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Fan Confidence: A Tyranny of Cousins

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It's the Ides of June and the Diamondbacks are still hanging around the division lead.  They haven't gotten the message yet that they don't belong, despite passive-aggresive hints from The World Wide Leader In Sports, like when the network confused the Diamondbacks with the Dodgers or when one of their analysts actually admitted to not watching much of the team.  

To say that the impending series against division leading Giants is important would both overrate and underrate the meaning.  It's only three games in June, ones that won't completely separate either team no matter the outcome.  Yet this is the time to support the team, if you haven't before.

The Giants always seem to draw well at Chase Field, likely a result of both expatriate Bay Area denziens and their perpetual Spring Training presence.  Add in the Champion Effect, and fans clad in orange in and black should be out in force for this series.  The natural reactions is to quote a campy athletic goods commercial: We must protect this house.

Phoenix has this weird ability for former residents of other cities to project all their fantasies on it.  The city is a funhouse mirror for these types that seemingly cannot let go of the past.  Chicagoans bemoan the lack of good pizza or hot dogs (maybe go on a diet, fatties), New Yorkers sniff at the lack of supposed culture.  Los Angelenos bizarrely insult Phoenix's lack of traffic jams and bad drivers, and are always quick to brag about how terribly they drove in their native city.

The Valley of the Sun is certainly not perfect, and I'm could write a long list of personal complaints.  But it's not too bad of a city either, as evidenced by the millions who have flocked here in the past few decades despite no traditional geographic or economic reason.  And I would imagine most integrated and embraced their new home because it really isn't so bad.  It's easy to move around the city now, and there is a growing selection of cultural landmarks, sports, food both native and haute cuisine, and shopping to be a truly special consumer city in the Edward Glaeser mode of thinking.

Yet the Diamondbacks have become the preferred target for these Quixotic residents.  They imagine Chase Field as Wrigley Field windmills, or Phone Company Park, or Yankee Stadium.  "It's our house," they smugly say in a too small shirt proclaiming the love of their team, beer belly stretching it to grotesque proportions.  The Cubs bear cub becomes a cub limo.

It's how it was during the 2007 playoffs when the Diamondbacks brutalized the Cubs, how it was during the Barry Bonds years, and how it likely will be this year for the Giants again.  It is not difficult to see how these fans, likely normally reserved and nice people outside of sporting events, morph into all that is wrong about sports, excepting ESPN.  When your team comes out only a handful of times a year, you'll be more motivated to show up and make a spectacle than someone who lives in the area and can see the team 80 times.  

I've talked about the way sports can both uplift or dampen a fan's self-esteem, but the tribal nature of fandom goes further than just vague feelings.  In fact, you can draw very distinct parallels to cult or religious behavior and sports fandom, as Pedro Dionisio details in his paper "Fandom affiliation and tribal behaviour: a sports marketing application."  The stadium is a place of ritual significance, and the various club brands and images are the religious symbols.  It goes beyond traditional consumer/brand relationships.  Few feel for Coca-Cola the way they do for their favorite team.

The collective nature of sports fandom is an important dimension.  Sports are used as a socializing tool for children to a greater level than singular music lessons (which encourages solitary practice and performance; only when a child gets older or more advanced do they perform with larger groups), or other activities.  So Western children learn to socialize through the context of sports, and use sports merchandise to identify other members of the tribe.

It's a bit of a Western myth that we've shed the tribal part of our nature through thousands of years of civilization.  The truth is that we are kinship based through and through, and we cannot escape our biological impulse even as we build modern structures to limit the powers of the tyranny of cousins (see Francis Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order for a fuller account).  We want what is best for our families, and sports fandom extends our sphere of familial obligation.  

Tribal behavior has its dark side, however, as evidenced by the brutal beating of Bryan Stow.  No one deserves that fate, especially over a sporting event.  Yet people frequently brag about this brutish behavior, or cursing at opposing fans, or throwing garbage at them, or making 'their' home otherwise hostile.  We fall victim to this tyranny of cousins, where we feel compelled to act in unacceptable ways because our kin compel us to do so.  These cousins have no real authority over us, yet we feel compelled all the same.

There's something to be said for positive behavior.  If we use sports to socialize, then socialize.  The competitive part of the game is unavoidable, and given the high stakes it's natural to think people will not always be friendly over a game.  We are tribal in nature, after all.  This does not mean we cannot represent our team, the Diamondbacks, but also counteract the presence of these foreigners in a positive manner.  

So wear your Diamondbacks hat this week, if you have one.  Go to a sports bar and root for the team.  Even better still, head out to Chase Field for a game or two.  The world won't end if you don't, nor will the team collapse or move away.  But it's like I've been saying all along, there's a game going on and it's a pretty good one.