In the preseason optimism of early spring, I wrote an homage to Cubs fans and their legendary loyalty. I explored how psychologists define and explain such unwavering affiliation and how Cubs’ PR efforts have been carefully crafting this relationship for decades. It was lighthearted and positive (what else on the cusp of a new year so brimming with promise?), tempered only by the distinct possibility they could fail to live up to the hype.
Even this outcome would be okay, I argued. Given their mental makeup and resiliency, psychologists have ranked Cubs fans among the best in the business at BIRFing (Basking in Reflected Failure). Win or lose, they derive emotional benefit from fandom itself, resulting in practically unshakeable faithfulness. A century-plus of waiting will do that. I referenced several more acronyms, psych-speak for different categories of fan behavior, and explained how the diverse Cubs Nation runs the gamut.
But I omitted one category of behavior from the discussion. It was unimaginable then that this season could see stalwart fans rocked to their core, presented perhaps with their greatest test of loyalty as cognitive dissonance suddenly set in. I never expected to need to explain why fans might turn away from a winning ball club. And yet, here we are:
“As a big Cubs fan, I won’t watch after today. It’s serious. Inexcusable.”
Of course, the ‘it’ was trading for former Yankees closer, Aroldis Chapman, who brought with him a blazing fastball and a reputation marred by domestic violence. The Chapman deal revealed how psychologically complicated avid fandom can become. From loving losers to winning at long last, suddenly winning at all costs may be, for some fans, a bridge too far.
To those privy to the Aroldis Chapman trade news breaking over two days on Twitter, it should be no surprise that psychologists find fandom so fascinating. Reactions ranged from elation to something very akin to the emotional stages of grief after losing a loved one. The average fan likely falls in between these extremes, bothered, perhaps, by the character issue, but choosing instead to focus on the Cubs’ chances of winning.
This is not about the average fan. While many diehards may be found in that majority, psychologists would view them as less identified with the team on an emotional level, as they draw a clear line between their own sense of self and the group concept. They can choose not to care and just root for the laundry. This is about those who cannot separate, whose self-esteem is wrapped up in their allegiance and who see themselves reflected in the team image. It takes a special organization to attract this kind of fan, and based on the Chapman backlash, it seems the Cubs have quite a few. This is about their unique psychology, their quest for balance, and the potential costs of achieving it.
It’s no accident that some Cubs fans have achieved such a high level of identification. Studies in fan psychology are unsurprisingly linked to sports marketing strategies, and stronger affiliation always means more money. Researchers have long understood that, “individuals are more likely to become identified with an organization (or team) when it represents the attributes they assign to their own self-concepts.” Put simply, it is easier to associate with a club that reflects one’s personal value system. Sometimes a common affinity for success is all that’s needed, but in the absence of winning, hearts and minds must latch on to something more.
Historically, the Cubs organization has nurtured a close player-fan relationship and relied on it to carry their base through the dark days of seasons past. Confronted with year after year ending in defeat, the business office has been masterful at presenting a relatable team concept. In a stroke of marketing genius, the Cubs Convention set a new precedent in professional sports, personally connecting fans and players for the first time.
Three decades later, the basic strategy is still going strong. Having to sell a rebuilding plan that would take years to pan out, Theo Epstein has been espousing the importance of character in the clubhouse from the beginning of his tenure. The message has been, ‘we are building something new, the right way, with the right people, and we will make you proud eventually.’ Even as the tide was turning, new acquisitions this offseason prompted typical statements on the players as people:
“The longer I do this, the more I realize character really matters, makeup really matters. Obviously you need talent, but the mix you have is really important. I think we have a really great clubhouse, a lot of quality individuals, so you want to add to that and enhance it. You don’t want to do anything that might compromise it in any way.”
It’s rhetoric that makes highly identified fans feel good about who they are rooting for, and, by extension, feel good about themselves. It also sets them up for a stark sense of betrayal when faced with what appears to be a dramatic departure in team values. The idea of adding Chapman became a kick in the gut for many who could not reconcile their positive image of the team and a player with his baggage.
The night before the trade was finalized, Twitter was ablaze with rumor reactions. One outspoken fan described feelings of deep dismay, seemingly shared by many:
“I’ve been a Cubs fan all my life. It’s more than a baseball team to me; it represents family and joy and I’ve got a lot of complicated emotions wrapped up in it… The Cubs choosing to sign this man, a man we know has been violent to women, sends a very specific message to me. ‘… We don’t care what message we send to victims of abuse, seeing a known abuser cheered on the national stage. We don’t care how our women fans feel. Here, have this pink hat.’ I can’t overstate how gutting this feels… Hey Theo. If by some miracle this reaches you, please consider your fans. Please think of the women. And please don’t do this.”
