Evolutionary Explanations for March Madness

With March Madness coming to a conclusion in the next week and baseball season upon us, we wanted to highlight David P. Barash’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Roar of the Crowd: Sport Fans’ Primal Behavior.

David P. Barash, co-author of the forthcoming How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas, examines some of the evolutionary reasons behind our frequently feverish devotion to our favorite sports teams and athletes. As Barash puts it, “The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month’s collegiate basketball championship is not who will win buy why anyone cares.”

Identification with sport’s figures and “seeing ourselves in the exploits of another” is a powerful draw for spectators. As Barash writes: “Maybe it is time to rework Andy Warhol’s observation that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes: Thanks to spectator sports, each of us can know fame for most of our lives, so long as we are satisfied with the ever-shifting, warmed-over shadow of someone else’s.”

However, Barash also points to many examples in the animal kingdom and in human evolution of the need to be a part of a group both for physical and emotional survival. It feels good, Barash argues, to feel that we are “part of something larger than ourselves, and thus nurtured, understood, accepted, enlarged, empowered, gratified, protected. This process is seen in the long tradition of military drills, and more perniciously in the persistence of nationalism, as well as in the less-violent (usually) call of rooting for the home team:

Dazzled by the prospect of being part of a group, fans eagerly wear the group’s insignia or team colors. They get to “know” the team members, “up close and personal,” as sports journalists like to boast, inducing many spectators to believe that they are personally important to “their” team’s success. In Japan, where baseball is the national passion as well as pastime, the illusion is carried even further: Thousands show up at every game fully dressed in their team’s uniform, as though just waiting to be called to the plate. In America there is always the occasional scramble to get a ball hit into the stands, although in reality the only real “participation” permitted major-league baseball fans is standing up for the national anthem and then the seventh-inning stretch. (Not that the latter should be disparaged; for many avid fans, after all, it is closest thing to exercise they are likely to get.)

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