It shouldn’t matter that Kawhi Leonard decided to play basketball in Los Angeles instead of Toronto.

And yet it does.

The anticipation leading up to his decision was unprecedented. The media were in a frenzy. Speculation was rampant. Helicopters followed his every move. There were “spottings” of house sales and reported purchases of moving containers!

It shouldn’t matter that a dozen or so very highly-paid Americans won a championship for playing basketball while employed by a Toronto-based sporting corporation.

And yet it does.

The public celebration, the pride, the pure, unadulterated joy this brought to the people of Toronto and, indeed, all of Canada, went far beyond anything experienced by most living people, and rivalled the memory of celebrations triggered by the end of world wars.

ctvnews.ca

It shouldn’t matter whether Canadian-born hockey players fail to win the gold medal at a two week long international tournament played every four years.

And yet it does.

It’s viewed as a national shame and calamity, eliciting much hand-wringing, introspection, and calls for reviews, re-focusing on “priorities” and enhanced commitment.

There is, undeniably, something about sports and our identification with teams that simply transcends logic or rational thought. It goes far beyond our collective interest in politics, environmental concerns or the economy. 

Just this past week Lisa MacLeod, a provincial cabinet minister, was required to apologize for unleashing an obscenity-riddled diatribe upon the owner of a professional hockey team. In her tweet, she tries to justify the attack:

“Let me set the record straight, I gave @MelnykEugene some feedback at the Rolling Stones concert and I apologized to him for being so blunt. I have serious concerns about the state of our beloved Ottawa Senators!”

Beloved? Really?

One of my favourite history writers, Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, writes in her memoir “Wait Till Next Year” of her “childhood love” of the Brooklyn Dodgers and her “desolation when they moved to California”.

And I certainly can’t claim to be immune. I find the current mediocrity of the Blue Jays a personal offense and, for the past 50+ years, have gone into an annual spring funk when the Maple Leafs make their inevitable and ignominious exit from the playoffs.

Why do I care? Why do any of us care?

Certainly, there’s no question that the passion is real. For those who need convincing, I would refer them to a 2008 article by Ute Wilbert-Lampen and colleagues (NEJM 2008;358:475-483). They looked at the incidence of cardiac events in the greater Munich area during the 2006 World Cup of soccer. On days when the German team was playing, the incidence was 2.66 higher than during control periods (p<0.001). Men were more likely to be affected (3.26 times higher), but women were affected as well (1.82 times higher). There were clear spikes on days, and times, that the German team played, as illustrated below, points 5 and 6 being days Germany was playing the most critical games (Game 6 being their loss to eventual champion Italy, I might point out):

from Wilbert-Lampen etal. NEJM 2008; 358: 475.

Need more convincing? Consider a study carried out by Paul Bernhardt as part of his doctoral project. He measured testosterone levels in male spectators of sporting events, specifically basketball games at Georgia State University (Physiology and Behaviour 1998;65:59-62). He found that levels rose in a pattern similar to that of the players during the game, and decreased in the fans of the losing team. It seems that rabid fans are very much “in the game”. 

But what’s driving all this?

Psychologists and sociologists have explored the topic. Theories abound. Some believe team fanaticism allows for permission to step out of everyday lives and take on a different, more outgoing persona. The term “deindividuation” has been bandied about, which seems to mean that you can behave in a crowd in a way you never would alone. There’s a certain connection that occurs between fans of the same team that appears to promote self-esteem and carries over to everyday life. Terms like “relationship” and “bonding” have been applied to what happens between fans and their team.

Daniel Murray is a psychology professor at Murray State University. In his book “Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Fandom”, he presents a combination of research and theory and makes a case that fandom promotes a sense of belonging, and overall psychological health. It appears to happen even if your team is unsuccessful – witness the Chicago Cubs whose fan base remained loyal despite not having won the World Series for 108 years or, dare I say it, our long-suffering Maple Leaf fans.

The term “Basking in Reflected Glory” (BIRG) has been used to describe the tendency to identify with successful teams and is ascribed to Professor Robert Cialdini who observed that the usage of team apparel in high school and college students varied in concert with the success of school teams. No surprise, I’m sure, to vendors of Raptors jerseys these past few weeks.

There are certainly positives to all this. In addition to transcending logic, sports fandom also appears to transcend issues of race and economic disparity. Sports appear to have a power to unite our society in a way that goes far beyond anything that can be achieved through any public policy. The Raptor players, taking in the adoring multitudes that turned out to celebrate their recent success, commented on the visible diversity of the crowds, something they’d not seen previously.

In the end, I would suggest that all this is about something much more fundamental. We have a basic human need to belong, to connect with others, to be part of something greater than ourselves. We can call it family, community, religion, social group, tribe, any or all of the above. We need to belong. We may wander, but will always identify with “home” and, to some extent, yearn to return. Allegiance with a particular team seems, to some extent, to address that need. For some of us, it’s ingrained in childhood and difficult to expunge (as much as we might like to). For others it’s acquired along the way, but no less real.

Returning to the topic at hand, what are we to make of Mr. Leonard’s recent departure? Certainly, it wasn’t motivated by monetary considerations or need to find a winning team, since he’d already achieved both those goals. In the end, his motivation seems to be something that the millions of fans who wished him to remain in Canada can easily understand.  Having been born and raised in Southern California, he didn’t so much reject Toronto as he chose to return to his own home, his own roots. Not many professional athletes have that option, and we should not begrudge him the choice. How many of us, given the same circumstances, would do the same? In the end, it’s about home It’s about belonging.