An adorably young, impossibly cute towheaded little boy snarls and raises his middle finger toward the action on the field. It’s an image that’s made its way around the Internet in a variety of forms. The boy and the bird remain the same each time, but the team jacket and logo frequently change. Dozens of sporting teams from around the planet have laid claim to this irate toddler, to the point where he’s become a ubiquitous stand-in for the “die-hard” character of that club’s fan base.
Like many jokes, the image reveals a foundation of truth. It may be incongruous to see a small child in a public display of vulgarity (depending on where you live), but the point behind the jest is that fans display their loyalties in part through the expression of animosity. A true fan, in other words, feels true hate—for the opposition, for the officials, and for anything else that stands between that fan’s team and victory.
It’s a side of fandom that’s not given much attention. The emotional pallet of the sports enthusiast is rich and varied, ranging from the ecstasy of victory to the anxiety of close competition to the depression of defeat. Few paeans to the joy of sports, however, would emphasize the importance of bitter hostility, aimed squarely at rivals or at more successful players and teams. Yet hate is something that permeates the psychology of many fans, though it takes shape in a variety of more subtle expressions.
For example, schadenfreude—the sensation of joy at the misfortune of others—is a common experience among even casual sports fans. Sports, after all, provide countless moments in which fortune’s turning wheel upends the victor, leaving the previously vanquished and frustrated masses to revel in the “karma”, “payback”, “justice”, or whatever term most closely justifies the enjoyment of another’s downfall. Encapsulated in the catch-chuckle uttered by The Simpsons’ Nelson, sports eventually give us all an opportunity to point and cry: “Ha ha!”
For a great many pro (American) football fans, the most recent opportunity has come in the form of New England quarterback Tom Brady’s knee injury. Brady, who last year captained his team to a perfect regular-season record, has seen his misfortune in back-to-back games give rise to cheers that have reverberated throughout the league. They began soon after the last Super Bowl, in which Brady and his squad were poised to become the first undefeated team in the league since 1972. The Patriots seemed unstoppable, dismantling opponents with almost routine proficiency. At their helm, Brady dominated the field with his accuracy and acumen. Off-the-field, he parlayed his fame and features into a relationship with top supermodel Gisele Bündchen.
Embodying a kind of alpha-male success at every turn, Brady fast became a hero to some and a target of intense antipathy for many others, who found his bid for perfection a bit too, well, perfect. It was to the latter group’s great delight, then, to see Brady and his Patriots lose the Super Bowl to the overwhelming underdog New York Giants. Giants fans—and Brady-haters—rejoiced in unison, if for different reasons.
Still, even coming off this spectacular upset, New England and their star quarterback returned for another run at perfection as the new season began earlier this month. That goal, however, was dashed in the first quarter of the regular season, as Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury against Kansas City. As a result, the Patriots have been forced to start an unproven backup, and Brady’s embodiment of perfection has once again been sidelined.
What’s followed in the wake of his injury is an unabashed outpouring of glee, either displayed by anonymous posters to sports blogs, or in the privacy of Brady-haters’ living rooms. Of course, public celebration of an athlete’s potentially career-ending injury is generally frowned upon, but that in no way diminishes the schadenfreude inspired by such a blow to Brady’s much-touted successes. In a way, the shame inherent in any feeling of schadenfreude, coupled with the strictures of “good sportsmanship” that are paid lip-service by league organizers and commentators, work to heighten the emotional intensity many attain in hailing the doom of a rival.
The psychology at work here is not restricted to sports, but its prevalence among fans is a thing that is both under-acknowledged and, one could argue, under-appreciated. While expressions of fan hate are often understood as the lamentable behavior of a few bad apples, what fan among us has not at some point applauded an unlucky call, bounce, or break for our opponents? Isn’t the ultimate joy of every fan predicated on the unhappiness of his or her counterpart?
And so, schadenfreude is not merely a failure of emotional restraint. On the contrary, it’s a fundamental element of fan psychology. The only questions are what form that element will take for each fan, and how intense its expression will be. The answers to these vary, of course, depending on that fan’s default mental state, the general success of the team, the closeness of the competition, the amount of alcohol ingested, and a variety of other factors. In the end, though, each fan will be confronted with the chance to cheer another’s misfortune.
At its mildest, this may find expression in the muted applause of a dropped pass or fumbled ball. At its most intense, fans may devote websites, posters, gestures, or any number of epithets to taunt and harass opponents. Most will see this as all in good fun. After all, every fan is subject to the same twists of fate that so often determine the rise and fall of their rooting interests. Still, these expressions of derision, schadenfreude, and, yes, hate, can also be understood as a kind of collective primal scream. Sports is one of the few cultural spaces in which antagonism is not only celebrated, it’s positively encouraged. So much of our time is spent within the confines of enforced politeness, a civilized arrangement that slides by on the grease of minding one’s manners.
Sports, on the other hand, provide an escape from all that, as well as an excuse to vent our oft-silenced spleens. For Tom Brady and his fans, this may come as small consolation, but they should take heart. If the Brady injury has taught us anything, it’s that sports perfection is swiftly fleeting. Soon enough, they’ll be able to hoist their middle fingers right back.