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Panthers, playoffs and having a home team

By Peter St. Onge

My father, an offensive and defensive lineman in high school, likes to watch the New England Patriots from his recliner in the corner of his family room in New Hampshire. My spot, long ago, was on a beanbag chair a few feet away.

It is and was like any other house on any other Sunday, except for the biggest of big moments. That was when my Dad leapt from his chair and pumped his fist and let out the kind of primal yell any sports fan would recognize. That’s also when my Dad, all 250-plus pounds of him, landed on me with something between a hug and a tackle.

“YEEEARGH,” he yelled, each time.

“Unghh,” I said, happily.

This is why it’s taken me so long to be a Carolina Panthers fan.

There are countless ways to become a fan of a sports team. Maybe it’s a highlight you see. Maybe a player you like. My younger son watched his first NBA game – Clippers vs. Heat – a couple years ago while he waited to be discharged from the emergency room. This year, he asked for a Chris Paul Clippers jersey for Christmas.

For most of us, the root of our rooting interests is simple – although maybe not exactly what you think. Experts who study these sorts of things say fans become fans not specifically because of geography, but “socialization” with family and friends. The technical term for it: “Interpersonal/Network Level of Identity.” What it means is being a fan is not just about the place you live, but the people you live with.

That’s why a few years back, when my older son’s flag football teammates introduced themselves to each other by naming their favorite football teams, zero of 10 mentioned the Carolina Panthers. Their moms and dads were from other places, as happens a lot still in Charlotte.

Our house, of course, has long been a Patriots house. But socialization does its work in other ways, too, and like the kids of first-generation immigrants, the St. Onge boys have brought some of their city back into their home. Gradually, Panthers games have found their way onto our TV more often, and this year, those games provided their own big moments. A late drive to beat Miami. A last-minute pass to beat New Orleans. And now, a home playoff game.

On Friday, my boys each wore Panthers’ jerseys to school.

And I found something blue for work.

This week, the Panthers unveiled the first phase of their makeover for Bank of America Stadium. Those renovations brought some howls last year when the city agreed to pay a big chunk of the bill. We were critical on these pages about the secrecy surrounding the negotiations.

But the public paying for private renovations? That’s a more complicated call. From a dollar-for-dollar perspective, it’s not an awful deal for Charlotte. The Panthers contribute mightily to the tax base, and excitement about the team brings a nice jolt to the local economy, especially on playoff weeks like this one.

Then there’s the value that’s harder to punch into a calculator. You heard it this past week in the football conversations at work. You saw it in the teal that’s accessorizing so many wardrobes. The Panthers are gathering up people, just as they did with a Super Bowl run 10 years ago.

You can argue that we’d be better off if we rallied this enthusiastically for more important things, and you wouldn’t be wrong. You can note that sports comes packed with plenty of ugliness, too. It’s true.

But sports also has this: Interpersonal/Network Level of Identity. It means that being a fan is not just about the action on the field, but the people with whom you share it. Right now, in Charlotte, there’s a whole lot of socialization going on. A whole lot of sharing, and new fans, filling up a city in a way few things can.

Email: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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