When Do You Go "We"?

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2009

It's a common enough situation. Fans call into their local sports radio/TV show or send an e-mail or whatever, and the question/opinion usually goes something like this:

"Yeah, Jim Bob, long-time listener, first-time caller. Hey, do you think Overhyped Recruit/Free Agent #22716 can get US into a bowl game/the Tournament/the playoffs this year?"

Us. We. Our. They're possessive and inclusive words, putting the user in as part of the sentence.

In our context, the speaker is such a passionate fan that he or she (usually he, to be fair) must place himself in the expression right next to the coach, the star linebacker, and the rest of the team. But why?

Is it productive? Is the speaker that starved for success in his own life that he must live vicariously through his chosen team and associate himself that closely with them? Or do they buy into the marketing of "The 12th/6th/howeverth Man" and really feel part of the action when surrounded by ten-to-eighty thousand other screamers?

This last thought actually holds quite a bit of merit, especially as it relates to college sports. Pro sports fans never seem to approach the same level of frenzy as what you'll find at a Duke basketball game or a Florida football game.

Maybe it has something to do with the ennui of knowing that a small-market team won't be able to afford that star rookie in three years, so why bother?

In college, though, especially at your top programs, you know that you are where thousands of players want to be. Part of the reason players want to be there is because of the ear-splitting, raucous atmosphere generated by 80,000 beered-up athletic supporters. (Ahem.)

I hadn't really observed this phenomenon up close until moving to Gainesville, Florida in 2006. For those of you who haven't observed people in a town with an elite college football program, let me tell you...people are nucking futs about their team.

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The Casual Friday before a game, especially one at home, you get dirty looks if you're not wearing the team colors.

Walking through the grocery store, you hear housewives doing the family's shopping, and even THIS conversation invariably turns to the game.

In a town like Gainesville or South Bend, the players are treated like rock stars and love every minute of it.

Fans are very conscious of their role in this arrangement, are perfectly content with being used as recruiting tool and psychological weapon, and in return, ask only to be able to identify themselves as part of the team.

And for that day, maybe they are.

But what about when you're not at the game? What about when you live, say, on the other side of the world?

On EWBattleground.com (or EWB for short), we have a few passionate fans of various American sports, but the vast majority of discussion is centered around soccer, as many of the members are English. Fair enough, but soccer discussion is absolutely saturated with we's, our's, and us's.

Club supporters live and die with their clubs, usually as expressions of civic pride. And again, if you've been to the game and are contributing to an atmosphere that throws the other team off their game, fair play to you. You're part of the action...for that day.

But I associate with many Englishmen on said board who will use the plural possessive about American teams, which I completely don't get. If the closest you've gotten to contributing to the team is ordering a $50 jersey online, does that rate you as part of "us"? Are you then a part of the team from 3500 miles away? Is this like the club opening an international office?

In "The Roar of the Crowd," Princeton psychology professor David Barash essentially calls sports fans lazy, mindless sheep. But there are points to be had there about the group mentality and man's desire to be part of something bigger than himself.

At the same time, it's been well-established that sports tell us a lot about ourselves. Chuck Klosterman wrote in "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" that most of life can be boiled down to a Lakers-Celtics dichotomy, our chosen team giving some insight into who we are as people. But, the length and breadth of that support can also be quite telling.

To use an example, did more people use "we" and "us" to describe the 5-11 Baltimore Ravens of 2007 than used them to describe the 11-5 team of 2008? I'd be quite surprised if the counts were even close.

It's the "sing when you're winning" principle. We'd all rather be associated with the team on top than the team getting rolled 38 to 7, but disassociating yourself in a hurry when the team has a bad game or a bad season can also tell a lot.

I'm hoping for a discussion on this, because it is a phenomenon that quite honestly amuses me. I grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, halfway between Indianapolis and Chicago, the son of a mother who was and still is a fervent Bears fan. When the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indy, we adopted them as well.

But I have never heard my mother use "us" or "we" about either team, not when the Bears stampeded the rest of the league in 1985, and not when the Colts scraped out a trip to Super Bowl XLI, or as I like to call it, The Perfect Game (My two favorite teams and my favorite musician playing at halftime? You betcha, it was perfect). I myself have never used the possessives, and I'm interested in knowing why others do.

I am not an employee of a club (yet), and Lord knows my own athletic resume could be written on the back of a napkin, so I'm far from being an alumnus of any particular team. And in this writer's view, those are acceptable circumstances for using "we."

Otherwise, you're on the outside looking in, no matter how big a part you think you are.