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Keeping Those Jerseys Unwashed For The Big Win

Feb 3, 2013
Originally published on February 3, 2013 6:16 pm

Sports fans and athletes alike are notorious for superstitions. Take Michael Jordan, who would famously wear his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform.

On Super Bowl Sunday, fans on both sides of the country are engaging in some odd behavior: donning unwashed jerseys, sporting fresh facial hair and sitting in that oh-so-special spot.

While the routines may seem silly, superstitions may actually have helped us evolve as a species.

Michael Neapolitan, 58, of Towson, Md., is spending Super Bowl Sunday the same way he has spent game days for the past few years. It involves football cards from the Ravens' opposing team, a hot grill and a group of like-minded friends.

"I will hold up one card, and announce the player's name, and they'll all chant back to me, 'Burn!' And I'll rip it up and throw it on the coals," Neapolitan explains. "Its fierce."

This ferocity began as a way to boost team spirit. But then, it turned into something more.

"After we had our long home win streak, I thought, maybe I've got something here," he says.

Now Neapolitan wouldn't dream of losing that something. Just like he wouldn't dream of washing his lucky Ravens apparel, down to the undergarments, that he's worn unwashed on game days for months now.

"This way, you start off in a very comfortable place," he says. "Knowing that you're doing everything you can possibly do, in the spirit world, if you will, to help your team win: the mojo."

On the West Coast, 30-year-old Kristofer Noceda of Livermore, Calif., is putting out his own mojo for the San Francisco 49ers.

He's wearing his unwashed team gear and painting his face with what he calls war paint.

"It's funny, because it's like, who is this guy, is he like an extra for Braveheart?" Noceda says with a laugh. "It's one of those things where I don't care if I look weird, or if I smell funny. It's kind of like that's the smell of victory."

Noceda has to sit in the same seat at the same restaurant, eating the same dish, what he calls the "magic chips," that he believes help spur his team to victory.

Believing in magic, being superstitious, counterintuitively, has actually helped us evolve as a species, says Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine.

He explains it this way: Millions of years ago, if you heard a rustle in the grass, do you think it's a predator or the wind?

"If you think the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator, and it turns out it was just the wind, that's a superstition. But there's no harm in that, you just become more vigilant." says Shermer. "But if you think the rustle in the grass is just the wind, and it turns out it's a dangerous predator, you're lunch. You fail to see a connection that was real. And that's very costly."

And, he adds, those of us who think we are too rational for superstitions should think again: We are all superstitious to some degree.

"It's built into our brains. It's called learning," he says. "You think A is connected to B. And sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't."

When it comes to sports, we are especially susceptible to superstitions.

"They reduce anxiety in uncertain situations," Shermer says. "It gives you a feeling of control."

Both Noceda and Neapolitan say that if their team wins, they'll take some of the credit. And if they lose? Well, they say the magic has just run its course, and at least they can get those jerseys clean.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

OK, speaking of things that somehow just make you feel better, on this Super Bowl Sunday, fans on both sides of the country are engaging in some odd behavior - sporting unwashed jerseys and fresh facial hair, sitting in that oh-so-special spot. We're talking about superstitions.

Fans and athletes are notorious for them - like Michael Jordan, who'd wear his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform. But as it turns out, superstitions aren't all that odd. Evolution may have hard-wired us to believe in them. NPR's Amy Held reports.

AMY HELD, BYLINE: Fifty-eight-year-old Michael Neapolitan, from suburban Baltimore, is spending this Ravens game day the same way he has for the past few years. It involves football cards from the opposing team, a hot grill, and a group of like-minded friends.

MICHAEL NEAPOLITAN: And I will hold up one card and announce the player's name, and they'll all chant back to me: Burn! And I'll rip it up and throw it on the coals. It's fierce.

HELD: This ferocity began as a way to boost team spirit but then, it turned into something more.

NEAPOLITAN: Then after we had our long home win streak, I said, maybe I've got something here.

HELD: Now, Neapolitan wouldn't dream of losing that something, just like he wouldn't dream of washing his lucky Ravens apparel, down to the undergarments, which he's worn game days for months now.

NEAPOLITAN: This way, you start off in a very comfortable place, knowing that you're doing everything you can possibly do - in the spirit world, if you will - to help your team win: the mojo.

HELD: And over on the West Coast, 30-year-old Kristofer Noceda of Livermore, California, is putting out his own mojo for the 49ers. He's wearing his own, unwashed team gear, and painting his face with what he calls his war paint.

KRISTOFER NOCEDA: I mean, it's funny because it's like, who is this guy? Is he like, an extra for "Braveheart," or something? You know, it's one of those things where I don't care if I look weird, or if I smell funny. It's kind of like, you know, that's the smell of victory.

(LAUGHTER)

HELD: And Noceda has to sit in the same seat at the same restaurant, eating the same dish; which he believes helps spur his team to victory.

NOCEDA: Thank you, magic chips.

HELD: Believing in magic, being superstitious is counterintuitive. But it's actually helped us evolve as a species, says Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. He explains it this way: Millions of years ago, let's say you heard a rustle in the grass. Is it a predator, or is it the wind?

MICHAEL SHERMER: If you think the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator, turns out it's just the wind, that's a superstition. But there's no harm in that. You just become more vigilant. But if you think the rustle in the grass is just the wind, and it turns out it's a dangerous predator, you're lunch. You fail to see a connection that was real, and that's very costly.

HELD: And we're all superstitious, to some degree.

SHERMER: Even scientists, us rational skeptics, it's built into our brains. It's called learning. You think A is connected to B and sometimes, it is; sometimes, it isn't.

HELD: And when it comes to sports, we are especially susceptible to superstitions.

SHERMER: They reduce anxiety in uncertain situations, that gives you a feeling of control.

HELD: Both fans - Noceda and Neapolitan - say if their team wins, they'll take some of the credit. And if they lose, well, the magic just ran its course, and at least they can get those jerseys clean.

Amy Held, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.