In simple, poignant fashion, a follower replied, “Exactly. I feel like we’re selling our soul for a [World Series] ring and it’s not worth it.”
To those devastated by the move, Epstein’s assurances after acquiring Chapman rang hollow, as the decision seemed to represent exactly the type of compromise he promised to avoid: “It doesn’t mean we’re turning our back on the importance of character at all. I think because we’ve emphasized character and building this core that we have, we have a tremendously strong clubhouse culture. We have great character down there. We think that it will help Aroldis as he moves forward.” Not quite the consolation fans were seeking.
Psychologists know that finding a silver lining in these situations is imperative to maintaining internal balance and continuing allegiance to the group. In their work on off-field behavior and fan reactions, a team of researchers found that, “just as fans can experience vicarious achievement with a successful other even though they personally contributed nothing to the victory, it seems that people are capable of experiencing shame even if they had nothing to do with the wrongdoing.” Vicarious shame means highly identified fans may suffer the guilt they associate with a player’s immoral act, a serious bummer when trying to enjoy the game.
Understandably, this complex emotion is difficult to sort out for those affected. On Twitter, some described ‘feeling icky’ in this new Chapman-in-Cubbie-Blue world. After the first victory with him on the mound, our own Caitlin Swieca reported, “… a pit in my stomach as the Cubs win a game is a new feeling.”
The study found that fans experiencing vicarious shame will seek coping mechanisms for relief. This can go one of two ways. The first option is a defensive psychological construct that seemed so unlikely to emerge last spring that I failed to include it in my acronym soup. Cutting Off Reflected Success, or CORSing, occurs when previously stalwart supporters actually turn away as the team wins, motivated by disagreeing philosophies with players/management and “the desire to have things remain as they once were.” Basically, winning is great, but only when it comes the right way. The deal-with-the-devil analogy is strong with this set.
Early in 2016 the idea that any Cubs fan would cut off ties with an elusive championship distinctly possible seemed ludicrous. Now, with one change in personnel and the ensuing emotional conflict, we can reasonably assume the Cubs Nation did not entirely survive the trade deadline intact. Fortunately, a second coping strategy can prevent this loss of affiliation:
“An individual’s need to reconcile feelings toward the immoral player behavior with his/her feelings toward the group as a whole leads to this imbalanced state, with positive feelings regarding the team, yet negative feelings regarding a team member. Therefore, something must be done to ‘balance’ the situation…Because the highly identified individual expresses ‘oneness’ with the organization, he/she especially will need something positive to counteract the negative.”
Typically, strong disciplinary responses and condemnation from team leadership provide balance after player indiscretions, but obviously the Cubs brass offered little help here. On the win-based decision to add Chapman, Tom Ricketts admitted he “wouldn’t characterize it as true soul searching.” That responsibility, of course, was left to the fans.
This time, resilient as ever, the fan base stepped up with the consideration and leadership its members needed to cope. Swieca reacted to the misplaced guilt by launching a rapidly growing fundraising campaign for victims of domestic violence. Donating for every Chapman performance, fans are joining in across the country to combat vicarious shame and restore mental balance through positivity. In her words, “[I have] No idea if it’ll ever make the bad feeling go away…it really stinks that my favorite team put me in this situation, but might as well try to make something good out of it.”
I said it before, quoting Harry Caray: There’s nothing like a Cubs fan. Widely varied in their motivations and how they define the relationship, they will not always understand each other. But they pull for the same cause with unrivaled dedication, and such a psychological investment can be a gift and a curse. For a certain subset of highly-identified fans, both effects have been evident this season, and the current price of loving this team is steep. Some have already found reconciliation through charitable giving. Our disillusioned fan from the lede is one of them:
“The Cubs came back to win last night in a huge game against the Mariners… I didn’t see it. Since the Cubs have acquired Aroldis Chapman, I haven’t watched a single minute of Cubs baseball. That will change today… Because for every save Chapman makes, every late inning strikeout, I will donate money to the Women’s Resource Center.. .it’s time to actually do something.”
Meanwhile, some may still be searching for restored comfort in their fandom. If they find a way back, the little costs will remain: a favorite player praising his closer, an unwelcome jersey in the shop, a never-imagined face under a long-awaited headline. And then, if a new flag ultimately flies at Wrigley this year, they will face the greatest dilemma yet: whether or not, for them, the wait continues.
Postscript – Although they are not the focus of my attention here, it is interesting to note that the fans on the other extreme, those aggressively angry at the moral opposition to Chapman, are likely also among the most highly identified. The other side of the same coin, they are simply employing a different (uglier) defense mechanism in the face of cognitive dissonance. By shunning fans who speak out against a player or management, they are exhibiting an in-group bias effect to preserve their own connection to the team concept. The Chapman deal was a jolt all around, and the struggle is real, albeit subconscious at times. So let’s be kind out there.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports.