Why Do Sports Make Us Cry?

A Red Sox fan cries after an extra-innings loss.
A Red Sox fan cries after an extra-innings loss.

In a dimly lit booth upstairs at a downtown Boston bar, sandwiched between two dozen friends, Michelle Reilly sinks into her seat.

There are seven minutes to go in the first quarter of the Patriots-Ravens Jan. 10 Divisional Round matchup, and Baltimore, already up 7-0 after scoring with ease on its first possession, is moving through New England’s defense like a plow through a dusting of snow.

Quarterback Joe Flacco tosses a 13-yard dart to Marlon Brown for a first down at the Patriots’ 12. Most in the group are laughing and smiling, with a few exceptions.

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“I’m sweating so much,” says Christi Gallagher, a longtime friend of Reilly’s.

Flacco finds Steve Smith Sr. in the endzone for the game’s second score. Conversation quiets, smiles droop. Reilly stares vacantly at the screen and shrinks further into the cushion.

“This is unbelievable,” she says in a monotone. “It’s like they’re not even there.”

Reilly takes a sip of beer. She grabs her phone and flicks through a dozen text messages, most of them some variation on ‘Michelle, don’t kill yourself.’

Jan 10, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith (89) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Smith Sr. celebrates after his touchdown.
USA Today Sports

Reilly is a fan, a title that gives her license to cry out in joy, sob into her sixth drink or do myriad other things in public that would, in almost any other context, lead observers to question her sanity.

At this moment, there are thousands like her in Boston-area homes and bars, decked out in Patriots gear, their attentions fixed on a ball game played miles away by men they’ll probably never meet. The outcome of the game won’t buy them a drink, watch their kids or hold a door for them, but it can damn well ruin their day.

This seemingly irrational attachment is part of a social phenomenon known as sports team identification. More than anything, it’s fueled by our species’ innate need to feel accepted, according to Dr. Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky.

“We have a strong need to belong, really have a desire to link up with other people... we have this need to feel grander than ourselves, to reach out and experience bigger things,” Wann said. “Fandom sort of hits on all those things.”

Reilly, 26, jokes she’s been a fan ‘since the womb.’ The youngest of three girls, Reilly picked the Patriots after her older sisters claimed the Celtics and Bruins. That neither chose the mid-90s Patriots was no surprise: at that time, the team was far from the juggernaut it is today. Reilly counts as one of her earlier sports memories her father’s anguish at the 1996 Super Bowl loss, and his prophetic insistence their time would come.

Fandom like Reilly’s confers such cognitive and social benefits as increased life satisfaction and lower levels of loneliness and alienation, according to Wann, who has authored or co-authored dozens of scholarly articles on STI.

Reilly organized today’s outing, as she often does. Seated beside her is Stefanie Sottile, one of her closest friends since middle school and her shoulder to cry on after a loss. By Sottile’s admission, she’s more a fan by association than her own enthusiasm. On Reilly’s other side is Amy Hoffmann, a Chicago transplant (and Bears fan) who has adopted the Patriots as her second team. Opposite her is Gallagher, who like Sottile, has been close with Reilly since they were kids.

All told, the group numbers 25 or so. Between them there are a smattering of Patriots hats and t-shirts, two Tom Brady jerseys, two Rob Gronkowskis, two Tedy Bruschis, a Ty Law and, in Gallagher’s case, a Brandon Lloyd.

The garments have passed the gauntlet of The Flow Chart, an exhaustive catalog of when, where and how Reilly and her group have watched the Patriots for the last 15 years. She compiled it in preseason, she says, after noticing the Patriots hadn’t won a Super Bowl since she began regularly attending games in about 2006. One unfortunate conclusion: if she hopes to see the Lombardi Trophy return, she can’t go to Gillette.

“It’s like not being at your best friend’s wedding,” she says. “Watching it right here, now, is afwul. But it’s for the team.”

Gallagher’s Lloyd jersey might seem a jinx given his departure, but it’s Chart-approved, as is the throwback hoodie worn by friend Saige Benavides (‘it’s fantastic if they’re playing an AFC opponent,’ Reilly says). Reilly is in her home Brady jersey (‘good for big games’) and the same undershirt, leggings, boots and bra she wears for every game.

Such superstitions are common among fans, Wann says. This component of fandom likewise stems from a human desire; this time, for control. From lucky clothes to rituals, fans often seek to bury their sense of helplessness over what transpires on the field or on the court. Some admit the silliness of the notion, Wann says, but many insist it works.

