Kelly Mattix grew up in Mississippi near the heart of college football’s kingdom. Her parents’ sports allegiances melded from Pittsburgh steel, so when it comes to pro football, she roots for the Steelers. She has never even been to Washington, D.C.
On a Saturday night two Decembers ago, she watched on TV as Robert Griffin III, the ultra-athletic quarterback from Baylor, the man with the intoxicating smile, won the Heisman Trophy.
“Just hearing his story growing up is what really got to me,” Mattix said. “He was just such a fun and funny guy that, I don’t know, I just connected to him and his morals.”
Mattix, a 20-year-old marketing and corporate relations major at Ole Miss, made that fan relationship official last Christmas when she bought Washington Redskins No. 10 jerseys for herself and her boyfriend. The Steelers are her team, but RG3 is her quarterback.
Griffin continues to win new fans, such as Mattix, and deepen his bond with others as his second season with the Redskins approaches. Several examples of his exploding popularity even test the limits of reason.
Some local fans bought him wedding presents in May, the same month a Texas man paid the American Cancer Society $15,000 for a pair of Griffin’s autographed, game-worn cleats. ESPN Central Texas, the flagship radio station for Baylor athletics and a Dallas Cowboys radio network affiliate, broadcast all but one Redskins game last season.
Although such behavior might seem irrational, human instincts validate it, several psychologists and sociologists say. Our impulse to connect with other humans, along with our inherent drive to identify with what we believe to be positive, fuels the relationship between fans and Griffin, as well as that among Griffin’s fans.
In turn, Griffin, 23, is rocketing to mega-stardom because of his accessibility through social media, controlled appearances in traditional media, and his innate attractive characteristics on and off the field. And he’s doing it as well as anyone ever has in the age of Twitter. He’s more accessible online than Peyton or Brady, and he hasn’t turned heel like Tiger or LeBron.
“Somehow people feel like they know him very well,” said Merrill Melnick, a retired SUNY Brockport professor who specialized in the social psychology of sport. “There’s something about his personality that invites the possibility that he and I could be friends. It does appear to be unique. Somehow he has been able to create that pathway between the fan and himself.”
Specialists interviewed for this story explained Griffin’s popularity by applying a variety of seminal theories developed by such scholars as psychotherapist Carl Jung, sociologist Georg Simmel, psychologist Robert Cialdini and mythologist Joseph Campbell, among others.
At the phenomenon’s core, though, are two elements: identification and connection.
Neither necessarily comes before the other. Actually, identification fosters connection, and vice versa, in ways that intensify the relationship, either between Griffin and his fans or among Griffin’s supporters.
A person who says “I am a fan of Robert Griffin III” is declaring Griffin to be a part of his identity. Given that humans inherently believe they are good, they instinctively seek to fortify their self-image by identifying with other entities they perceive to be good. Whether that process is conscious or subconscious doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome.
“The team becomes a central component of their identity, and there are multiple ways where that identity can be threatened,” said Daniel Wann, a Murray State psychology professor whose research centers on sport fandom. “If you have a star player who is both good on the field and good off the field, you don’t have to worry about those threats. It’s the best of all worlds.”