In 2018, on Feb. 4 to be exact, I was watching the Super Bowl with my then-boyfriend when the Philadelphia Eagles clinched a win against the New England Patriots ― a team that was widely considered one of the greatest in the history of sports.
We’re both from Philly, and were surrounded by fellow Philadelphians, so I knew emotions were running high. The Eagles were the underdogs, and if you’re a sports fan, then you already know Philly fans are a bit unhinged. But I didn’t expect my now-husband, a person I had seen cry exactly zero times, to burst into tears when the ref called the game. (I’m not making this up; here is proof.)
“I thought of all my best friends, my family — so many people I love have put lifetimes’ worth of money, time and extreme emotion into this team,” my husband recently explained. “I know how much it meant to not only myself but also all of them. I just got overwhelmed by the thought of, ‘Wow, all of us were alive to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl,’ and I completely lost it.”
It turns out he isn’t an anomaly. Sports hysteria is as old as time — people have been sobbing over, shouting at, cheering for and celebrating their favorite teams and athletes since the Olympic Games in ancient Greece.
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As Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, put it, people feed off of the emotions of others. When we watch sports, we empathize with the players, coaches and other fans.
Research shows that people absorb the emotions of nearby spectators at sporting events; this emotional contagion has been likened to a ripple effect. For example, when the team you’re rooting for scores or completes an amazing play, glee will spread from person to person through high-fives, cheers and hugs — much like the wave in a stadium. “Being in a horde of screaming fans — whether happy or distressed — is contagious,” Preston said.