David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is the story of how Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence bond and fall in love on the strength of their both being completely nuts, but the movie’s saltiest nut of all may well be Cooper’s dad, played by Robert De Niro.
De Niro’s character is pegged as obsessive-compulsive, the symptoms for which involve his passion for the Philadelphia Eagles and the lengths he will go to ensure the team’s success. These include the presence of a prized green handkerchief and the strategic alignment of all three TV remotes on the coffee table while the game is in progress.
Although De Niro’s Philly fanatic ostensibly is said to suffer from a psychological disorder, in point of fact, his mannerisms and superstitions fall well within the parameters of typical male fan behavior, and will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any amount of time in a serious sports town or in the company of serious sports people.
I spent a sizable chunk of my adolescence in the throes of mild sports fanaticism myself, as a tortured Boston Red Sox buff in the pre-Francona era, and I know the rituals well. The lucky jersey. The correct spot on the couch to sit. The unwritten first rule of no-hitters-in-progress, which is that you don’t talk about no-hitters-in-progress.
Indeed, baseball is possibly the most superstitious activity on planet Earth, both amongst its spectators and its participants. One would be hard-pressed to locate a True Fan who could not be plausibly diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive by an objective observer.
It is perfectly acceptable, as a fan, to believe one’s own actions—conducted largely in front of the TV screen, totally unbeknownst to those in uniform—directly affect the activity on the field. That a heartbreaking loss can be attributed to some cosmic disturbance or hex, possibly brought about by a malicious cover of Sports Illustrated.
Players themselves—having far more to gain than the average viewer—are no less beholden to ritual in their approach to their profession. Staying within my Boston bubble: ’90s fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra famously took forever fastening his batting gloves and tapping every knee and elbow before entering the batter’s box. A decade earlier, third baseman Wade Boggs made a point of eating chicken before every game and fielding precisely 117 ground balls during practice.
Of course, this is all very amusing, in part because of its harmlessness. When has taking sports a little too seriously ever produced unintended consequences?
And is this all characteristic of a psychological, or neurological, disorder? Can we answer in the negative simply because it would apply to so many people as to be rendered meaningless? Or are we, rather, compelled to entertain the possibility of an ongoing, undiagnosed mass psychosis? If so, are we obligated to do anything about it?
Personally, I have relaxed my own passions for the game in recent years, following it casually but without the superstitious bells and whistles. At some point—I cannot say precisely when—they began to strike me as just the slightest bit silly.