As I witnessed a perceived Oklahoma sports apocalypse Saturday night, with OU’s loss to Notre Dame and James Harden’s departure for the Houston Rockets, every habitual glance at my Facebook news feed renewed and strengthened my annoyance with the whole spectacle. OU’s loss was, of course, the officials’ fault and Harden and his precious beard were clearly superior to the bunch of nobodies the Thunder got in return for them.
As a lifelong, die-hard sports fan, I honestly believe that our fandom brings out the worst in us. Nowhere else in life are we as inconsiderate, unintelligent, and self-unaware as we are around sports. Every time we’re convinced it was a foul, we totally forget there are plenty of people who aren’t, and in doing so we miss the possibility that it actually wasn’t a foul. And when we watch replays, we filter out any evidence that the play was clean. It’s a classic example of confirmation bias.
In normal life, we seek disconfirming information because not doing so would be stupid and sometimes dangerous. For example, if I believe that all brown beverages are horrible and should never be consumed, as a logical person I take in all available information and continually reassess my belief, and if I find an enjoyable brown beverage, I may abandon my original belief altogether. However, as a sports fan with a bad case of confirmation bias, I dismiss every brown beverage I like as a fluke and see every one I don’t as ironclad proof of my original belief. That’s how we watch replay and that’s how we digest sports commentary.
This is somewhat of a badge of honor among sports fans, to ignore negative things about teams or players you like and latch onto positive ones as justification for your infatuation. And deep down, we know that we aren’t always objectively right, but we take pride in burying that voice of reason. When a call goes against our team and replay indicates the call was right, we discard that disconfirming evidence and cling to anything we can to justify our emotional gut reaction: that the call was bad and our team got hosed. And if our team loses, that call, however insignificant, was the reason.
And this irrationality was sweeping down the plains Saturday night. Oklahoma lost, not because Notre Dame played better—no, of course not!—but because touchdowns were called back. Oh, the touchdowns were overturned because of a legitimate penalty and a good spot review? Irrelevant.
James Harden’s gone! But I like him! He has a beard and shoots threes! Kevin Martin’s averaged over 18 points per game in his career? Harden was probably leaving after this season for a team that was willing to offer a max contract? Irrelevant.
This kind of thinking would never be acceptable in normal society (or where it is, it shouldn’t be). But maybe it’s good that we have a relatively harmless outlet for the worst in us—it’s far better to be irrational and unapologetically biased as a sports fan than as a member of the workforce or as an everyday citizen.
Of course, it would be fantastic if we could all be civil and rational in every facet of our lives, but that’s probably too much to ask.