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They win, we win... lose, they're bums!

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When Blake Wheeler (right) puts the puck in the net, every Winnipeg Jets fan scores.

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When Blake Wheeler (right) puts the puck in the net, every Winnipeg Jets fan scores.

There's more to being a sports fan than hollering "True North!" during O Canada, joining 15,000 others in flash-mocks of opposing players and purchasing playoff tickets for a team that has yet to wrap up a post-season berth.

At least that's what American scientist/author/broadcaster and ardent San Jose Sharks supporter Eric Simons reveals in The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, which combines head-scratching rah-rah spirit with mind-bending hypotheses using subjects most sports fans spent their school years dreading.

Somehow though, Simons finds a way to make studying neuroscience, group psychology, anthropology and sociology almost as interesting as sudden-death overtime.

Simons, who recently wrote Darwin Slept Here, following in the evolution scientist's footsteps, this time shadows some other fascinating people who become so committed to their teams that some social scientists would say they should be committed.

These folks show the bright side of sports devotion -- these are the fans who have never broken an ankle jumping off their team's bandwagon.

Nor do they take part in the racist hooliganism that plagues soccer or the seemingly random violence that afflicts football from time to time in North America. Some of these crazies, though, especially from the notorious Raider Nation, could frighten a pack of bikers with their aggressive getups. But Simons shows they also have hearts of gold under all the black-and-silver face paint.

Once Simons introduces these fanatics -- case studies for mania, perhaps -- he then brings the experts in to try explain why these fans do what they do. This can sometimes drag on like a neutral-zone trap in the second period, but Simons refers back to each case study to help theories on mirror neurons and dopamine take hold.

What are some of the experiments conducted on these oddest of lab rats? Simons wonders if testosterone levels skyrocket when teams win and whether the stress hormone cortisol bubbles up after a devastating loss. The saliva tests are collected, analyzed and the conclusions debated.

The results are worth pondering while making the slow trek back to the car after a game.

Simons also finds scientists at the cutting edge of research who also unapologetically root for their college basketball teams that usually get nowhere near the Final Four. It's great to learn in some ways the lab researcher is also the guinea pig.

There's also no judging of these fans, by either Simons or his coterie of lab coats. Just like sports franchises, coaches and athletes, these scientists would have to find something else to do without those who watch the games.

Sports fans, even those long-suffering backers of Winnipeg's sports teams, will find plenty of rewarding stuff in The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.

The awkward realization, though, is that fans who wear blue and gold will have more in common with those who wear green and white than they would like to admit.

Scientifically, at least.

 

Alan Small is the Arts and Life editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, and a sports fan.

The Secret Lives of Sports Fans

The Science of Sports Obsession

By Eric Simons

The Overlook Press, 320 pages, $28.50

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A1

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