“[They say] it’s because, ‘If I don’t, the team loses. I feel like I let the team down,’” Wann said. “It’s their way of doing their part, because they’re trying to control something they can’t control.”

The group is tense but optimistic as the first half ends. Baltimore leads 21-14. ‘We’re a second-half team,’ is a common refrain, and the group is secure in the knowledge Bill Belichick will tell them what they need to hear.

During the break, Reilly switches from Lagunitas IPA to Miller Lite. It’s a concession to price and ABV rather than superstition, though she tries standing for the second half’s first possession. It doesn’t work: she re-takes her seat after the Ravens score, her team now facing its second 14-point deficit.

Friend Dana LoSasso squeezes in between Reilly and Sottile. Soon, the Patriots are driving. Rob Gronkowski scores a touchdown to cut Baltimore’s lead to seven, and the group cheers. LoSasso is forbidden from moving — not that she has any intentions of doing so, anyway.

Baltimore goes three-and-out on the next possession. New England’s Julian Edelman tosses a 51-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola on a trick play to tie the game. The cheers turn to roars, the nods to high-fives.

Foxborough, MA 01/10/15 Rob Gronkowski, left, and Julian Edelman gestures for a touchdown after Edelman threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium Saturday, January 10, 2015. AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman celebrate the latter’s surprise touchdown pass.
The Boston Globe

The mood drops as Baltimore retakes the lead with a field goal. The pendulum swings again as Brady tosses a dime to Brandon LaFell for the Patriots fifth touchdown, giving them a 35-31 lead, their first of the day.

With 5:08 to go in the game, the Ravens take over. Suddenly, the defense that had played so well for the last 20 minutes returns to first-quarter form.

At two minutes and 14 seconds, Flacco hits Owen Daniels for 17 yards on 4th-and-3. The game enters commercials at the two-minute warning.

“I hate this game,” one friend says. “I hate football. I hate every f***ing second.”

His sentiment is shared. The conversation is now little more than a hush. Reilly, palms on the table, alternates tapping her middle and pointer fingers on her surface. Others tug on their ponytails or bite their nails.

It’s a maddening back-and-forth, but this is what separates sports fandom from that of film, literature or television. With those works, the drama is static and the ending never changes. In sports, you can study the tape until your eyes twitch and prognosticate from Boston to Tokyo, but you’ll never know until the whistle blows.

“Sports has this unknown,” Wann says. “You’re watching history unfold live, and I think that also really draws people.”

The next play, a six-yard completion, is wiped out by a Patriots penalty. On first and five, Flacco and Kamar Aiken fail to connect. Tap, tap, tug.

On second and five, with 1:46 to go, Flacco drops back and flings a bomb. The camera pans downfield, where Torrey Smith has found a narrow seam between two Patriots defenders. But it’s New England’s Duron Harmon who comes down with the ball.

Foxborough, MA - 01/10/15 - (4th quarter) New England Patriots strong safety Duron Harmon (30) makes the game sealing interception of a pass intended for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (82) late in the fourth quarter. The New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens in a AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette stadium in Foxborough, MA. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Sports, Reporter: Shalise Manza Young, Topic: 11Patriots-Ravens, LOID: 8.0.1437886966.
Duron Harmon intercepts Joe Flacco, all but sealing the game for the Patriots.
The Boston Globe

Reilly is the first to react. She shoots to her feet, shouting and raising her arms in triumph. The rest follow, and she leads the chain of high fives.

Why does she do it? Why do some, like Reilly, become so attached to something so seemingly inconsequential, while others flip to Friends reruns? Why do they dress their dogs in little Brady jerseys? Because over time, Wann says, for reasons yet mostly unkown, the fandom becomes part of who they are, as much them as an arm or an ear.

“If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t respond that way,” Wann said. “If it wasn’t that important to them, then they would have no reason to be so full of elation after the victory or so depressed after the loss.”

But there are no tears shed today. The Patriots have won. They’re on to Gillette, again, where they’ll host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night in their fourth straight AFC Championship appearance.

If they’re to win, they’ll need Reilly at her best, in her Flow Chart-approved Brady uniform, in the same seat, at the same bar.

She’s game.

“Same place, same outfit,” she says. “Same everything.”