‘Sweet Caroline’ … Let’s go home

By Lauren Kirschman

As the last notes of “Sweet Caroline” faded and Pitt and Maine prepared to take the field… As the last notes of “Sweet Caroline” faded and Pitt and Maine prepared to take the field for the fourth quarter, students at Heinz Field started gathering their belongings and searching for the nearest exit. What began as a song designed to engage fans and excite the Panther football team with unanimous chants of “Let’s go Pitt!” has become the signal for the not-so-high-octane student section to clear out and head home.

By the time the middle of the fourth quarter came around, you probably could have counted the number of fans left in the yellow seats near Pitt’s end zone pretty quickly. In fact, counting all the remaining Panther fans in the stadium probably wouldn’t have provided that much of a challenge either.

As I sat and watched the small number of students that stayed for the game’s entirety attempt to create some semblance of an atmosphere, I started thinking. Why get up early in the morning, take a bus to Heinz Field to tailgate and then leave at halftime or right after Neil Diamond’s voice serenades the crowd?

I’ve heard students mention the Pitt shuttle system. They say it takes too long to find a bus at the end of the game, and then by the time they arrive back in Oakland, it’s too late to do anything else that night. Against Buffalo, students’ most common excuse was that it was too hot, and they’d been tailgating all day.

To me, though, the game should be the most important part of game day. If I didn’t want to watch the football game — to the very end — then I wouldn’t bother struggling with the Pitt shuttle system or sitting outside in the heat all day. I could do that at home and I wouldn’t have to buy the $25 Pitt season-ticket package to do it.

So that made me wonder: What makes some students stay until the clock hits zero and the Pitt football team comes over to salute the student section — which, by the way, looks pretty silly when there are only 10 people hanging around — and others worry more about getting back to campus?

I asked Spencer Foster, a sociology graduate student at Pitt who taught Sociology of Sports, if there are different levels of sports fans. His answer? There are six, although there is overlap between the levels and the sixth level doesn’t apply often.

The second level of Foster’s breakdown, “patriots,” often applies to Pittsburgh sports fans. Patriots enjoy sports both on the national level and at the local level. This fandom often extends beyond family and friends into social networking. Patriots, Foster said, consume sports information such as statistics and history.

Uber-fans — not an official category — tend to have obsessive personalities, he added, and can spout sports information at a moment’s notice. Accountants and engineers tend to have this “focus on minutaie,” which often makes them the most passionate fans.

Take J.D. Schroeder, a senior mechanical engineering major at Pitt, who often spends time in the student section tweeting avid Pitt fans on the social-networking site.

For Schroeder and fans like him, it’s more about the game than anything else.

“If it’s 35-0 and our team is winning, they just don’t stop playing the third quarter,” he said. “They play all the way to the end … Our guys play hard and people wonder why they struggle a little bit. Maybe they think the fans aren’t behind them.”

While Schroeder admits that “Sweet Caroline” is one of the most fun aspects of the game-day atmosphere at Pitt, he grows frustrated when students stream toward the exits at the final note.

Foster compared the game-day experience to sex, with the stages of anticipation, foreplay, intercourse, orgasm, cuddling and pillow talk.

A game day starts with tailgating, then pre-game experiences and then the “final rush” at the end of the game, whether it’s a last-minute, exciting win or burning seconds off the clock. After the game ends, fans often spend time reliving and discussing the game.

Pitt fans, it seems, are leaving before the climax.

Schroeder said that the problems in the student section seem to be a combination of impatience and not understanding the game. Pitt fans entered the season expecting new head coach Todd Graham’s high-octane offense to immediately put up 50 or more points each game.

What Schroeder, and other fans who study the game, tend to understand is that there is a learning curve for understanding a new system. What the booing and early-exit fans can’t seem to comprehend is how much of a change the team is going through, and that these things generally take time.

In comparison to the atmosphere at Heinz Field, look at that of a game like the thriller between Michigan and Notre Dame. Michigan fans had to be practically forced out of the stadium after the contest came to an end. That’s an atmosphere that Pitt doesn’t have — mostly because there aren’t enough people who care about the actual game to create it.

This could have something to do with Pitt’s location. Foster earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Virginia Tech and a Master of Science from Radford. In Blacksburg, Va., there are no professional teams, so he said fans tend to concentrate their attention on the local college or high school squads.

In Pittsburgh, particularly with Steelers fans, he said much of fandom is social, passed down to family members from generation to generation.

Perhaps, then, the problem at Pitt runs deeper than Schroeder’s diagnosis. It could be that the city’s fixation on the Steelers, so deeply ingrained in the community, doesn’t leave a lot of passion for the Panthers.

Foster said that people who attend games but aren’t necessarily fans of the sport itself are often members of the fourth level of fans: socialites. Socialites, he said, enjoy sports for the social aspects of the game and aren’t serious fans. They attend “local events or games or large, social events such as the Super Bowl.”

So what attracts these people to sports? What is it about the game — if it’s not the game itself — that gets students to the stadium? Why are sports so appealing for fans — patriots or otherwise?

First, Foster said, sports engage our emotions even though the result really won’t affect our lives. Second? The suspense of not knowing the game’s outcome. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in this case, sports ignite the spirit.

“Sports provide a unique way for people to join something outside their work or family life,” Foster said.

Sports are important to society, Foster said. They are easy to comprehend, as their rules tend to stay the same, and they allow fans to bond through the emotions that come with experiencing victory or defeat.

When Pitt students put on their blue or gold shirts before they leave for the game, they suddenly belong to something — whether they really like football or not. It’s the social aspect that draws these fans to the games.

“There is a sense of belonging to being in the [Oakland] Zoo or in stands at Heinz Field,” Foster said. “Also, there is a comfort in routine and, let’s face it, tailgating and pre-game routines are a lot of fun — as long as you don’t get too carried away.”

So next time you finish bellowing “Sweet Caroline” along with Neil Diamond, perhaps consider sticking around and being a high-octane fan when the football team salutes.