Sports Fans and Crime

Posted on January 20, 2008 by


For Christmas my wife added to my collection of books by Dave Barry by giving me Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys. Within this essential guide to guys, was the following discussion of how guys relate to sports.

“…guys care about sports teams. I’m not talking about simply rooting; I’m talking about a relationship that guys develop, a commitment to a sports team that guys take more seriously than, for example, wedding vows.”

“You may feel that there is something twisted about the values of a guy who can be more committed to a bunch of transient athletes – none of whom he really knows, and none of whom care about him – than he is to his own wife. But you have to consider the larger picture, from the guy’s point of view: His wife may be warm, loving, and loyal person, but there is no way she will ever make the playoffs.  Not even if she really works out and bulks up during the off-season.  Whereas there is always a chance that, if the guy remains faithful, his team eventually will not only make the playoffs, but also even win the championship.”

“But – every guy secretly believes this – the team can succeed only if he really cares about it, really devotes himself to it night and day, even if this means he must neglect his family and his career and the threat of global warming. If he does this, he can make a difference; he can be a part of the winning effort; he can contribute to the victory in every way that the athletes do, except in those ways that involve actually doing something athletic.” (pp. 89-91)

There are four reasons why I bring up this passage from Dave Barry’s book.

1. Its damn funny.

2. It saves me the trouble of coming up with 240 words.

3. Its really damn funny.

4. This passage speaks to the essence of what sports means to the male members of our population.  And consequently, it serves as a wonderful introduction to the more serious topic this column is trying to address.

Crime and College Football

A few days ago I received an e-mail from Daniel Rees, an Associate Professor of Economics at Colorado University-Denver.  Rees was passing along a paper – titled College Football and Crime — he wrote with Kevin Schnepel (a student of Rees).  In turn, I passed the paper along to Justin Wolfers, who wrote an entry on the Rees-Schnepel paper for the Freakonomics blog.

Like all good blog posts, Justin’s comment is short and insightful.   And if that’s what you want, you should read what Justin has to say. 

If short and insightful is not your thing, then read on to hear my thoughts on this paper.

A Few Thoughts on the Rees-Schnepel Paper

Having gone over the paper I concur with Justin’s assessment.  The story being told is quite convincing.  What the authors find is that crime in a community is statistically impacted by the outcome of a college football game.  One might expect that an event that increases the number of people in your town would also increase crime.  But these authors find that the outcome of the game – such as an upset of the home team or a close home victory – has a statistically significant impact on the level of crime.  The results for upsets are most dramatic. Basically, upsets in college football – which are obviously quite upsetting to the fans of college football teams – are statistically related to much more crime. 

The word “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic.”  And as any fan can tell you, calling die-hard supporters of a team “fanatic” is an apt description.  Fans are emotionally attached to teams.  It’s certainly not uncommon for sporting events to cause fans to violently scream, either at the team on the field or the television screen (I am certainly guilty screaming profanities at a TV screen).  And hence it’s perhaps not surprising to see in the data that reactions to upsets go beyond violent words to actual violence.

For non-sports fans, though, this result is probably somewhat odd.  After all, when a team loses, it’s not as if the fan actually lost.  Or to put it another way, if the team wins, it’s not as if the fan actually won anything.  Yes, often fans talk about “our team” and how “we” need to do such-and-such to win the big game.  But don’t “we” know that there is no “we” in sports?  The players and the coaches are the team.  Fans are just the spectators. As Barry notes, “we” don’t actually know the players or the coaches.  The players and the coaches don’t know us (and probably don’t want to either).  And we don’t actually make any athletic or intellectual contribution to the outcome of the contest.

I think we all understand this intellectually.  Nevertheless, it’s still the case that fans are indeed living vicariously through their teams. When the team wins, we win.  When the team loses, we lose. 

We can see this phenomenon quite clearly in this very forum.  Over the past few weeks I have written a few columns that argued Kobe Bryant is not the greatest basketball player in the game today. 

T-Mac and Kobe

The Return of Bynum Gets Even

Andrew Bynum is Getting Even

Each of these columns note that Kobe is very good.  But each column also notes that he’s not the most productive player in the Association.

My sense is that if someone passed my analysis along to Kobe (or Andrew Bynum or Tracy McGrady), you would see very little reaction.  After all, why would an NBA player care what an economics professor says about his value?

Although I think Kobe doesn’t care, his fans care deeply.  His fans “know” Kobe is the best, and for anyone to say otherwise is a personal insult.  And you can see the anger in some of the over 300 responses to the three posts linked to above.  When you read some of these responses you can almost hear the fingers pounding the keyboard as the person angrily wrote their comment. 

And this reaction is not limited to fans of Kobe.  Fans of Allen Iverson reacted in a similar fashion when Malcolm Gladwell focused his review of The Wages of Wins on our Allen Iverson story.   Fans of “the Answer” couldn’t believe that someone would argue that Iverson is merely an average NBA player (although he’s a bit above average this season).

Are these reactions surprising?  No, given what it means to be a “fan” or “fanatic”, we are not surprised to see such a reaction.  Stats and numbers are fine.  But when the damn math tells us stuff we “know” is wrong about Kobe or “the Answer”, then it’s human nature to get angry and pound a few thoughts into a keyboard.

The Burning Couch Story

I will close this post by re-counting something my wife mentioned this evening.  When I went over the story of college football and crime she reminded me of an incident that happened when we both attended Colorado State. 

Until Sonny Lubick came to Fort Collins, the CSU Rams were not known for winning football. Consequently, when the Rams beat a “good” team, it was considered an upset.  And when your team pulls off an upset, this is a call for a celebration.

One Saturday the CSU Rams managed to pull off an upset (and no, I can’t remember who we beat).  So how did some students at CSU celebrate this victory? They celebrated in the most obvious way possible.  A group of students dragged a couch into the middle of street and set it on fire.  

Of course, burning furniture is an obvious reaction to any event in life that makes you happy.  Nothing says team spirit like a couch going up in flames.  After all, what’s a bonfire but a large pile of wood that could have been furniture if you hadn’t set it on fire? 

The “burning couch” story illustrates the tale being told by Rees and Schnepel.  Sports lead people to do silly stuff.  Actually, I shouldn’t say “people.”  Although Rees and Schnepel didn’t make this observation, we know that most (or all) of the criminal activity they find linked to upsets was also linked to some “guy.”  And I am sure each “guy” said before the judge “If that damn team wouldn’t have lost (or won), I wouldn’t have had to set that fire.  So really, this isn’t my fault.”

Perhaps the Packers, Giants, Patriots, and Chargers should remember this on Sunday.  What they do on the field doesn’t just impact their team’s fortunes, but also the life of some innocent furniture.   In sum, these teams should make every effort to avoid upsets and/or win big.  The furniture they save may be our own.

– DJ

Posted in: Sports Econ