Losing in politics & sports

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In politics and sports, losing hurts!


As the World Cup begins in Brazil, let’s look at losing.
As we reported in 2012, the re-election of President Obama elated his supporters and succored the tele-slaves eager to forget the tide of political sewage that washed across their screens.

Several people staring ahead holding flags without smiles on television screen

Television screen shot from Romney’s concession speech

Above: Romney supporters listen to their presidential hopeful accept defeat in Boston on the night of the 2012 election.

Below: Obama supporters celebrate in the streets of Washington D. C. after victory ensures a second term for the President.

Crowd with raised hands and big smiles energetically leaning together for photo in front of Obama mural

Photo: ep_jhu

There will be plenty of losers at the World Cup. So how does the losing side feel — in sports and politics? This question seemed so logical that we were shocked to find a wave of academic unconcern about the subject. As one political scientist wrote us while declining to discuss the issue, “I guess not many care about the losers…”

The Monday-morning quarterbacking began before the Champagne had even gone flat in Chicago: Had Mitt Romney been too conservative/liberal? Too mainstream/fringe?

Inevitably, we were reminded of the plight of the sports fan. Presidential elections can crush our hopes once in four years, but the true fan can savor a full dose of disappointment pretty much all year long. So we expanded our focus: How do fans cope with the defeat of “our” sports team?

Sporting life: Coping with disappointment

After the 24/7 political gusher, it’s hard to remember that sports usually matter more. “In polls, Americans say they are much more interested in sports,” says Robert Fernquist, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Missouri. “Sports are an everyday activity. Many of us … played as children and are now reliving our childhood dreams. Sports are more entertaining, everyday, relevant. When ESPN came out in 1979, people said, ‘That’s silly, people won’t want to watch year round.’ And now, how many channels do we have with sports all the time?”

Woman with hand on face near tears wearing jersey of team she supports

Trust fans of Argentine football to take a loss personally!

The power of sports emanates from the fan’s identification with the group, Fernquist says. “I take the win or loss more personally, and it’s a more everyday thing.”

Much of the zany, obsessive behavior, dress and culture of the true sports fan can be understood as a way “to demonstrate fan-ship, identification, membership in the sport-fan group,” says Jason Lanter, an assistant professor of psychology at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. “They basically view themselves as part of the team.”

Our guarantee: Disappointment

Sports fans have plenty of chances for disappointment, an emotional mix of surprise and sorrow. Do the math, as they say in politics: Thirty two pro football teams compete for the Super Bowl. One wins.

Thirty baseball teams compete for the World Series, and ditto.

So most of the time, your hopes get smashed. Disappointment rises with the degree of surprise, and the emotional investment in the outcome. A study of fans of the Cleveland Browns, an American football team, in the 2008 season 1 found that intense identification with the team and a high expectation for the number of wins both feed disappointment. There was no relationship to gender or number of years as a fan; the best single predictor of disappointment was the number of home games attended per year.

Two photographs of distraught fans overlaid by front page with headline describing upsetting loss

The headline says screams “disappointment” as the Green Bay Packers lose a Super Bowl one year after their 1997 triumph.

How do we cope?

How do ardent fans deal with the disappointment of defeat? “Cutting off reflected failure,” or corfing, is a “simple psychological tactic that allows us to feel better about the membership in the fan group,” says Lanter, a sports psychologist. “If my team loses, I can create psychological distance by the way I reframe how I receive the team.”

Statue of Abraham Lincoln wearing yellow foam cheese hat in front of stone building with white pillars

2011, The Why Files
A perfect example of “birging:” the morning after the Green Bay Packer’s victory in Super Bowl XLV, an anonymous Packer fan donated a cheesehead — the team’s rogue emblem — to the statue of Abraham Lincoln that presides over the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Sports psychologists have long noted that how we talk about a team reveals our degree of attachment. “When I am a fan, I talk about ‘us,’ ‘our’ team, ‘we,'” says Lanter. “After a loss, I may change the pronoun, it’s ‘they,’ or ‘the team.’ This creates psychological distance, sends the message that defeat does not matter that much because I am not as directly affiliated as if we had won.”

