January 17, 2014

Superstition and the NFL Playoffs

Seahawks vs. Cardinals Pregame
Seahawks vs. Cardinals Pregame (Photo credit: bran.dan)
Even though I am no fan of superstition, I am of the opinion that there is a meaningful difference between the sort of superstitious rituals in which an athlete might engage before a big game and those in which fans watching the game on television miles away might participate. Perhaps the athlete who believes that wearing his "lucky" item of clothing makes him play better really does play better because of it. Of course, this reflects the power of belief and not anything magical. If the item helps, it does so because the athlete's belief in it affects him psychologically. Perhaps he plays with more confidence because he was convinced of the item's power, and improves his performance. On the football field, for example, the belief that one is invulnerable due to wearing one's "lucky" item just might lead one to hit harder, run faster, and the like. One's performance could be affected by one's superstitious beliefs, but this certainly isn't magic.

What is far stranger and far more difficult to justify is the behavior of the fans miles away who engage in their own superstitious rituals because they think they can affect the performance of individual athletes or even the outcome of the competition. As Cathy Lynn Grossman recently reminded us in an article at Religion News Service, some Americans will pray and perform other superstitious rituals on Sunday before the NFL playoff games.

Her summary of the results of a recent survey by the Public Religion Institute includes the following tidbits:
  • 21% will wear "special clothes" or conduct "special rituals"
  • 25% report that they have sometimes felt their team was cursed
  • 26% say they pray to some sort of god in an effort to help their team, and this appears to be more common among White evangelical Christians than any other group surveyed
In looking at the survey, I see they also found that approximately half of sports fans think that supernatural forces of some sort or another are involved in the games they watch and that this is particularly common among football fans. Half! That seems awfully high.

Most of the rabid sports fans I know who break out their "lucky" jerseys and the like on game day do not really do so because they think it is going to make any real difference in the outcome of the game or in who plays well. They do it because they've always done it (i.e., tradition) and because it makes them feel more connected to the game. But I do not doubt that there are some fans out there who really do think that their prayers and other superstitious rituals would affect outcomes. According to this survey, there are quite a few of them.

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