Why Do Sports Make Us So Superstitious?

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Understanding why athletes grow playoff beards and eat special meals, while fans wear lucky shirts and worship magical squirrels

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin) talk about the sports world's many superstitions.


Hey, guys,

On Halloween, we celebrate horror. We allay our fear of death by embracing the idea. Gaelic in origin, Gothic in motif, purely American in the crass splendor of its execution, Halloween is a holiday for the superstitious, and there's nobody on earth more superstitious than sports fans. Except maybe for athletes.

Like Drew Brees, who must have his "beefy mac" the night before each game. And Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel, who slips a lucky coin in his boot before every race. Canadiens' goalie Carey Price may care about cancer awareness, but still gave up his pink-trimmed pads after going 0-3-2 while wearing them. The playoff beard is so common it's become cliche. And let's not leave out coaches. Chiefs' coach Todd Haley hasn't shaved since KC started their three-game win streak. Detroit manager Jim Leyland honors win streaks by—brace yourself—not changing underwear until the team loses. Ew.

Fans, though? We're worse. Way worse. At the stadium, we wear our tattered lucky shorts and shirts, happily look ridiculous in rally caps, and put our faith in a magic squirrel. Watching at home, we have to sit in our special, favorite chair, and eat the same meal before every game—convinced despite ourselves that we are actually having some sort of tangible effect on a contest being waged miles or often whole time-zones away. Yours truly is no exception, certainly, having once gone through an entire college basketball season wearing one sock inside-out—and being fairly convinced that said inside-out wearing was absolutely crucial to KU making the Final Four that year.

The question, though, is if I'm nuts. Seriously.

All these little ceremonies we perform to court supernatural favor, are they mere tricks of the mind? Skeptics, of course, would say our constant quest for good luck is just a comforting nonsense—a simple case of psychic busywork. The human mind—being hard-wired to seek patterns—finds order and causality where none exists. Maybe. Maybe, though, the skeptics are wrong.

In this season of contemplating the unknown, my questions are about your favorite superstitions, and how much faith you put in them? Are we all just fooling ourselves? Or, as the anonymous poet wrote, are there truly more things in heaven and earth, yadda-yadda-yadda? Could there really be some as yet unmeasurable force in the universe, not beholden to distance, by which a fan's fervent prayers can change the course of a game? How about it, panelists? Are are we just spotting imaginary faces in the clouds? Or do you believe there are ghosts in this machine?

–Hampton

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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