Sean Pate still has a tough time talking about the 1997 Rose Bowl when his alma mater, Arizona State, lost 20-17 because of a last-minute drive by the Ohio Buckeyes.

In fact, it took him a few years to get over it. “It was devastating emotionally,” he said.

Pate wasn’t on the team then and he’s not suiting up with his beloved San Francisco 49ers this Sunday, but he’ll be cheering them along in the stands in New Orleans. This will be his fifth visit to a Super Bowl, but his first time watching his hometown heroes play the Baltimore Ravens. He’ll be watching it live with more than 75,000 other diehard football fans.

“This will have such a different feel because I’ve never had a rooting interest,” the 39-year-old season ticket-holding San Franciscan said. “It’s kind of a dream to be at a Niners Super Bowl.”

Watching the live games all season, Pate experiences what he describes as “exhilaration, excitement, nervousness, exuberance, and some confidence, too.” When the games are close, which many are, he and fellow fans ride the rollercoaster of emotion as if they too were on the field. That’s why TV doesn’t have the same kind of effect for Pate.

“It’s the high, the euphoric rush from being in the stands, high-fiving everyone after a touchdown. When I go to games, it’s like I’m still 15. I still have that energy,” Pate said. “I don’t do drugs, but that’s the closest I can get to a high when your team wins like that. I will never apologize for being like that.”

Whether you’re watching the game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome or on a big screen TV, the effect sports has on our brains is fascinatingly powerful and when it comes to highly exciting championships like the Super Bowl or the World Series, humans can do some strange things.

And we can only have our brains to thank for it.

From Behind the Lens to Right in the Action

The way sports are projected on our TV screens is a highly orchestrated event. From every snap to the slow-motion replays, the colors, sights, and sounds of the game are carefully selected to create a stimulating experience for the viewer.

Vinny Minton has been filming professional athletes for decades and is used to getting up-close and personal with his cameras. The 31-year-old from Pittsburgh, Calif., films for NFL Networks and recently returned from filming in New Orleans.

The experience of filming is just as enthralling and dizzying of an experience as any fan could hope for.

“I pretty much get lost in my camera and lenses. I’m focused on putting shots and sequences together in my head,” he said. “By the end of the game, I feel like only a few minutes went by.”

Viewing it that close and keeping an eye on how others will view it, Minton sees both violence and grace on the field.

“Through a TV or in the stands, I don’t think you see how hard some of the guys get hit, but at the same time it’s graceful seeing the finesse when a team executes a great play.”

Despite all the advances in broadcast technology, even the best filmers can’t capture the pure spirit of all that on-field power.

“Like anything else through a camera, you never get the complete feel as you do when seeing something in person,” Minton said. “As a storyteller, we like to bring you into the action as if you were there and keep you engaged.”

And engagement is a key word. During the game, some of the most primal parts of your brain are firing off chemicals that send the chills down your spine and euphoria through your fingertips.

Sports Championships & the Chemicals in Your Head

The Super Bowl is a unique event in America because of the number of people watching at one moment. It’s a collective, competitive, stimulating, action-filled day entrenched in emotion where a win or loss can hang in a single play.

You know who likes all that? Your brain. It is the product of eight million years of evolutionary design, which included quite a bit of violence to get us to where we are today.

“You’re watching something that’s an inherently violent sport,” Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco and assistant regional director of mental health, said. “People can get pretty activated, pretty engaged.”

In such a highly-competitive game, there’s more at stake than just for the players: there’s fan pride, civic pride, and everything else that goes with it. At such a large scale, it has a profound impact on the mind.

The limbic system of your brain—the part that deals with fear, fight-or-flight, and competitiveness—is highly engaged during the process and translates to extreme emotions, such as yelling at the TV.

During this, your cerebral cortex, which is the evolutionarily-advanced part of your brain that deals with decision making, is dampened. That’s why during points of high tension, we tend to get lost in the moment—yelling, cheering, crying, and everything else in the middle.

