Call Them Crazy
Tony Modzelewski can’t explain why he jumped off the Fort Pitt Bridge in January 1975, but modern psychology has him covered. Modzelewski was 17 years old, celebrating the Steelers’ first Super Bowl victory, and the group of revelers he was with decided to walk across the bridge.
“I don’t know how we got started. There were people jumping off, and before I knew it I was part of the crowd,” Modzelewski said. “It was probably a 40-foot drop. I remember sobering up immediately, thinking ‘What the hell am I doing in this water?’”
Here’s how a psychologist would answer that question: Modzelewski was a “high identifying fan” engaging in “bracket morality” while “BIRGing.” That’s academic-speak for an off-the-charts bout of Steelermania.
As the football calendar enters its high season, some might question the wisdom of spending most of your Sunday (or Monday, Thursday, or Saturday nights) watching a group of millionaires chase a pigskin around a muddy field. But a growing body of research shows that following the local sports team — minus the bridge-jumping — can be good for you. For one thing, it can win you a lot of friends.
“There’s no question. It’s clearly good,” says Daniel Wann, a psychologist of sports fan behavior at Murray State University. “Identifying with (a sports team) provides this valuable connection with others. If it brings friends and camaraderie, that’s going to be good for you.”
Wann is among a few dozen psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists who study the behavior of sports fans. They have published dozens of studies on everything from fan aggression, to why fans identify with certain teams, to differences in how men and women behave at sporting events.
Their conclusions are especially relevant in Pittsburgh, where fans have taken “high identifying” to new levels. In a span of less than a year, one fan had a Steeler-themed funeral viewing, another had a heart attack after watching Jerome Bettis fumble during a playoff game and a group of devotees threw a tailgate party outside the hospital where star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was recuperating from a motorcycle accident.
The study of sports fandom took off in the 1970s, when a visiting professor at Ohio State University noticed more students wore the Buckeyes’ football jersey after victories than after losses. He also found people referred to the team as “they” when it lost, and “we” when it won. The professor, Robert Cialdini, termed this phenomenon Basking in Reflected Glory, or BIRGing for short.
Cialdini also coined another term to describe how fans distance themselves from a team when it loses: Cutting off Reflected Failure, or CORFing.
Once they began looking at sports as a social phenomenon, scholars uncovered a rich history of high identification. Historian Allen Guttmann found complaints that the chariot races at Rome’s Circus Maximus (capacity: 250,000) were watched by a “mass of the people, unemployed and with too much time on their hands” who were convinced “the country will be ruined if at the next meeting their own particular champion does not come in first.”
Scholars of contemporary fans have shown that fans internalize their team’s performance in extraordinary ways.
In one well-known study, Indiana University basketball fans predicted they would have better success at solving complex problems or dating attractive members of the opposite sex after a Hoosier victory than after a defeat.
A study of sports fans found Pittsburgh to have the highest-identifying fans of any NFL city. Some 64 percent said they’re very or somewhat loyal NFL fans, according to a survey by Scarborough Research. Fans like Modzelewski can be forgiven for BIRGing on the Steelers, who won their fifth Super Bowl title in February.
Modzelewski, 49, of Shaler, spends game days tailgating out of the back of the Beacon, a former refrigerated panel truck he saved from the scrap yard that’s painted gold and adorned with Pittsburgh sports teams decals. The newest decal is a tribute to late mayor Bob O’Connor.
He’s dropped thousands of dollars into fixing the truck and rigged out the interior by carpeting the walls to keep it warm in winter and hanging Steeler paraphernalia from various eras, including a flag he took from a lamppost the night he jumped off the Fort Pitt Bridge.
A group of 15 to 20 friends and family members usually tailgate around the Beacon, Modzelewski’s third Steelers-themed vehicle since he started going to games in the 1970s. His season tickets date back to the 1960s, when an uncle won them in a Moose club raffle. Modzelewski holds court near the back door of his truck, manning a propane grill, dispensing football talk and offering visitors a drink.
“It’s a community,” said Modzelewski, a truck driver with a tousle of blond-brown hair and an upbeat demeanor suggestive of a camp activities director. “It’s like being in high school again. You always have a group of friends. You always have something to do.”
That’s precisely what makes sports so attractive to so many, research has found. People are hard-wired to socialize. Tailgating satisfies a basic need.
