” doesn’t necessarily have superstitious overtones when it comes to sports. Every team goes through slumps, sometimes lasting years (here’s lookin’ at you, Mariners). It’s the nature of a game that only has one winner every year. Were I asked if I ever thought a team I followed was cursed, I would probably answer that yes without ever thinking it was a supernatural explanation. I’d just say it was an accurate description of the team’s play over a certain time (like 12 long friggin’ years, Mariners!).
I’m reminded of a story which, admittedly, might be apocryphal since I don’t have any source for it and wouldn’t begin to know how to find one. But as Mark Twain said, never let the truth get in the way of a good story, so here goes. There was a baseball game a number of years ago between two teams that weren’t particularly fond of each other. Let’s, for clarity’s sake, say it was the Cardinals and the Cubs. At a point during this game, one of the Cardinals’ batters walked up to the plate, and made the sign of the cross on himself before stepping into the batter’s box. The Cubs pitcher who’d been watching this batter cross himself before every at bat all game stepped off the mound and shouted to get the batter’s attention. The pitcher then made his own sign of the cross, then yelled, “Whatcha gonna do now?!”
“Wait, the rulebook has to say something about that.”
I think this is how most fans, and even many players see superstitions and rituals during a game. For as passionate as we might get about sports, we all know that it’s all just fun, and in the long run meaningless. If there were a god, and s/he were to affect anything on the planet directly, I’m pretty sure there are more pressing matters for him/her to focus on.
In short, sports fans may be crazy, but they’re not crazy.