Rituals in Sports

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Cultural Anthropology
Final Research Paper
Dec. 15, 2012

Sports Rituals

The only reason why your team won the last game was because you wore your lucky hat, and the only way they will win the next game is if you wear your lucky hat again. Is it perchance by magic? Have the gods conspired to make sure your team gets to the playoffs because you wore a particular hat? Of course! It wasn’t just any hat; it was your lucky hat! Rituals in sports are very common, and every fan holds their own superstition. Superstitious rituals are defined as unusual, repetitive, rigid behavior that is perceived to have a positive effect by the actor, whereas in reality there is no causal link between the behavior and the outcome of an event (Womack, 1992). Do they work? Maybe, but what’s most important about sports rituals is the believer and the positive psychological affects they can have.

There is a rich history in terms of people around the globe participating in rituals. All rituals are based in a belief system, since ancient times the majority of superstitions have come from some sort of religion. This spread to other aspects of life such as birth, sacrifices and life changes. Although rituals in sports do not have a pin-point of origin, it has been prevalent since gladiator times when gladiators were careful to step into the arena with their dominant foot forward, giving us the saying “put your best foot forward”. So it has been recorded that these superstitions have perpetuated and flourished since before creation.

It was B.F. Skinner (1948, 1953), who discovered that superstitious behavior can arise through conditioning in an experiment he did with birds. He fed pigeons at random intervals, and noticed that these pigeons would do exactly what they were doing when they were fed. This suggests that they had created a ritual and thought that every time they would perform a specific action, that they would be rewarded with food. This behavior was hard to unlearn because they were rewarded with food. This could be an explanation for why sports aficionados continue their behavior in specific situations, every time they follow through, their team may win, reinforcing their beliefs. Rituals amongst sports fans have become more prevalent in modern times. The Budweiser Company has recently rolled-out a new campaign, “the year of the fan”, and it’s all about sports superstitions. “As Stevie Wonder’s 1972 hit plays in the background, one fan rubs his rabbit’s foot for luck. Another places his Bud Light cans in a specific pattern inside his refrigerator. A third wears different-colored socks to the stadium. Finally, we see a couple holding their hands over their eyes when the potentially winning field goal is kicked. When it goes through the uprights, the guy points to himself. That’s right, he’s saying, “I helped make that kick good.” The tagline: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.” This perfectly encapsulates sports fans and the impact they truly have over a game. The campaign has been wonderfully put together, and with a tagline of “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work” can speak to sports enthusiasts everywhere. This advertising can be seen as appealing to Langer’s theory of illusion of control (Langer, 1975, 1977; Langer & Roth, 1975). This theory states that people are likely to see themselves as a cause for an outcome, even in instances that they could not possibly have any control. Ellen Langer explained her findings in terms of confusion between skill and chance situations, people base their judgments of control on "skill cues". These are features of a situation that are usually associated with games of skill, such as competitiveness, familiarity and individual choice, the perfect example of this is athletic games. Optimism like this can be helpful for the psyche and can help in creating a sense of self-worth in an individual. The complexities of sports rituals and superstitions run deep throughout the...
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