The nature of sports fandom

Lise Joern
Dept. of Sport Science, University of Aarhus 

Pierre D. Bognon
The Anatomy of Sports Fans: Reflections on Fans & Fanatics
168 sidor, hft.
Charleston, SC: BookSurge 2008
ISBN 978-1-4392-1037-6

A fan is generally viewed as an obsessed individual: someone who has an intense interest in a certain team, celebrity, band or similar. Fans have often been viewed as somehow deviant. Fans are dangerous, often hysterical fanatics, portrayed as either the obsessed loner or the frenzied crowd member. Sports fans in particular have suffered from being stigmatized. Even in contemporary times authors have argued that sport fans (and in particular association football fans) have suffered from a biased treatment, particularly in the popular press where all sport fans seem to be labelled as potential hooligans. However, beyond these inherently negative stereotypes of fan culture, defining what constitutes a fan proves extremely difficult. Being a fan is not just a label or a category, it is also an identity and a performance. In The Anatomy of Sports Fans Pierre D. Bognon tries to search for answers to the questions why some people become fans and why they stay so committed.

The first chapter considers the meaning and importance of community for contemporary sports fans. It is evident that a sense of belonging and community has always been a part of the attraction of being a sport fan, and this chapter highlights the importance a sense of belonging continues to hold for most people.

In Chapter 2 Bognon describes how a person becomes a fan and why the identification with a sport, a team or an athlete can remain strong throughout a lifetime. There are many reasons why a particular individual may begin to take a specific interest in a sport or team and embark on their process of induction as a sport fan. However, for many of us this induction often occurs as a small child, and in our adult life the reasons and motivating factors behind this induction may not always be clear. For fans, sport events are a ”constant source of enthusiasm” (p. 11). They are exhilarated by victories and spend a lot of emotional energy – whether the team wins or is defeated. Why this intensive involvement? For many fans the team is ”associated with memories of highly emotional moments” (p. 24). ”In any case”, Bognon states, ”once branded by a team or athlete, they cannot escape their identification” (p. 10). Any attempt to define what constitutes a fan will inevitably involve highly complex and subjective codes of ’authenticity’ – who and what is deemed as legitimate patterns of support, and who and what is not. In this book the term fan seems to be used as a benchmark to consider those who are deemed as having appropriate and legitimate patterns of interest – the most excessive sport supporters. Hence, fandom is a source of identity, belonging and passion.

Here, however, is a remnant of unreflective notions of ’hooliganism’ that leads to wrong conclusions.

In the following three chapters Bognon reviews the evolution of intitutionalized sports and the impact of this evolution on fans. One of the topics dealt with is doping. In Sports and Their Fans. The History, Economics and Culture of the Relationship Between Spectator and Sport, (2009), Kevin G. Quinn writes:  “Doping betrays the human dimension that distinguishes athleticism from engineering. These violations of competitive legitimacy are far worse transgressions against fans’ moral sensibilities than poor sportsmanship or even sabotage.” (p. 179). Bognon takes another position. According to Bognon, fans know about drugs and cheating. They may be concerned but not enough to stop attending or watching events. People just want to see the game (p. 69). Fans know that sport is driven, not by an interest in the good, but rather by an interest in the aesthetic.Chapter 6 focuses on the so-called Highly Identified Fans, the devoted fans, and how they react to their team’s performance.

In Chapter 7, Bognon takes a closer look at sports crowds. He criticizes that Gustave Le Bon’s crowd-theories are still relied upon to explain the behaviour of rowdy fans (p. 106). The central tenet of the theories is that the mere immersion of individuals in a crowd is sufficient to obliterate their moral faculties and customary powers of reason. The theoretical implications of this are at least twofold: First, the crowd is described as a distinct entity which, through contagious suggestion, brings about (mainly) destructive acts that the individual crowd members would hardly ever generate on their own. Second, the crowd is attributed less intelligence and rationality than the individuals composing it. But ’crowd’ is actually a neutral term. It describes a lot of individuals going about their business in the same area as well as groups of people with a common purpose, like football fans watching the big screen in the city center – yet authorities tend to regard crowds with suspicion. Crowds behave rationally, rather than irrationally, but police forces are still influenced by Le Bon’s theories about the nature of crowds and how they should be controlled. The risk posed by crowd events is dynamic: it moves along a continuum from low to high – and back again. This movement is determined by group interaction, and this can be managed more – or less – effectively by different forms of police deployment.

In the same chapter Bognon describes what he calls the carnivalesque, non-violent crowd and the hooligan-crowd, respectively. Here, however, is a remnant of unreflective notions of ’hooliganism’ that leads to wrong conclusions. For instance, Bognon writes that ”[t]he term hooliganism can be used to qualify violent crowd behaviour at any type of sport event” (p. 109). Violent incidents at sport events are not, however, necessarily of the same nature, or influenced by the same causal factors. Not all sports-related violence can be labelled as hooliganism. Moreover, hooliganism often is found lumped togehter with other unrelated phenomena, for instance heavy-handed policing, shortcomings in passive security measures including arrangements for segregating rival fans, evacuation procedures and crowd checking. Furthermore Bognon writes that ”[h]eavy consumption of alcohol, a must at any of their gatherings, is further a cause of low levels of self-control.” (p. 114). But ’ordinary’ fans are usually more inebriated than hooligans. Hooligans rarely drink to excess when attending football matches, and the consumption of alcohol by football fans is thought to have little impact on levels of hooliganism. Adopting these notions of hooliganism seems to be a way of disguising an impulse to moralize that is rooted in one’s own personal distaste for the practice – which is understandable but leads to misunderstandings.

Nevertheless, drawing on a wide range of academic and popular literature on the subject mixed with own experiences Pierre D. Bognon’s book is an insightful and varied exploration into the complex phenomenon of sports fans. In many respects he actually succeeds in breaking down prejudices against sports fans. 












© Lise Joern 2010.

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