Super Bowl fan rituals: superstition or OCD?

In the movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” Robert De Niro is a Philadelphia Eagles superfan whose love for his home team translates to some odd outward behavior: During the game, he positions the TV remotes just so, he manhandles an Eagles handkerchief, and, most importantly, he needs to have his son (played by Bradley Cooper), at his side.

The movie, which received eight Oscar nods for its story of the many shades of mental illness, seems to want you to wonder: When do sports superstitions veer into obsessive-compulsive disorder? The line is blurrier than you might imagine, some clinical psychologists say, and it’s getting especially blurry this week in the homes of San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens fans, as they look forward to Super Bowl Sunday.

On Thursday, 49ers fan Steve Bowen (named for Niners legend Steve Young) began the four-day ritual he follows leading up to every Niners game by wearing his favorite team hat all day. On Friday he’ll wear the 49ers hat with a red shirt he’s owned for years. “The day after that, same hat, different Niners shirt. Day of the game, the hat and the same red shirt underneath [my jersey],” Bowen says.

The rules, as any good superstitious sports fan knows, are these: “You have to start at the beginning of the season and you can’t change it up over the season,” explains Bowen, a 24-year-old University of Utah student. “If you change ‘em up over the season, your team will lose.” As the Bud Light ad says, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

OCD, of course, can be a serious, potentially debilitating anxiety disorder, and we don’t mean to take it lightly. But specifically, there are some parallels between sports superstitions and an aspect of OCD psychologists call “hyper-responsibility obsessions.”

Jeff Szymanski, a clinical psychologist in Boston and the executive director of the International OCD Foundation, gives the example that a person with OCD may walk down the street and see a piece of broken glass. “And it occurs to me, ‘Oh, someone might get injured. Then it occurs to me, because I have OCD, ‘If I don’t pick it up, then I might have caused that injury.’”

For superstitious sports fans, “the process, I think, is similar: ‘If I don’t do this, then I’m responsible for a bad outcome,” Szymanski says.

Even the most superstitious of fans are aware that they’re being ridiculous — but, still, they keep up the ritual, just in case. Niners fan Daisy Barringer wears a cheap, woven bracelet that says “49ers,” a trinket from a friend’s trip to Mexico.

Daisy Barringer

Daisy Barringer’s lucky 49ers bracelet.

“This year, I’ve worn the bracelet nonstop. I haven’t taken it off the whole season,” says Barringer, who is 35 and lives in San Francisco, where she works as a freelance writer. While snowboarding a couple of weeks ago, she fell and hurt her arm. In the ER, she refused to take the bracelet off for the X-rays (“This was after they won the championship game!”) — and the doctor, a 49ers fan himself, understood and acquiesced. (Luckily, it was just a sprain.)

“I need to do everything I can to support them and not jinx them in any way, shape or form,” Barringer says. “Because even though I know, rationally, I can’t affect the outcome, there’s this little thing in me that’s like, ‘What if?’”

Besides the bracelet, Barringer has accumulated tons of Niners stuff over the years — maybe too much, because she says she doesn’t have a good idea of what’s lucky and what isn’t. “So I decided next year I’m going — this is going to make me sound like a lunatic — I’m going to keep a spreadsheet of what I wear,” Barringer says. “I want to start keeping track so I know what my lucky shirt is and what my unlucky shirt is.”

And we’ll just leave this point here: Bowen, Barringer, and Craig Notarange of Orlando, Fla. (a superstitious Ravens superfan who believes if he sits down during a Ravens game, the team will start losing) all reiterate the same point: They know it’s irrational, they say, therefore, their behaviors could not be symptoms of OCD. But here’s a line from the National Institute of Health’s definition of OCD: “The person usually recognizes that the behavior is excessive or unreasonable.” (You do with that what you will.)

But here’s where superstitions and OCD start to diverge: For a person with OCD, the imagined stakes are much more dire than the question of who will win a football game (even if that football game is the Super Bowl). 

“When you think about sports, I’m doing something for a hobby. It’s something that’s fun. Even if I feel like it’s kind of stressing me out, it’s all in the service of entertainment,” Szymanski says. “And that’s where it parts company from OCD. After the game’s over, preoccupation with superstition dies away. It isn’t preventing them from getting to work, it isn’t preventing them from having relationships with their spouse or kids.”

Jojo Whilden / AP file

Jacki Weaver, left, and Robert De Niro in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

And that’s part of the definition of any mental illness, in general: Is the behavior interfering with your life?

In the case of De Niro’s “Playbook” character, at least, the answer to that might be yes. Minor spoilers to follow, but in the movie, the De Niro character bets big money, which the family couldn’t afford to lose, on the Eagles. “It wasn’t like, ha-ha, here’s 10 bucks. He was doing really big economic things that were affecting the family based on these obsessions — and the betting was the compulsion,” says Gail Saltz, a New York City psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who’s also a frequent TODAY contributor.

Bowen, on the other hand, agreed to attend his girlfriend’s Christmas party, even though it was during a 49ers playoff game. “Do I feel anxiety or do I feel uncomfortable by not watching the game? No. I had a great time at the party,” Bowen says. He adds, “Except I did wear my jersey underneath the shirt I wore to the Christmas party.”