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Why do fans boo?

By Stephen L. Carter

I am struck by all the speculation this past week about how Philadelphia fans will greet Donovan McNabb this Sunday. The consensus among reporters seems to be that they will boo him roundly, either because he has now joined the enemy (whether voluntarily or not) or because booing is simply their way. And despite McNabb’s own opinion that he will be cheered, I suspect that this is so. I have occasionally attended Eagles home games, and although individual fans are perfectly nice to invaders supporting other teams, it really is true that the crowd seems to boo everybody.

But, then, so do the crowds at FedEx Field. Redskins fans may be a shade less vehement in our hostility but we are hardly welcoming. I have been present at games where the crowd booed players Washington cut when they were introduced as starters for the visiting team.

Booing can arise at bizarre moments. In Scotland recently, fans booed the national anthem of Lichtenstein before a match, evidently because it has the same tune as “God Save the Queen.” In Montreal last spring, Canadiens fans booed the national anthem of the United States.

Why do fans boo, exactly? There are trivial explanations available – teaching some player a lesson for dropping a pass, for instance, or letting the other team know exactly how hated it is – but these only explain why the impulse exists. They do not explain why we yield to it.

Psychologists who study sports often apply the concepts of BIRG and CORF. BIRG is short for “basking in reflected glory.” CORF is short for “cutting off reflected failure.” The idea seems to be that when the team wins, the fans feel better about themselves – thus the BIRGing. Booing, then, may in a sense be the effort by the fans to be a part of the game. We cannot rush the opposing quarterback or block as our team tries to convert a third-and-one. We tell ourselves that, by booing the visiting team or cheering our own, we are doing our part, affecting the outcome of the game, and thus participating – that is, that we are BIRGing.

As Daniel L. Wann, Merrill J. Melnick, Gordon W. Russell, and Dale G. Pease point out in their fine book, Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators, the more strongly a fan supports the team, the more likely he or she will try to influence the outcome of the game. Cheering and booing alike, then, may be seen as aspects of this central desire to be a part of the battle rather than a mere spectator. Sports teams, the authors point out, use such devices as cheerleaders and fancy scoreboards to try to get the fans to feel part of the game, and thus to try to participate – that is, to cheer or boo.

Sometimes, of course, fans boo their own team. This may be part of the experience of CORFing: the booing by the home crowd sends a message of withdrawal of support. True, the same crowd that booed a receiver a moment earlier for dropping a ball that hit him between the numbers will cheer an instant later when he scores a touchdown. This just shows that we are not really very good teammates – that our willingness to help the team depends on how well the team is playing.

A player who played hard only when the team was doing well would likely be benched. If the pattern continued, he would be cut. Fans who want to help the team win should follow a similar pattern. If we want to help the team win – to truly participate in the game – we might consider never booing our own players. And if we think that approach would make the game less fun, then there is something wrong with us – not the team.

By Box Seats blogger  | October 1, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Redskins, Stephen L. Carter  | Tags:  Redskins, Stephen L. Carter  
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Next: An interview with an Eagles fan


Fans boo because they know booing is about the only way they can actually have a chance of affecting the person that they are against. Its a way of flexing what muscle they have. They have no other form of controlling what is around them. Philly fans now boo because they know that is the reputation they have so they embrace it. Kind of like New Yorkers during the latter part of the 20th century had a reputation for being rude. First you deny the rep, then you except it, then you embrace and perpetuate it.

Posted by: ged0386 | October 1, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: nflorida1 | October 1, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

well said gedd

Posted by: FOURWATTS | October 1, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

You must have gone incognito to Eagles games. I have been going to Redskins away games since I was 5 and we have always gone in a group of at least 20. This was mandated by my father who never missed a redskin game no matter where it was played from 1939-2006, in his, and my opinion, Philly was and remians the worst and most unsafe place for visiting fans. In addition to verbal harassment, we have been pelted with batteries, beer bottles, snowballs, cans, various food items, etc. All of this was unsolicited, we have been schooled not to speak to them except to say hi, not to make eye contact or do anything to provoke an attack, but it happens anyway. So much for "brotherly-love".
Regarding "boos" I have never "booed" the Redskins, that is just wrong. I may be upset with decisions that are made or frustrated when balls are dropped, but you don't boo the home team. Booing the other team is my way of letting them know they are not welcome and that I do not like them. Booing the referees is my way of letting them know I don't agree with their call. As a fan in the stands, I have limited ways to communicate with the team on the field: I can cheer their successes, I can scream myself hoarse when the defense is on the field (the 12th man has been known to cause a few penalties, you know), I can pound on the back of the seat in front of me to increase the volume, I can sing "Hail to the Redskins" when we score, I can boo the other team, and I can boo the referees when I disagree with a call. Those are my ways of being part of the team on the field.
As a long time season-ticket holder, the booing at Fed-Ex seems not so much a withdrawal of support as it is an expression of frustration in performance and decision making. I say that because the body language that accompanies the boos (at least in the section where I sit) consists of hands hitting heads, fists hitting quads, heads being thrown back and turned to the left or right, expletives being shouted, all before the booing begins. These are actions more akin to frustration than a total withdrawal of support. In addition 95% of these people are back for the next home game, so in this case, frustration, seems to be a more likely cause.

Posted by: drmammal1 | October 1, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

And all this time I thought they were saying, "Boo-urns. Boo-urns."

Posted by: Poopy_McPoop | October 2, 2010 1:59 AM | Report abuse

Is this some sort of exercise to get us to like Jason Reid? These are unreadable.

Posted by: themantoyou | October 2, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

They're not saying boo, they're saying "mooooo-vers."

Posted by: swowra | October 2, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

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