“They could buy a meal in a restaurant if they were hungry. They could stay home and sleep,” Wann said. “Why do they tailgate? I’ll tell you why, because their friends are there. It’s a social activity.”
Another reason why so many are sports fans: It’s a very inclusive club, said Christian End, a psychologist from Xavier University.
“Unlike Mensa where you need a certain IQ score to gain acceptance or a country club where you need a certain financial standing plus recommendations, being a fan of a team is a group you can be a part of more simply than other groups,” End said.
Wann said sports fans can be divided into roughly three categories of identification — high, medium and low. High identifiers are people who always follow the team, no matter what. Medium identifiers are “fair weather” fans who follow the team if it’s doing well. Low-identifiers can name their favorite team when pushed, but rarely watch games or follow the scores.
Then there are non-identifiers.
“These are the people who just don’t get it. They wish it would just go away,” Wann said. “When you ask them for their favorite football team, they say, ‘What’s football?’”
Wann believes the higher identifiers are generally better off.
“The more individuals identify with a local sports team, the more healthy they are with their social psychological profile. You all a sudden have 10,000 additional friends. It’s hard to feel lonely in Pittsburgh as a Steelers fan.”
Cialdini, now at Arizona State, believes sports fan allegiance is a throwback to our species’ tribal and clannish roots. Athletes are stand-ins for a warrior class. When they win, Cialdini said, “It means our tribe is superior. It’s not just a game to be enjoyed for its inherent form and grace and beauty. When we see our team winning over a rival, that means something very important to us — that we are superior.”
Ergo, all those black and gold T-shirts sold in the Strip District suggesting Cleveland fans perform a certain lewd act.
To get a taste for sport’s tribal or atavistic nature, all you need to do is visit the parking lots near Heinz Field a few hours before a Steelers game. Through a pall of blue barbecue smoke and the din of classic rock crackling over car stereos, you find clusters of people in Steelers jerseys eating charred meat, swilling beer and swapping “coldest Steelers game ever” stories. (The record? “40 below,” by Judy Sholder of Chalfant).
If sports athletes are warriors and games are battles, then the tailgate outside a stadium is something like a war camp around a walled city.
Among the revelers in the parking lot, you’ll find Patsy Greco, an electrician from Mount Pleasant who has put tailgating somewhere around breathing and eating on his list of priorities.
A home Steeler game for Greco often means waking at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday, loading his pickup and crossing the Fort Duquesne Bridge around 6 a.m. “When I come across that bridge, I get chills,” Greco said.
By quarter after 6, Greco parks his truck outside the closed lot and starts the tailgate by cracking open his first can of beer.
“I like to tell people, you get plenty of sleep when you’re dead,” said Greco, a stout man with a buzz cut, a dark mustache and freshly inked Steelers tattoos on each shoulder.
On game days, Greco, 45, tailgates with a group of friends and family, munching homemade kielbasa, shrimp and veggies. His 22-year-old daughter Liz joins him when she can get off her shift waiting tables at Denny’s. His fiancée, Cheryl Bender, 37, started coming to her first tailgate earlier this season. “Before I met him,” Bender said, “I didn’t know people did this.”
Greco estimates that by the time he’s paid for parking, tickets, beer and food, he drops about $500 a game on the Steelers.
Fans like Greco have made sports a $200 billion industry in America. No society — from ancient Egypt to medieval France to Victorian England — has been as fixated on sport as ours. The big question for sports fan researchers is, “Why?”
Wann says the answer is simple: Because we can. “We have free time like we’ve never had before, and we have media like we never have before. We don’t have to spend 12 hours a day trying to make tomorrow’s food. At the same time, if you have a cell phone you can catch the scores.”
Another reason, Wann said, is that people like stories, and any sporting event comes packaged with numerous storylines, the most central of which is what side will win the contest.
Greco readily admits he takes some losses a little hard. He lost two days of work when the Steelers lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. An independent contractor who goes through slow work cycles, Greco sees nothing wrong with life as a high-identifying fan. No matter how the team is doing, he stays till the final buzzer. “It keeps me busy. When I’m out of work, I have something to look forward to.”
Modzelewski has drawn his own conclusions about the Steelers’ popularity that echo the scholarship of Cialdini, Wann and others.
“I think it started in the ’70s, when things were so bad here. Everybody wants to be a part of a winner, and the Steelers have been winners most of our lives.”