Behind The Thrill Of Victory

We root like maniacs because we are compelled by our tribal ancestry to do so. And because it's fun

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Of all the euphoric sports celebrations that have marked the advance of Western civilization since Ben-Hur won that chariot race in Rome nearly 2,000 years ago, nothing in memory quite matched the unbridled exuberance and joy that swept through the entire Red Sox Nation on Oct. 27, the night Boston won its first World Series in 86 years and threw off the Curse of the Bambino forever.

The most memorable dénouement to this tortuous tale was not the spectacle of 3.2 million New Englanders descending on the Boston victory parade route three days later. No, the most touching twist of all in this serpentine narrative involved the hundreds of people who repaired to New England cemeteries after the last out to kneel at the graves of deceased friends and relatives--supine Red Sox fans who had spent their lives waiting in vain for that final victory--to share with them the glorious news and leave tokens of the triumph at their tombstones. "We all had relatives who did not live long enough to see the Red Sox win," says Cheri Griffin, president of the Bosox' fan club. "A lot of people went to cemeteries to plant Red Sox pennants at the graves. People were kneeling down by graves and telling the stories.

'Thank you, Red Sox, from my grandfather.' People were deliriously happy."

Indeed, it would be difficult to conjure up a more graphic example than the Red Sox experience to illustrate why so many Americans--old and young, rich and poor, even dead, for that matter--derive so much happiness from rooting for teams. According to Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist from Arizona State University who has studied fan behavior, the cemetery excursions to mutter over the departed are not bizarre at all. They make perfect sense, he says, when you understand that the joy and passion felt in rooting for a team is an atavistic response, from when the family of man moved in small, closely related clans and each clan had members who foraged for food and fought to protect the group. "If your warriors defeated your neighbor's warriors, it meant that you were better," says Cialdini. "They came from the same genetic stock as you. So if they won, you won. That hasn't really changed. Today our teams are our warriors."

That the national pastime is played with large wooden clubs that are wielded like weapons and that the nation's most popular sport, football, is viewed logically as a metaphor for war--a territorial struggle with shifting front lines, blitzing linebackers and bomb-throwing quarterbacks--work well as subliminal references to that warrior past.

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