Tribalism In Sports: What Makes It So Thrilling

“Zoom in, and then tell me ‘it’s just a game’”


The above picture is the moment that Charlton Athletic—a English football team based in South-East London—scored the last-minute winning goal that would promote them to the higher Championship division, the culmination of a season’s efforts to climb the ranks of the country’s football leagues.

Observe the faces of each and every supporter in the photo, and you can understand the immense impact that sports can have on people’s lives—the sheer, unalloyed joy that comes bursting forth as their team secures a victory that will enhance their position. There’s nothing contrived about this photo, just a plethora of faces—fresh-faced, wrinkled, spectacled, moustached, male, and female—brought together by a team whose actions have rocketed them into the heights of a collective ecstasy. Non-sports fans might be surprised by the emotional intensity—how can something so seemingly trivial as sport create such unbridled fervor? Isn’t it just a game?

Tribalism is the phenomenon responsible for a sport fan’s extraordinary emotional reactions—the flawless rapture that they feel as their team smashes the clincher into the back of the net. In our evolutionary past, tribalism improved our chances of survival by consolidating us into groups, who we trusted, favoured, and depended on. Our tribe became an extension of ourselves, every loss and victory. When a fellow tribesman returned from a successful hunt with a delicious deer tied to the back of his horse, his achievement was our achievement, and was celebrated as such. Similarly, when Charlton’s Patrick Bauer poked the ball past the goal line in the last minute of the play-off final, even though he was the only person responsible for the act, every single Charlton fan in the stadium claimed the victory as their own, with a roar that echoed throughout the country. When we support a football team, we’re no longer a lonely, vulnerable person desperately trying to survive, but a soldier in a formidable army, protecting each other with fierce loyalty, and marching as one. When the club makes a questionable decision—the hiring of an unproven manager; the precarious signing of an expensive player, or a new unethical owner who cares little for the team’s future—the supporters sense the danger as if it were their own; a direct threat to themselves that must be staved off. The fact that the supporters have absolutely no sway over the club’s major decisions makes no difference. It’s our tribe, we’re fully invested, and it must be protected at all costs. The sense of belonging that comes with following a football club is felt in the very marrow of our bones, and we’ll never turn our back on them. After being a supporter of a team for a prolonged period, to change teams is tantamount to treason; the offender an untrustworthy turncoat. We love our tribe and we’ll support them through thick and thin, no matter how embarrassing the performances.

The intense devotion that tribalism can create has obvious downsides, evidenced by the rise of British football hooliganism, when unquestionable loyalty leads to extreme violence. Football fans are taught that it’s good and proper to hate a rival team, just because they’re a rival team—an idiotic obligation in which all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Rival supporters are transformed into dark and deadly enemies, their basic humanity forgotten, and their pummelling justified. Our tribe is the epitome of everything good and true, theirs all that is wrong and false. Clear parallels can be drawn with nationalism and religion, where unbridled tribalism has the potential to create profound hatred. Though tribalism makes sports endlessly thrilling, evoking fervent emotion in its most dramatic moments, diligent caution is required to prevent us from slipping into illogical idiocy, in which other people can become objects of hate, guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different tribe than ours. The competitive nature of sports can warp games into mock battles, and though this is part of what makes them so exciting, the boundary between friendly competition and violent battle can become difficult to distinguish, especially when being swept along by an impassioned, five-hundred strong mob that screams for the blood of the opposition. Conformism for the sake of conformism is foolishly irrational, and in the realm of football, can quickly lead to hateful violence.

At their core, sports are just games, but our tribalistic nature imbues them with extraordinary passion, with the power to create joyful angels, or odious demons of us. A single kick can dispatch us into giddying euphoria, illustrated in each and every face in the photo above, or heart-wrenching despondency, dreams crushed into oblivion, until next season. It’s a rollercoaster ride of intense emotion, the highs non-existent without the lows; the sky-punching jubilance of victory nothing without the sharp sting of defeat. Tribalism is what makes sports so thrilling to experience, and as your club’s defender lurches forward and pokes the ball in the back of the net in the final minute of a game, sending your team soaring into the higher division, a temporary insanity takes over each and every supporter, flooded with fanatical, turbulent emotion. 

The team’s victory is your victory, and it feels indescribably fantastic.

4 thoughts on “Tribalism In Sports: What Makes It So Thrilling

  1. I have thought about this a lot, since my interest in belonging to the tribe has been reawakened in recent years. In addition to the points raised, some things I’ve thought are:

    1. Is this a response to a lack of tribes to belong to compared to times past? Where I live, community is more a theoretical idea rather than a lived reality – I rarely see my neighbours and have little opportunity to engage with anyone who lives more than a door away. Religion has also diminished greatly as a unifying force; families are much smaller and more likely to be lived in the nuclear unit rather than involving extended connections; even work is much less constant, as we move from job to job or even career to career throughout our lives. Aside from sport, what *is* there to belong to?

    2. Part of the appeal of belonging to the sporting tribe is that belonging is pretty unconditional. You don’t need to be fit or have any talent; you don’t have to be a certain age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation; you don’t have to have lots of money (although this can be argued); and you don’t have to believe in a supernatural power. All you need to do is be physically present and wear the colours. Unconditional belonging is pretty appealing.

    Anyway, love the blog and thanks for the article!

    1. It’s a good point, I’m struggling to think of much else aside from sport!

      Totally agree about the unconditional aspect. It’s an awesome thing.

  2. This basic need to belong to a group ie tribalism will find other ways to manifest itself in everyone , and often to the detriments of others eg. political, religious or racial affiliation. In most cases, except for hooliganism (which is the exception rather than the rule), sports fanaticism is one of the healthiest form of tribalism. Me hating my rival club – the brand, their fans as a collective and not as individuals – allows me to channel this innate need to despise the proverbial them and what’s more, it’s harmless. I get schadenfreude every time things don’t go their way but no rival fan is getting physically nor emotionally hurt or economically impoverished directly by my wishing only the worst for the club they support. So their team loses and it makes them miserable but if their disposition is to be miserable in the grand scheme of their lives it wouldn’t make a difference if their team is winning or not. On the opposite side of the same coin, sports is the perfect form of harmless escapism and a brief respite from the pain and hardships one might be experiencing in everyday life.

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