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February 21, 2014

STAWAR: A fuzzy notion

Last Sunday evening, my wife Diane and I were in a sports bar and happened to see some of the first quarter of the University of Louisville game against Rutgers.

Rick Pitino, the Cardinals’ men’s basketball coach, was looking dapper, sporting a stylish tie and a staircase-fold handkerchief in his coat pocket. Diane commented on how much he was pacing on the sidelines. When they showed a close-up, I said that I thought he looked different and wondered if the picture was just fuzzy or if maybe he had had some plastic surgery.

I didn’t realize at the time that the fuzziness was actually Pitino’s “rally beard.” According to the online Urban Dictionary, a “rally beard” is: “The beard you start growing until you reach your ultimate goal.”

After the Cardinals’ Valentine’s Day victory against Temple, Louisville players and coaches agreed not to shave until Louisville loses a game. Pitino told his team, “Let’s have some fun. Let’s grow beards until we lose.” Ranked eighth nationally, the Cardinals would love to go into March Madness with the momentum of a winning streak behind them.

Mike Rutherford from @CardChronicle says that “this could galvanize the team in the same way that Pitino’s tattoo did last year.” Last season, Pitino promised his players that he would get a tattoo if they went all the way in the NCAA tournament. He later had a Louisville logo tattooed on his back.

This whole beard notion is alien to me since growing up I never had much contact with people who wore beards. The priest at the Polish Catholic Church and an old man who was a friend of my father’s, referred to only as “The Baker,” were the only two adults I knew who had beards.

My father bowed to peer pressure and briefly grew a beard for a few months back in the late 1960s, when our town was celebrating its 75th anniversary. For some unknown reason, he decided to shave his head at the same time. The net results was that he looked like a somewhat less genial version of the meth dealer Walter White from the TV show “Breaking Bad.”

 Beards and facial hair, however, have long been associated with sports. Playoff beards are standard fare in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs and Swedish tennis star Bjorn Borg never shaved during Wimbledon.

In September, Wall Street Journal columnist Geoff Foster reported that more than 58 percent of current major-league baseball players have some form of facial hair. Although they had a poor 2013 season, the Milwaukee Brewers were the hairiest team in baseball, with a 72 percent facial hair rate.

The most recent notable sports story involving beards is that of the Boston Red Sox, who actually inspired the Louisville Cardinals. After a losing season in 2012, a few Red Sox players decided to grow beards during spring training, which eventually evolved into a major feature of the team’s identity.

In October, psychologist Stuart Vyse from Connecticut College offered some reasons explanation why the Red Sox grew their beards: 1. Athletes are often superstitious. Vyse believes that baseball players are especially prone to superstition because of the slowness of the game. He says, “This nervous waiting time has to be filled somehow, and superstitions often emerge to fill the time.” 2. The illusion of control. Much of what happens in sports is chance or out of your immediate control. Superstitions compensate by giving players a “sense of control over the uncontrollable.” 3. Stick-to-it-ive-ness: When a superstition seems to be working — like in middle of a winning streak — there is great reluctance to change anything. Since superstitions are often rewarded intermittently, they also can be quite difficult to extinguish. Vyse cites the case of St. John’s basketball coach Lou Carnesecca, who wore the same sweater 13 games in a row in a 1984-85 winning streak. Vyse believes that this is the “origin of all lucky shirts, underwear and hats.” 4. Team bonding: A shared experience, like growing beards, contributes to a sense of group identity and team cohesion. And finally 5. The Samson factor: Hair has long been associated as a source of strength and masculinity. The growing of a beard is an highly recognizable and outward symbol of virility. Of course, the end to this story is that in six games last fall, the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series-clinching game at Fenway Park since 1918.

Outside of sports, there is some evidence that beards are generally increasing in popularity. Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble recently reported that its last quarter earnings took a hit due to “the mainstreaming of the three-day stubble “hipster” look ...” The last time beards were in mainstream of high fashion was during the Edwardian era, but beards showed up in Alexander McQueen’s “Gangs of New York” fashion show in 2009 and have been making strides ever since.

Of course, many people date the current beard revival back to March 21, 2012, with the premier of the “Duck Dynasty” reality television show. This show portrays the lives of the Robertson family of West Monroe, La., who operate a business that makes products for duck hunters. The Robertson men are best known for their love of outdoor activities, religious views and of course their long beards.

Toronto-based historian Jarret Ruminski calls “Duck Dynasty” an “American cultural juggernaut.” According to Ruminski, “The bushy beards on “Duck Dynasty” are part of a long history of using facial hair to signify “traditional” values. University of California historian Sarah Gold McBride theorizes that beards came into vogue in the 19th century when they were used to visually define manhood in reaction to an era of increasing social and gender instability.

In our current age of upheaval, Ruminski says “Duck Dynasty’s” bearded display of warm, cornpone, conservative but nonthreatening, down-home, Southern cultural values resonates with ... the American population.”

I’m not so sure the Robertsons are aware of the social implications of their beards. I once saw an interview with them where they said the beards just started simply as a way to keep warm during hunting season.

This represents a paradigm shift from the 1960s and 1970s when beards were symbols of the counter cultural and associated with hippies and the youth culture. Back then, comedian George Carlin composed his famous beard poem: “See this beard, it’s really weird, but don’t be a skeered, it’s only a beard.” Carlin also noted the American public’s general distrust of beards saying, “Lenin had a beard. Gabby Hayes had whiskers.”

 A lot of psychologists grew beards in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, mainly in imitation of Sigmund Freud. My graduate school major adviser had a beard. I always considered this as just an affectation, until I saw a photo of him without one. Turns out that for him a beard was actually an excellent choice. I’ve known a few men who would grow a beard in the fall and then shaved it off in the spring, but I’ve never attempted it.

If the Cardinals win another NCAA Championship, I’m sure the beards will be a major topic of discussion. If they don’t win, everyone probably just forget all about them just like most superstitions, at least until we all don our lucky underwear for next year’s tournament.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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