When our team wins, we get to indulge in “basking in reflected glory.” Tell-tales of “birging” include wearing team clothing, buying team paraphernalia, and nattering endlessly about the most recent, glorious triumph.

Compensating for loss can start before the game even ends. Why would hockey fans chant “You still suck!” after the opponents score? “This is a way to make themselves feel better; it’s a self-protective measure, from a psychological standpoint,” says Lanter. “They scream, ‘You still suck,’ which means we are better. It helps me maintain a good feeling about who I am. Even if we are down 1-0, it was a fluke goal, we are still a good team, I am still a good person. Because I support a good team, I am better than you.”

Man with wide open mouth, seemingly screaming, with intense, narrowed eyes

Canada’s Canucks hockey team has won, so why does this freaky fellow look furious?

In a rage?

Rudeness can escalate to rage, and rage in sports dates back at least to the Nika riots in 6th century Constantinople, among fans of rival chariot-racing teams2

Many features of pro sports are conducive to rage. Players, refs and opposing fans are packed tight. Standing in line raises tempers, and crowding makes it easy to spill drinks or step on toes. The ability to hide in the crowd seems to offer impunity to over-zealous or violent fans.

And the emotional pot is stirred by alcohol and a deafening din drummed up to confuse or annoy opponents.


Cartoon of elf-like creature running with football in one hand, wearing pointed, cleated shoes. Game program is visible.

Credit: Wikipedia
The Cleveland Browns played their first game in September, 1946; 50 years later, the owner’s decision to move the team caused a wave of misery, and apparently a wave of suicides.

This is culture?

When they dwell on the success or failure of “their” team, sports fans are joining a culture that can evolve strange customs, and these may follow victory as well as loss, says Lanter. About a decade ago, he became fascinated with fans’ “celebratory violence” at the University of Maryland.


Two baseball players leaning on wall inside baseball diamond wearing antiquated uniforms

Brooklyn Dodgers Billy Herman (left) and Pee Wee Reese in 1946. Suicide rates in Brooklyn rose temporarily when the beloved Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1957.

After a football victory, he says, “The students rioted, were climbing buildings, setting fires, breaking into the basketball arena and trying to steal seats. They tore down a goalpost after a basketball game! It was very strange.”

Lanter realized that riots “became an expectation: ‘This is what we did. This was the culture.'” The culture was so compelling that “celebratory violence” could even follow a loss.

In a more sinister example of celebratory violence, two Los Angeles Dodgers fans were charged with mayhem, assault and battery in June, 2012, for an attack on a San Francisco Giants fan following a Dodgers win. According to ESPN, “Witnesses at the hearing said [defendant Louis] Sanchez taunted Giants fans throughout the game, throwing peanuts and other food at them and spraying a woman with a can of soda.”

The victim, a 43-year-old paramedic from Northern California with two children, is reportedly disabled by brain damage for life.

A question of suicide

Is killing yourself the ultimate reaction to athletic adversity? What, for example, happens when a city “loses” a pro-sports team to another city? Fernquist says the question arose when he noticed a man sobbing profusely on TV. “I thought, ‘What’s going on? Was there a bombing?'”

No, it was a Cleveland Browns fan, “distraught that they had left Cleveland.”

One gauge of the level of despair Fernquist examined was suicide rates after the relocation of four pro teams: The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants (1957), the Cleveland Browns (1995), and the Houston Oilers (1999). During the start of that sport’s season, one year after departure, he saw a “phenomenal” spike in suicides. 3.

In a further indication of the supremacy of sports, Fernquist adds that the homicide rate increased significantly in 1994, when the U.S. pro baseball season was cancelled during a labor dispute. However, Fernquist has not found a correlation between homicide rates and team performance.


Bar graph with nine causes of death, cancer has most lost years of life and suicide is fourth.

Suicide matters: When calculated against an 80-year lifespan, suicide was the fourth-largest drain on years of potential life lost.

Victory seemed protective against suicide when France won the 1998 World Cup in football (called soccer in the United States). In a new study4, France’s national suicide rate dropped 10 percent — equal to 95 deaths — during the month preceding the final match. The declines were greatest among men, and people aged 30 to 44.

