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I Know My Team Needs Me

Krissy Clark

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Super-fan Cunningham
(Courtesy Ross Cunningham)
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Part of it is because he's short.

"I'm only five foot three," explains Ross Cunningham. And that wasn't tall enough to make the freshman basketball team in high school. "When I got cut, I asked the coach if there was anything I could do to help the team out, and he said 'Go crazy in those stands.'" And, well, Ross has been at it ever since.

Ross Cunningham is a super-fan. First in high school, now at Idaho State University, where he's a sophomore history major and a fixture in the stands of Holt Arena, home to the ISU Bengals. But his rituals and responsibilities as a super-fan extend way beyond the stands, into the privacy of his dorm room.

The ritual starts as soon as he wakes up on the morning before a game. "I have a lot of songs that I listen to get me going," Ross says. "Anything by Dragon Force. That's a band you'll find on guitar hero." His favorite is "Through the Fire and Flames," full of power chords and rapid-fire arpeggios. "The guitar solo's fast and furious," he says. And then he hums a few bars.

The ritual continues when Ross goes to work at Taco Bell. He turns in the direction of Holt Arena -- "kind of like how Muslims turn east or west or whatever in the direction of Mecca," he says. Except instead of kneeling, Ross is holding a can of Red Bull, the energy drink.

"I'll tap it 10 times," Ross demonstrates -- spelling out I-D-A-H-O S-T-A-T-E as he taps "because there are 10 letters in Idaho State." Then he raises his drink and gulps it down.

He performs the same Red Bull toast in each corner of Holt Arena, right before games. Ross says the one time he didn't perform this ritual before a game, the Bengals lost.

Of course, the Bengals have lost when he did do it, too.

Ross isn't convinced this stuff really works. "But I would certainly feel very uneasy if I didn't do it," he says. "If you really believe in something, then there's going to be some sort of mystical aura around it."

We all know people like this -- people who need to sit in a special chair or not shave their beard in hopes of bringing a certain "x-factor" to the game.

For example, Ty "X-Factor" Rowton... He came up with the nickname in the shower a few years ago. Ty has worn the same pair of socks for every Kansas City Chiefs' game for the last 13 years. "They're my lucky socks," he says.

Lucky socks with gaping holes in the bottoms. Ty has figured out how to hook the socks over his big toes to keep them on when he goes to see the Chiefs play football. And he goes to every home game. He has to get to the stadium at 6 a.m. sharp. If he doesn't? "Then your whole day seems out of whack. It just doesn't seem right," he says. The outcome of the game doesn't seem to turn out right either.

"Everyday magical thinking" is what Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, likes to call super-fan superstitions. "We like to believe that we are rational people and therefore that we don't believe in magic," she says. But most of us do believe in magic, at least a little bit.

Emily and her colleagues wanted to know just how susceptible people are to these mystical fancies. In one experiment, they brought people into a room to watch a blindfolded man try to shoot basketballs into a net.

Before every shot, the researchers asked the spectators to visualize the man making the basket. And, like magic, he would make it.

Afterwards, spectators were asked if they thought they'd had a role in the guy's success at the hoop. "Probably," most of them answered.

What they didn't know was that the game was rigged. The man in the blindfold? "Actually," Emily Pronin laughs, "he could see through the blindfold fairly well, and so he was able to successfully make most of the shots." The spectators may have been well-intentioned, but their good thoughts had nothing to do with the guy's streak of baskets.

So why do usually rational people believe in magic?

Emily says part of it is just how our minds work. We're always looking for causal relationships. "So if we see a connection between things, like 'I was thinking about my team doing well, and my team did well,' then sometimes we can take from that correlation that there's a causal relationship there." The same goes for the correlation between victories and lucky Chiefs socks, or winning and tapping on Red Bull cans.

Emily says we can learn from this mental shortcut. Our tendency to slip into magical thinking could help cognitive researchers understand how our brains process cause and affect. But there are more emotional reasons for magic, too.

Research shows that magical thinking is common in times of war or danger -- think how superstitious sailors are at sea. And since we all know sports are little metaphors for life, it makes sense that superstitions could be a way for sports fans to feel a bit of control in a game -- or a world -- where they are mostly helpless. It's a form of comfort.

Of course, sports fans can't really affect the outcome of a game they watch. But the outcome of the game can definitely affect them. A study at Indiana University found that after Hoosiers fans watched their team lose, the fans' self-confidence plummeted. They doubted their own athletic abilities, intelligence, and weirdly, their sex appeal. Ed Hirt, the psychologist behind the research, says that after the loss, fans "kind of felt like the only people that would go out with them were people that were relatively... less attractive."

So what has an objective scientist like Ed taken away from his studies of superstitious fans? Ed has something he needs to admit: If his own kids, who are in high school, win a basketball game, he'll sit on the same side of the court for the next game, for good luck.

"I know it's not rational," he says. But sometimes, even a scientist just doesn't want to tempt fate.

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    By Andrew Taylor

    From Pocatello, ID, 04/01/2008

    I work at ISU and cover ISU men's basketball games for AP. I've watched ISU's superfan for the last couple of years and your story shed light on facts I'd never known. Interesting piece of work. I've read a couple other stories about the "superfan" but yours was most compelling.

    By Adam Newman

    From St. Petersburg, FL, 03/31/2008

    I wanted to let you know about an error in the intro to this story when it aired this past weekend. It was said that March is a great time for sports fans: Baseball starting, March Madness is underway and "the NHL is skating to the Frozen Four." Problem is, the Frozen Four refers to the final four teams in the NCAA hockey tournament, not the NHL. Professional hockey doesn't wrap up its season until June.

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