Sports provide us with some incredible (and incredibly ridiculous) examples of sport identity. This term is defined as “those aspects of an individual’s self-image that derive from the social categories to which he perceives himself to belong" (see book Examining Identity in Sports Media, edited by Heather Hundley and Andrew Billings)
In other words, this is just a fancy way of academics understanding the fans’ and athletes’ selves in the realm of sports and our society.
The development of identity comes from a feeling of belonging within a group, which in this case would be a specific sport or sports team: Fans view themselves as “fans of ____” and athletes view themselves as “players of _____.”
The identification is directly linked with fandom, which explains how individuals can go overboard in their identities—they scream at the referees and other players, adorn themselves with expensive team gear or name their children after favorite players and coaches.
Being a fan and having a sport identity allows individuals to fulfill emotional and social needs through consumption of sports. Few other institutions allow for such gratification on varying levels.
This identity could be as simple as being one of the “crazies” for a team. A great example of these can be seen in the “Raider Nation” fans of the Oakland Raiders, who have been described as ”hell-raisers, gangbangers, and inveterate knife-lickers, all of whom firmly believe that skipping town for an away game is well worth the parole violation.”
The fans have even created their own territory for such fandom—the Black Hole. And ESPN featured the Raider fans in the 30 for 30 film “Straight Outta L.A.” where the culture was connected with the rap group N.W.A.
Another example of identity through sports are the “Cameron Crazies” of Duke Basketball, who are “among the most innovative, passionate and sometimes intimidating fans in all of sports. They are copied, but never matched.”
Their section in the area has been referred to as “The Zoo,” and several critics of the group have used the words rude, lewd and crude when explaining the fanatical behavior.
And if such identity is the core identity for an individual, then irrational, fanatical behavior can occur, such as harmful actions to “prove” one's emotional connections.
For example, San Francisco 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams received death threats via Twitter and Facebook for his two fumbles that cost the team the win against the New York Giants in the NFC Champions Game last year. While these fans were 49ers fans, they believed in their team so much that a loss to them was like a stab in the heart, and Williams was to blame.
Another example of strong identity is Harvey Updyke, the Alabama fan who allegedly poisoned Auburn University‘s oak trees at Toomer’s Corner (which will be removed from the campus after this year's spring game).
In the ESPN film “Roll Tide/War Eagle,” Updyke is shown as a true, die-hard fan of the University of Alabama. After Alabama’s loss to Auburn in the 2010 Iron Bowl game, and seeing a Cam Newton jersey taped to the Paul “Bear” Bryant statue near the Alabama football stadium, Updyke took revenge.
His reason: “I had too much Bama in me.”
Psychological Need to be Crazy
The self-identity that we create in relation to sports fulfills an inherent psychological need of belonging. The identity makes us “feel better” about ourselves, linking self-esteem with this idea of sport identity.
Success for our identity is directly tied to the sport team—if our team wins, then we win too. Conversely, if our team loses, then self-esteem and notions of success is decreased, or even gone. This cathartic emotional response is how fans and players comprehend their identity.
Media’s role in such identity is significant. It fuels our need for information and attention, which increases the identity. The “hype” placed on games and championships by the media, including videos and commercials of the games, create excitement, hysteria and passion.
These messages from the media exponentially encourage our emotions to become fanatical, and even irrational.
BUT…such excitement and hysteria and passion is what makes sports so incredible, and incredibly perfect to study.
So, let your inner crazy go wild…within the rules of our laws because as Bud Light tells us, "It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”