Like most of us, I was born into my rooting interests, singing The Victors as soon as I could sing and rooting for the Orioles before I could understand the game. It was simply part of growing up. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if my parents had happened to be Yankees fans. Would I behave any differently or talk about my team with a different air about me? Probably, since being a Yankees fan carries with it a completely unique history. Same thing if I was an Eagles fan, since I probably wouldn’t have much patience for my starting quarterbacks and find booing a far more acceptable practice. But there aren’t many teams anymore that you can say that about, and in watching the rivalry unfold between the Ravens and Steelers I started to wonder about the fans and what that allegiance means beyond the affinity for purple. I think I have an idea, but I think it’s a question better posed to the fans themselves.
After a few years of watching the Ravens-Steelers rivalry from out of state, I want to ask a question. What makes a Steelers fan different than a Ravens fan? If you were born into a family of Steelers fans would you act the same except for the fact that you wore a different set of colors? Are Ravens fans less prone to name-calling? Are they known as being rowdier? The two towns are so similar (though Baltimore has more variety and character if you ask me) and the two teams are so similar that you have to look carefully to see the differences from afar. They both believe in tough, hard-hitting defenses, love to talk trash, and give the opposing fans hell when they win/lose. Sure, there are the dregs of both sides that make the bulk of the fanbase ashamed, but every fanbase has those. Beyond that, I have never seen two rival NFL fanbases as similar as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But there has to be more that makes the Ravens fanbase unique.
At Michigan for instance, we pride ourselves in not starting fires, rioting, or heckling opposing fans (much). I know we come off as docile and aloof to our rivals, but it is how we define ourselves as a fanbase for better or worse. We do not have the perceived drunken riots and couch-fires of East Lansing or the perceived violence of Columbus, and we take pride in it regardless of how the team does on the field. The point is there is a culture that forms around a team, be it from a school of from a certain city that takes their sense of identity a step beyond the team on the field.
Who we are as a fan should, in my opinion, be more than a team to root for on the weekends. It should be a call to be something greater. We cannot be on the field to help “our” team win, and have no control save for how loud we are in the stadium. However, we can represent our team well and cause people who are otherwise apathetic to our team to at least casually pull for them. I have turned my casual rooting interests one way or another on more than one occasion based on my experiences with their fans (Arkansas down, Tulane up, UVa down, South Carolina up, Green Bay Packers up, Dallas Cowboys down, etc.). Every time we meet a fan of another team we are judging one another’s fanbase based on what they experience.
It is about more than sportsmanship, it is about being part of something greater than a football team, something that can elevate someone in ways outside of screaming at the TV. Every culture has weaknesses (Michigan can come off as stodgy and arrogant) and strengths (MSU can come off as fun and exciting), but that is what we associate with. There is no right answer, and pride can take dozens of forms in innumerable cultures.
The NFL has such a cookie-cutter marketing strategy that has made every fanbase look alike and has kept individual cities from creating the same culture around their teams that baseball has. Only the oldest franchises in football have anything resembling a true character, and most of those have been diluted into the generic “we are tough and gritty” mantra that lacks a deeper dimension. Orioles fans have a sense of collective history, and a pride that is reflected in the view of the cityscape from Camden Yards. Baltimore’s other sports franchise is far younger, but with fans who are no less passionate (actually much more so at the moment). With every game, with every interaction with fans of other teams, and with every visit to another city we have an opportunity to shape what people think of the team and the city it represents. So what is a Ravens fan, and what do we want them to be?