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Game On: We-ing

Columns | April 8, 2019

Cheers broke out across campus this year’s Super Bowl Sunday when the Patriots made their sixth franchise championship win. Shouts rang out exclaiming, “We just won the Super Bowl!” This may seem like a strange thing to say when all of these rowdy fans were miles away from Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, where the Super Bowl was just played. None of them had set foot on the field, called a play, or even grazed a football. Regardless, the call that “we” had won rang throughout Tufts’ campus.

The “we-ification of sports” is a phrase used to explain referring to a sports team you’re a fan of as “we” instead of “them.” When football fans insist, “we must score on this drive,” basketball fans demand, “we need to defend home court,” or baseball fans hope, “we sign a power batter this off-season,” they’re all using first-person pronouns to talk about a process they actually have minimal influence on.

Despite my hatred of the Patriots, I fully supported Patriots fans celebrating their win just like my family cheered for the Seahawks during our Super Bowl victory five years ago. Using the word “we” connects us to that team. It’s as if we’re not just watching a group of people far away play a game; the game has an effect on us, and therefore we’re a part of it. If the team wins, “we” will be happy and if the team loses “we” won’t be.

It seems strange to me that many people, including former sports blog Grantland writer Chris Jones have denounced the “we-ification” of sports. Jones has made comments like, “If someone read a book to me and said, ‘We really killed that opening chapter,’ I’d wonder if I were talking to Gollum… Have you ever watched a movie… and said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we triumphed over evil again?’” He has a point; put in this context, we-ification sounds fairly ridiculous.

That being said, Jones still points to a natural human tendency to associate yourself with characters in a narrative. While it’s not common to directly refer to a story’s protagonists with first-person pronouns,  you have to admit you are still rooting for them. In this sense, you associate yourself with specific characters—you cheer when they succeed and are discouraged when they fail. The same goes for sports, but instead of fictitious characters, they’re  real human beings.

Jones recognizes certain cases where he deems it acceptable to refer to a sports team as “we.” One example he notes is attending a college basketball game at your university where you’re a student and pay tuition. There are other cases that Jones considers acceptable, such as within the fanbase of the Green Bay Packers, the only team in the NFL that is a publicly owned franchise with hundreds of thousands of owners that each hold shares. Still, it’s unclear to me why ownership of a team should be defined only by holding shares in it, but not by the numerous other ways fans contribute to a team—monetarily or otherwise.

28 of the 32 stadiums in the NFL were built using taxpayer dollars. At the point at which the citizens of Atlanta, for instance, just paid a total of $200 million in taxes to construct the Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz stadium—do they not have a right to refer to the team as “we?” Beyond this, it seems unreasonable to expect fans to reframe the way they watch and think about teams depending on whether they’re watching the NCAA or the NBA. If you’re rooting for UNC basketball or the Charlotte Hornets, the way you express your fandom is the same.

The argument seems to rest on the idea that if you have no influence on the impact of the game, you can’t consider yourself part of the team. I’d argue that fandom doesn’t work that way. Being a devoted fan of the team makes it impossible for you not to consider their success as your happiness, making the term “we” feel very natural. But even with that standard, fans have shown that they actually do influence many games. At the NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and the LA Rams, the Saints fans were incredibly loud. As a result, Rams quarterback Jared Goff struggled to hear through his headset and even claimed it was “disorientingly loud.”

As a Seahawks fan, I take pride in the 12th man mentality. This refers to the ability of the fans to influence a game. In football, eleven players are allowed on the field at a time. The 12th man implies that the fans play an additional role beyond the players on the field. The Seahawks, whose fans have set world records for loudest crowd noise at a sporting event twice, take pride in this and refer to their fans as “12s.” Other teams, including the Buffalo Bills and the Indianapolis Colts, have also referred to their fans as the 12th man. Beyond just football, fans in many sports contribute to creating a home court advantage for the team that gets to play in their own stadium. Accordingly, leagues try to correct for these advantages. For example, association football (soccer) matches are played in two legs with both teams playing at home once and the NBA playoff series are held with nearly equal games being played on each team’s court.

“We-ing” your sports team acknowledges the fact that you’re affected by the state of the team and creates a camaraderie  among fans. When I see a Seahawks fan, especially in the middle of New England, I get incredibly excited and feel an immediate bond with them because I know there is an interest we share. Loyally following a sports team implies a collective experience and enthusiasm, and using the word “we” recognizes that. Nobody who overhears the use of the term will assume you had the same impact on the game as the coach or the players. But using “we” lets you show how your attachment to the team is strong enough to call for unifying language that reflects your mentality about the team.

However, that’s not to say the term is entirely unproblematic Implicit in the use of the word “we” is an acknowledgement that there is also a “them.” “Football hooliganism,” usually used in reference to soccer, describes the disorderly or even violent behavior perpetrated by spectators at soccer games. Some such incidents include the stabbing of six English supporters of Liverpool during a fight between A.S. Roma and Liverpool fans in 2001, as well as the death of a fan of Ethnikos Piraeus during one of their games. Football hooliganism cannot be entirely attributed to “we-ification.” That being said, these events are still a clear representation of how the stakes of a game or a team can become unreasonably elevated for certain fans. Suddenly, a bad call by a referee isn’t just a moment you watch on TV, but a personal attack. “We-ing,” in that respect, is almost tribal. It creates an illusion of greater divisions between fans of different teams and leads to an us vs. them mentality for some fans.

For this reason, maintaining a degree of separation between you and your team can sometimes be important. It allows viewers to be critical of the actions athletes take. But there is a distinction people make when holding athletes accountable for their actions compared to many other celebrities. Although the Time’s Up movement has a lot more work to do in Hollywood, it dwarfs any semblance of a movement that exists for athletes. Despite the rampance of domestic violence within the NFL, many spectators turn a blind eye. This past NFL season, for example, a video came out with clear evidence of Kareem Hunt’s violent actions towards a woman. As a result, Hunt was released from the Kansas City Chiefs. But then, a few months later, the Browns signed him.

Most people were appalled by the video—Chiefs and Browns fans alike. But when it came to having the 2017 leading rusher on your team, criticism subsided. It’s easy to condemn the actions of celebrities that seem untouchable. It’s much harder to hold the same standard for people you consider as part of your own team. “We-ification” blurs those lines.