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The psychology of being a Rutgers fan

As a fan base, the RU faithful has been through a lot.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Temple at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you are a Rutgers fan, you know it’s never been easy.

Every fan base goes through the many highs and lows that their teams and programs experience over an extended period of time. However, every team, program, university and organization has its own history and personality that helps to shape their reputation and identity. Each fan base is cultivated through their own experiences of witnessing it and processing it all, the good and the bad.

With Rutgers, for many years across most sports there was very little to cheer for and when there was, it didn’t last too long. When COVID-19 cancelled the postseason for the most successful men’s basketball team in decades and then the fall seasons were postponed last year, I pondered all the uniquely bad and disappointing things that Rutgers fans had experienced over the years.

In the calendar year of 2021, Rutgers athletics has made significant progress across multiple sports. The men’s basketball team went dancing for the first time in 30 years and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 38 years. The men’s lacrosse team also won its first NCAA Tournament game in 30 years. And yet both teams suffered brutally painful season ending losses that robbed them of berths to the Sweet 16 and Final Four, respectively. As I pointed out at the time, the heartbreak signaled progress and is something Rutgers fans should hope becomes a normal occurrence. More success will lead to more painful endings.

Heartbreak is the air we breath as sports fans. To live is better than not having done so at all. Indifference due to constant losing is a cold death. The term “long suffering Rutgers fan” is certainly an accurate way to describe the plight of the RU faithful over the years. Every fan deserves credit for persevering in some way, any way that you have.

As you know if you read this site regularly, I have been a Rutgers fan and gone to games for almost four decades. It started when I was a six year old child. It’s in my blood, for better or for worse. For years, I only experienced being a fan of Rutgers through my own eyes. My perspective has grown now, as I’ve witnessed and experienced the Rutgers fan base from a front row seat over my six years of running On The Banks.

This football season has brought plenty of emotions out after a promising 3-0 start has turned sour with a four game losing streak. The return of Greg Schiano as head coach restored hope in the fan base after years of joyless football. However, rebuilding a program takes time and this season has tested fans’ patience and fortitude.

Are we a fan base of too many tortured souls that have been poisoned forever? Are there enough eternal optimists among us who are impervious to doubt and hopelessness? Or do most fans have a little a both and are able to stay grounded? Is it possible for a fan base to change and develop in a significant way over time based on the success and failures for the teams they root for? I had questions.

I sought out a relevant source for proper perspective and to help answer them.

Dr. Charlie Maher is Professor Emeritus of Psychology from the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. He also has been a Sport Psychologist and Director of Psychological Services for the Cleveland Indians since 1995. Dr. Maher has been a Sport Psychologist for other professional teams in the NBA, NHL and NFL as well over the years. And from 1998-2017, Dr. Maher was Sport Psychologist for the football program, as well as men’s and women’s basketball at Rutgers.

I couldn’t think of a more perfect person to speak with about the plight of sports fans, specifically Rutgers fans, than Dr. Maher.

He helped the athletic department transition from the Big East into a brief stint in the AAC and finally into the Big Ten over the years. Teaching at Rutgers prior to these moves, he remembers the days of competing in the Atlantic 10 as well. Long time fans do too. The step up in conferences with the Big Ten has not only had a psychological effect on the fans, but it’s something that the players and coaches have needed to adjust to as well.

“Competing in the Big Ten, no matter what sport, is hard, a difficult challenge,” said Dr. Maher. “On any given day, most Big Ten teams can beat any other team, for the most part. Coaches and athletes know this and, consequently, they understand and accept the sport psychology principle of taking it one game at a time—one possession or play at a time. Overall, Rutgers coaches and athletes value this principle.”

He continued, “Rutgers fans can benefit from valuing this principle and deal only with the upcoming game at hand. This is easier said than done since fans do not have any control over any particular game, although they can influence it through their optimism and enthusiasm during it. Just like an athlete, if a true sports fans has not been recently humbled, they are likely to be so, at some not too distant point.”

As fans, emotions can be intense following a big win or loss. Rutgers competing in the Big Ten has brought more of those big games and for the first few years of being in the conference for many sports, that meant more losses and more disappointment.

“In joining the Big Ten, the biggest adjustment for players and I think this goes for fans, because it is such a highly competitive conference, it’s hard to win games,” said Dr. Maher. “If you win a Big Ten game, you’ve really done something and the team, players and coaches have gone through a lot. As a result, fans who are not used to that may run into some problems.”

That brings up the personality of the fan base, which is comprised of many different personalities coming together to root for one unified cause. That doesn’t mean there will be a unified voice or attitude from the fan base. What shapes the depth of a fan base?

“That’s where the optimism and pessimism falls in,” said Dr. Maher. “There are some people, fans, coaches, whoever, by nature are optimistic. They will look at the glass half full. They’ll look at things positively, they’ll want to identify with the team, ‘we won, we did well.’”

As for the other point of view?

“The pessimistic individual attaches too much of their self and self-esteem with the sport,” Maher explained. “While they may identify with the team within the sport, they are also linking that to themselves. A pessimistic fan will ask how something is going to go wrong. ‘We’re not going to do well. ‘If we go to a bowl game, we won’t do well’ or ‘we are coming to come out at the bottom of the Big Ten.’ The framework of optimism and pessimism as a psychologist is a good way to look at it in terms of fan behavior.”