Curiously, when Fernquist studied suicide rates in Buffalo, N.Y., he found nothing remarkable during the years when the Buffalo Bills lost four Super bowls. “I expected big spikes, but I could not see a pattern one way or another. Maybe fans thought, ‘At least, we made it this far, we are getting to root for our team on the national stage.'”

The power of togetherness

Fernquist says that studies of politics and suicide show that rates drop during stressful times. “When we have a political uprising or war, those activities bring people closer together: ‘I feel more bonded to my country,’ it’s an us-versus-them mentality.”

The group feeling correlates with less willingness to commit suicide.

Similarly, Fernquist found lower rates of suicide in European countries that are more favorable to the European Union, and higher rates in countries that were more negative to the EU. “This suggests that national and international bonds, and an association with happiness and contentedness,” protect against despair that leads to suicide, he told us.

Furthermore, the positive mood among fans of Spain, which won the 2010 World Cup, lasted longer than negative feelings among fans of the United Kingdom, which lost in the final. After the tournament, the Spanish fans spent more time socializing, and also spent more money.5

Hormonal politics of defeat

Man with fearful, wide-eyed expression, embraces woman.

On election night, 2008, testosterone levels fell among male supporters Republican John McCain, but not among backers of Democrat Barack Obama. (No significant trends appeared among females.) According to a study6 of the election, “… male voters exhibit biological responses to the realignment of a country’s dominance hierarchy as if they participated in an interpersonal dominance contest.” (Sounds kinda like sports, eh?)

Loving a loser

Woman with hands clapped onto top of head and worried expression on face

Here’s how an Argentine fan reacted to the blockage of a penalty kick. Might she be “highly identified” with the national team?

What about supporters of chronic losers? “Some teams, historically … never get there,” says Lanter. “Those teams have tremendous fan bases that stick with them through thick and thin, and part of being a fan of these teams is that they may expect to lose.”

It’s a lot easier to love a winning team. Loving a loser, Lanter says, “Shows that ‘I’m not a fair-weather fan. I love being part of this group,’ and this validates your status as a true fan. There is an honesty, integrity, a steadfastness: ‘I don’t just wear the hat and buy the shirts; I have been doing this for years. When you were not around, when we had bad seasons, I was still rooting for them.'”

“Those who more highly identified with the team, are more into both birging [basking in reflected glory] and corfing [cutting off reflected failure], as ways to boost self esteem,” says Lanter. “Those who wear paraphernalia, have season tickets, or go to a bar and have a good-luck spot to watch are going to be more likely to participate [in psychological justification]. The win or loss is more important, so they have to develop a strategy to deal with the ups and downs of teams.”

You could say the same thing for people who take politics seriously. Some day, the social scientists will make us the newest guinea pigs on the psychology of losing!

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; Emily Eggleston, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Disappointment Theory and Disappointment Among Football Fans, David W. Rainey et al, / 76 /Journal of Sport Behavior, Vol. 34, No. 2
  2. Spectator Rage, an overview, Scott A. Jones et al, in Consumer behavior knowledge for effective sports and event marketing, Routledge, New York, 2011.
  3. Geographical relocation, suicide, and homicide: an exploratory analysis of the geographic relocation of professional sports teams, R.M. Fernquist, Sociology of Sport Online, 2001 Vol. 4 No. 2 pp. 1-?9
  4. Impact of the 1998 Football World Cup on Suicide Rates in France, Gaelle Encrenaz, et al, Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 42(2) April 2012
  5. Just a game? Changes in English and Spanish soccer fans’ emotions in the 2010 World Cup, Marc V. Jones et al, Psychology of Sports and Exercise, 24 October 2011
  6. Stanton, Steven J., et al. Dominance, politics, and physiology: voters’ testosterone changes on the night of the 2008 United States presidential election. PLoS One 4.10 (2009): e7543
  7. How to ease the sting of losing
  8. The 20 biggest sore losers in the 2012 election
  9. What the Dodgers meant to Brooklyn
  10. A list of excruciating sport losses
  11. Fan fury: when sport spectators get violent