“We get caught up very easily,” Dr. Turner said. “It feels good to be part of a force that’s going to win a competitive event.”

This is only intensified when someone places bets on the game. It’s a subconscious way of further supporting the team, and a real way of having more personally on the line when it comes to who gets doused with champagne in the end.

“You’re actually buying into the excitement of the game without getting into the field,” Dr. Turner said. “This only increases the competitive experience.”

When the Game Hits Home

Being a fan anywhere can feel like an emotionally exhausting event, but when your hometown team is going for the ultimate prize, the atmosphere only stimulates your brain more, just the way Pate feels when he’s in the stands.

When it’s your city and your team in the big game, there’s more than a trophy at stake. Pate’s pride extends to the entire city because he feels the Niners represent exactly what he’s about. It started in the 1980s when Joe Montana and Jerry Rice were collecting Super Bowl rings.

“You’re so privileged to have that kind of success that it becomes an obsession,” he said.

This only intensifies the experience for the people living in the cities with the most at stake. This time around, it’s San Francisco and Baltimore.

“It’s interesting when you live in a city that’s going to a large sporting event. It’s like plugging into that larger source,” Dr. Turner said. “It’s like we’re all part of that excitement we didn’t do anything to affect that outcome.”

After the game, however, some fans feel like they’re still in the action and take it to the streets.

Sports & the Collective Brain: Fan Violence After a Championship

Fan violence related to American football is a rarity when compared to what’s happened previously in European soccer matches. Still, there’s always a chance the celebration of victory—or despair of defeat—could continue on long after the game is done.

In his book Sports Fan Violence in North America, Jerry M. Lewis, emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State, researched decades of sports fan-related violence. This year’s Super Bowl, he said, isn’t exempt from the possibility of either city going a bit nuts.

“My research is that fan violence takes place during championships,” he said. “San Francisco has a history of celebration riots, but Baltimore doesn’t have many riots in its sporting history.”

Last year, San Francisco saw some rioting after the Giants won the World Series. A small sect of fans threw bottles, lit bonfires in the streets, overturned cars, and some even destroyed a city bus with Wreck-It Ralph advertisements on its side. It met the criteria Dr. Lewis has pinpointed for fan violence:

  • hotly-contested championship final (World Series)
  • watched by many young men
  • common urban gathering spot (as many as 10,000 fans gathered in the city’s Civic Center to watch the game)

But why do people choose to riot when celebrating? Dr. Lewis said it’s a way for fans to identify with the team’s win.

 “My interpretation is that after watching these games of skill, fans want to perform an act of skill themselves. The police may not like it, but I see fan violence as an act of skill,” he said. “They can’t throw a football 75 yards or kick a field goal 50 yards, so you choose an act of violence. It seems to be a surrogate for athletic ability.”

The proof so often is in the pictures: people jumping over flames, hoisting large objects in the air, and yelling like titans of the gridiron. Watching a game, especially one as long as the Super Bowl, is a sort of athletic feat anyway.

Of course, there’s always the presence of alcohol. Dr. Lewis said that after riots, people often overstate their drunkenness in a way to explain their behavior.

“It’s a way to let them do what they wanted to do anyway,” he said. “The sport brings people together, but the violence pulls it apart.”

All Part of Being a Fan

After every play has been filmed, every cheer given, and there’s next season to look forward to, sports fulfill so many primary needs that it’s hard to imagine a world without them.

The Super Bowl is just as much a social tradition for the fans as it is an accomplishment for the athletes on the field. We can over-personalize failure and project ourselves into the game.

“You can see how easy it is to get carried away,” Dr. Turner said 

Pate said while he’s looking forward to the game, there’s only one thing he doesn’t think he could handle.

“What I’m not prepared for is losing. The Niners have never lost a Super Bowl. It’s like a right,” he said. “I don’t think I could emotionally handle something like that.” 

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