A clear way of experiencing the differences in fans of the same team is how reactions vary regarding the same outcome.

“What the research shows, the day after a win, most fans are going to feel good about themselves,” explained Dr. Maher. “The fan who is optimistic, the day after a loss, is still going to be optimistic. ‘We have another game coming up and continue to work hard. We are making progress and doing better than we have in the past.’

As for the flip side, Dr. Maher stated, “The pessimist is going to go to the opposite end and look for failure. In their mind, it’s almost like a self fulfilling type of prophecy.”

Social media is a platform that many of us have all experienced other Rutgers fans reacting to wins and losses in an extreme and emotional way. We are probably all guilty of doing the same, publicly or not. However, how fans react can impact the mindset of other fans as well.

“In psychology, a term that is used is called the contagion effect. That means to the tendency of certain kinds of behaviors and attitudes which is demonstrated by people, it can be initiated by other people,” explained Dr. Maher. “A group of pessimistic fans of a certain team or school, it is possible they could have an effect on other fans (of the same team). On the other side too, optimistic fans could have a effect on people who are negative. From a clinical and social psychology those are some keys. That applies not just to fans, but to players and coaches.”

Running a fan site that has published countless articles over the years, many times I’ve had fans complain that negative comments or views by other fans will hurt the team, its players and even the perspective of future recruits.

Dr. Maher confirms that fans absolutely have an effect on the teams they root for. However, it does work both ways.

“It does. The research shows and through anecdotes, that the enthusiasm of the fans has a major effect on the play and the experiences of professional and collegiate athletes.” He continued, “Sometimes for an athlete, it has too much of an effect. When fans are enthusiastic and see themselves as part of the team through thick and thin, that has a positive effect. The worst case scenario is when a team is down by a lot and you see fans start to leave the stadium. If the crowd is half full in the fourth quarter. That also has an effect.”

One example that Dr. Maher used in his own experience working for the Cleveland Indians was when they would play the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park prior to them winning the 2004 World Series. That fan base suffered greatly over the years and their reactions to negative things happening during a game could completely change the energy in the Park. They expected things to go wrong and when they did, they expected it to continue.

“The contagion effect in operation. We played at Fenway Park and saw that when we did well against the Red Sox. You could see and feel the fans react to that (in a negative way).”

As for how Rutgers fans should approach the experience of being in the Big Ten as a whole, Dr. Maher explained how you compare the success and failures will frame your outlook.

“An optimistic type of fan base would be one that says ‘We are in the Big Ten, it’s maybe the toughest sports conference in the country and we are going to continue to make progress. Every year, we are going to get better and look at it in the long haul.’ An optimist looks more long range and at progress made. Comparing themselves against themselves, not against other teams like Ohio State and Michigan.”

As for the negative view, Dr. Maher states, “The pessimist will quickly make comparisons of themselves with in relation to other people and other teams. Their collective self-esteem takes effect and puts them in a negative attitude.”

In addition to both the positive and negative views of fans having an impact on the teams they root for, Dr. Maher pointed out they can also have an effect on other fans as well.

“Unfortunately, if there is enough of those people, their are other people who can get that effect and get on board with that too,” he commented. “From a group fan behavior, over the course of time winning would have an effect on some.”

Winning cures everything is a common phrase used by athletes and coaches across every sport at every level of athletics. However, winning doesn’t necessarily cure the most pessimistic fans.

“If a Rutgers team does really well in a season, more than expected, there will be some fans who are more naturally pessimistic that will buy in and jump on board,” stated Maher. “There will also be some of ‘Well that’s great but...’ and come up with something negative about the situation. About the team, the coaches or something else.”

How does all of this insight answer my questions about the current state and future of the fan base?

I think what Dr. Maher helped me understand is that as fans, we do have an impact on the teams we love. For fans that root for their team in a passionate and committed way, it is like being married to that team and your allegiance for it. As is commonly included in wedding vows, you stick with that team “for better or for worse.”

There are many ways that someone can become a fan of a certain team, university, or program. Family influence, geography, where you go to school, who you know, etc. It doesn’t matter how you became a fan of a certain team. It doesn’t matter how long you have been a fan of a certain team in regard to validity, although it does shape your perspective rooting for that team.

What we also learned from Dr. Maher as well is that experience doesn’t necessarily change a person’s mindset either.

What matters is that you show passion and care for that team. We can all get carried away when a big win or heartbreaking loss occurs. Keeping perspective is the most important thing when rooting for any team. At the end of the day, Dr. Maher confirmed that the players, coaches and teams we support are impacted by our passion and attitudes, both positive and negative.

Fans are like the invisible angel and devil resting on the shoulders of its teams. Our voice matters. For better or for worse, fans are present and a part of it all.

As I’ve said before many times, even the agony of defeat is far better than indifference. Rutgers didn’t give fans a whole lot to cheer about for many years. Things are changing. After several years of struggling mightily in the Big Ten on top of decades of losing, better days have arrived. Better more are still ahead.

Being a Rutgers fan isn’t for everyone. But it is for us. The biggest optimists have persisted through it all. The biggest pessimists haven’t given up yet. Of course, you know which side I fall into to. Whichever side you fall into, remember that we are all Rutgers fans and that is something to relish together.