D.C. sports fans: hopeful, yet less gullible

Mike Wise
Columnist October 25, 2011

When I first spoke to The Post about prospective employment near the end of 2003, Steve Spurrier was still working for the Redskins, you had to drive to Camden Yards to see a Major League baseball team, Jerry Stackhouse was the dour leader of the 23-win Wizards and the NHL was about to go dark for a year.

Maryland had won a men’s basketball championship 16 months earlier, but Georgetown was a memory of a big-time college basketball program.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Contemplating leaving New York and the daily drama of nine pro teams, I was often asked, “So, do you just not like sports?”

But then Joe Gibbs came back, coincidentally on the day I interviewed for this job, after 12 years. By late 2004, Washington had been awarded a baseball franchise for the first time in three decades, the Capitals had drafted the most electrifying player of his generation and a Thompson was again hired to resurrect the Hoyas. When a 14-year-old phenom named Freddy Adu became the first child to play a pro team sport in almost a century, even RFK Stadium hummed with noise and belief when D.C. United took the field.

The Wizards didn’t need Michael Jordan; they soon had Gil, ‘Tawn and, later, Caron – and, to boot, a villain named LeBron. For many months between 2005 and 2008, the buzz in the arena was as palpable as the hope.

There would be a genuine Cinderella college basketball story for the ages at George Mason, and two more concocted on the Hilltop and College Park. George Mason could. Georgetown was back. Maryland still mattered: Gary and Greivis slung that stone toward Tobacco Road and occasionally the giant fell and the Terps women won a national basketball championship of their own.

The point is, from the outside Washington resembled a burned-out graveyard of a sports town more than seven years ago. And for me that concern disappeared almost overnight.

Oh, I have playfully given grief to this region’s fans from time to time about Washington being a lousy sports town. If the gauge were simply the success of the big-revenue North American sports teams, that’s not hard to back up. The Nationals did lose almost 300 games in three years before this season, the Redskins have hosted one measly playoff game in 11 years and the woeful Wizards have been to the second round of the playoffs once in three decades. The Caps have been exciting the last several years, but don’t have much to show for it in the postseason.

But that says little about the Washington-area sports fan, who was the subject of the Post’s recent in-depth survey of this region’s attitudes toward sports and its teams.

The term “Great Sports Town” or “Great Sports Fans” is so subjective. New York has some of the most sophisticated hoopheads in the world, many of whom could talk until 2 a.m. on a barstool about the Knicks’ need for a back-to-the-basket scorer. They are also the most fickle, turning on icons like Patrick Ewing or Joe Torre in a minute, and they are more obsessed with big names than fans of any sports town. Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago are 24-7 sports towns, but they often denigrate more than celebrate their teams and players.

“Frontrunners” is too cliché a label to put on Washingtonians. I prefer to think of District, Maryland and Virginia sports fans as full of “BIRGers” and “CORFers.” My friend Dr. Ronald Kamm put me onto these sports-psychology terms a couple of years ago.

BIRGing is short for “Basking in Reflected Glory,” whereby a person’s self-esteem can be enhanced by the identification of another person or team’s success. It’s a social identity theory, and the research shows that people whose teams win consistently are more likely to use the pronoun “we” and wear team- or school-identifying clothing.

BIRGers can be found in Washington rocking their red No. 8 Caps jerseys. It’s an act of “receiving glory even though they have done nothing tangible to contribute to the team’s success,” wrote psycholgist Merritt Posten in a paper published in Advanced Social Psychology in 1998.

CORFing is an acronym for “Cutting Off Reflected Failure,” which means fans distance themselves as far as possible from a losing team in order not to be linked to that losing themselves. This happens often at FedEx Field or Verizon Center.

I personally know many CORFers and I greatly respect them. Why? Because they move forward, they don’t let their team spoil their life.

More than any place I’ve ever been, I’ve found Washingtonians have an innate ability to transfer their sporting passions elsewhere once their team is toast.

After the Wizards are mathematically eliminated in, oh, February, their fans discuss Kobe and LeBron as if they played here. Caps fans are partial toward their players, but they will educate you on why Roberto Luongo is a suspect playoff goalie after their team falls flat in the postseason.

Never was this dynamic more apparent to me than last November, the day after the Redskins were embarrassed by the Eagles. After taking a day or two of incendiary calls on the midday radio show I co-host, burgundy-and-gold nation literally checked out for the season -- moved on to Tom Brady or anything but the memory of Michael Vick dropping 59 points on the Redskins.

Their hometown team had made them good CORFers.

That could easily be interpreted as half-hearted or uncommitted. But I’ve found the Washington sports fan to be much more discerning and very clear of what he or she wants. We’re hopeful, to a point, and less and less gullible all the time.

wisem@washpost.com

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