Nautilus

The Unique Neurology of the Sports Fan’s Brain

Sports fans aren’t typically in the mood for academic research in the minutes before a big game. But Paul Bernhardt, an aspiring young behavioral scientist at Georgia State University, was determined. Armed with a bag of sterile vials, Bernhardt inched through the crowd at Atlanta’s Omni arena, politely asking anyone decked out in either University of Georgia or Georgia Tech basketball garb—the teams that were set to battle that evening—for a bit of saliva.

The year was 1991. Fans of the Bulldogs and the Yellow Jackets, the state’s two most renowned collegiate sports institutions, had been hating each other’s guts since 1893, a rivalry affectionately known as COFH: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. (Yes, sports rivalries can have names; COFH is historically significant enough to have a 5,000-plus word entry in Wikipedia with 50 citations.) Bernhardt wasn’t there to celebrate a century of feuding, however; he was hoping to break new ground on the scientific understanding of such fandemonium—“highly identified” fans would be the proper psychology term—to explain why being a sports nut, bitter hatred and all, feels soooo gooooood.

clean old-fashioned hate: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets bond over their shared hatred of the University of Georgia Bulldogs. Scott Cunningham / Stringer / Getty Images

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