Let's talk about the Bills. Well, first let's talk about Spartan infanticide.
One of the most popular and widely perpetuated myths about the Spartan people was that upon an infant's birth, should it show any physical deformities or irregularities, it would be chucked from the edge of a cliff and into a mass grave.
Contextualized in the spectrum of the NFL, let's imagine that the Buffalo Bills are one of said mangled, unfortunate infants, only they managed to claw their way out from a veritable mountain of dead babies in order to play professional football with the more physically capable members of society.
It's an inspiring story, right? It also may as well be the truth, considering what Bills fans go through season after season, paying witness to their hopes and dreams being dragged face-first through horizonless trenches of piss and shit just about every Sunday.
Now, the writer of this piece is a Bills fan himself, just to make things perfectly clear. An avid one, in fact. But even in the face of good sportsmanship and a loving allegiance to the team, it's laughably preposterous to deny that the Bills have a history of repeatedly raising up and subsequently dashing the hopes of their fans almost every season. Beyond the fact that the team hasn't even made the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, Quarterback Jeff Tuel (who is now on the practice squad) and Coach Doug Marrone led the team to an underwhelming 6-10 season last year (on top of a 6-10 season in 2012, a 6-10 season in 2011, a 4-12 season in 2010, a 6-10 season in 2009 and so on and so forth). Even in the face of what's turning out to be a promising season this year for the Bills, however, the looming and persistent threat of everything falling to pieces before the fans' very eyes is still a real one, so the question at the heart of the matter remains: what makes a Bills fan stay a Bills fan?
Joseph Gracz, third year New Media Design major, said he's been a Bills fan since he was born.
“It definitely does suck seeing the Bills constantly struggle to put together a winning season. I barely remember the last time they were in the playoffs back in 1999."
His longstanding support of the Bills has led him to become doubtful of his team's ability to pull off anything when push comes to shove, although he valiantly stands by them.
“I've become quite the pessimist toward my teams," Gracz sighed. "I expect that whatever can go wrong will go wrong during games. If the Bills are driving for a late game score, I always expect them to somehow blow it through a fumble or an interception.”
Joshua Blackey is a fifth year Film and Animation major and Buffalo native who currently serves as the executive producer for RIT SportsZone.
"I don't even know how it's going to feel once they eventually become Super Bowl contenders and we are playing in really important games," he said. "I've become so numb to the jokes that it hasn't bothered me in years. I've heard it all, my favorite being 'The Bills stands for 'Boy, I Love Losing Superbowls.''”
There really doesn't appear to be any sort of "it"-factor that ties Bills fans together, but the answer to their loyalty lies somewhere in a battered and bruised fighting spirit forged in unforgiving Western New York winters.
“I think what makes me stick with it is that I feel that my teams are a part of me," Gracz said. "I feel that they're in my blood. It's really like a heritage to me. The Bills and the [Buffalo] Sabres have always been a big connection between [me] and my family, especially my father, whom I'm very close to. If I stay true to them while they endure historically bad seasons, hopefully in a few years when some prospects have a chance to pan out, no one will be able to question my fandom and loyalty to the team. I guess you could say it's a long term investment.”
Blackey said he felt much the same way. “Even though they lose a lot, they are still my team, so I will continue to support them,” he said. “I think the Buffalo Bills fans who have been supporting them through the good times and the bad will be the happiest fans in the world when we become one of the league's elite. It'll totally be worth it.”
The question of the overarching “Why?” still remains, however. Outside of a pervasive loyalty to the team due to a sense of pride, heritage, obligation or otherwise, on a psychological level, what drives Bills fans to continue to support the team despite being hurt over and over again? RIT’s Associate Professor of Sociology and Psychology Dr. Brian Barry, a Bills fan himself although not a native Western New Yorker, provided some insight into this strange phenomenon.
“There is a big difference between games down in New York City and games here,” Barry said. “Downstate, things are much more corporate. A lot of people just go to games because they got tickets from their company. Here, games are like these big community clambakes. There’s lots of talking, sharing, passing stuff around, and it makes for an atmosphere that I just really enjoy.”
Outside of the atmosphere and the vibrant community that the Bills produce, Barry also offered some good scientific reasoning as to the psychology of a Bills fan.
“In psychology, there’s this concept called B.I.R.G., or Basking in Reflective Glory, that tends to apply to football fans,” he said. “People sort of seek achievement through their teams vicariously, and I would definitely attribute people still seeking achievement through the Bills as a result of terrific marketing. There’s a sense instilled that as a Western New Yorker you should be loyal to the Bills, you’re obligated, and if you walk away from the team at any point you’re just disloyal. Where else is that true? If the product stinks, it stinks.”
While Barry is right to a certain degree, he’s leaving out something that runs a little bit deeper than a mass result of good psychological marketing. It’s hardly as if Bills fans are being duped over and over again into believing that the Bills have always been a good team. At the risk of sounding cliché, Buffalo and Rochester are underdog cities that produce rag-tag, weathered masses of fighters and stone-faced hopefuls. The Bills could continue to blow every single season until the heat death of the entire universe and fans would still tailgate outside Ralph Wilson Stadium every Sunday, huddling together against the Orchard Park winds, rooting ceaselessly into the void for their persistent square peg of a team. There’s a beautiful, logic-defying method to the madness of Bills fans, and while it may never make sense to outsiders and interlopers, to fans like Gracz it’s something worth fighting for.
“I’ll be a Bills fan until the day that I die,” Gracz said. “For better or for worse.”