The Myth of the Magic Sports Beard

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So you were not crazy about the Super Bowl hero Cooper Kupp’s scraggly, mountain-man whiskers? Neither is his family, apparently.

“I don’t know what the deal is with the beard,” Craig Kupp, the father of the Los Angeles Rams wide receiver who was named the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl LVI last Sunday, said in The Tacoma News Tribune in December. “I’m not a big fan.”

But it is hard to argue with the results. The 28-year-old wideout, once an unheralded third-round draft pick from Eastern Washington University known for his clean-cut, choirboy looks, let his blond chin fuzz explode over the course of the past season, and along the way, emerged into an unstoppable N.F.L. force. He not only dominated on the league’s biggest stage, but also become the first player since 2005 to take home the so-called triple crown for receivers, leading the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

According to a recent Sports Illustrated article, he went full Grizzly Adams this year simply because he was on a roll, and promised skeptical family members that he would shave as soon as he had a bad game.

The problem was, as his grandmother Carla Kupp pointed out late in the season, “he hasn’t had one.”

Call it superstition. Call it a coincidence. Call it a fashion statement to stand out as an alpha male among alpha males. But Mr. Kupp, 28, is hardly the first athlete to elevate his public profile, and seemingly his game, while ditching the beard trimmers.

Think of it as the James Harden effect. Player X is good. Player X grows crazy beard. Player X is suddenly great. Weird, right?

At least in terms of image, that was the story with Mr. Harden, who garnered nearly as many headlines as Mr. Kupp last week after a blockbuster trade to the Philadelphia 76ers from the Nets. Mr. Harden started his career in 2009 wearing a neatly trimmed beard that would barely qualify him for a barista job in Brooklyn and spent his early years as a sixth man, coming off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder behind his star teammates, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

As Mr. Harden’s beard grew, however, so did his basketball superpowers (or vice versa), as he moved on to the Houston Rockets and became a franchise cornerstone. He won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2018 and, perhaps not coincidentally, became a GQ cover model with his trademark Santa Claus-scale beard, which established him as a triumph of personal branding to fans wearing “Fear the Beard” T-shirts.

A coincidence? Surely. It was not Mr. Harden’s beard that was out there draining 3-pointers. Even so, an impressive beard can serve a powerful semiotic function for a male athlete — or, perhaps, any man — bidding for top-dog status.

Some studies have shown that men with beards are perceived to be of higher status than their cleanshaven counterparts, and also more aggressive, which is certainly not the worst connotation for a latter-day gladiator. A 2016 study from the University of Queensland in Australia gathered data from more than 8,500 women and concluded that a full beard “indicates a male’s ability to compete for resources,” which is useful in finding a mate, but may not apply when the resources are touchdowns.

Doubt the magical properties of a sports beard? Just look at what happens when they vanish. Fans in barbecue country were stunned when the Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, a seven-time Pro Bowler, showed up in training camp last summer with a clean shave. (“Travis Kelce shaved his beard and lost all of his rhythm and soul,” Josh Sánchez, a sports journalist, wrote on Twitter.) Indeed, Mr. Kelce’s season was a bit wobbly by his high standards, inspiring headlines like “What’s wrong with Travis Kelce?”

Best not to anger the gods of facial hair, apparently. Take Ryan Fitzpatrick, the well-traveled N.F.L. quarterback. His aura as a so-called gunslinger — a fearless passer seemingly oblivious to risk — has seemed to grow with every inch of his prodigious mane over the years. Mr. Fitzpatrick himself has acknowledged that his monster beard is central to his image as the man behind the teeth-clenching fourth-quarter heroics known as “Fitzmagic.”

An outlaw beard makes an even louder statement in the relatively genteel sport of baseball, where the megabeard has taken on talismanic connotations for some players. Brian Wilson, the former San Francisco Giants relief pitcher, went from not-the-Beach-Boys-guy to celebrated late-inning assassin after adopting the intimidating Blackbeard look en route to World Series glory.

In 2016, ESPN tracked the rise of Jake Arrieta, the former Chicago Cubs ace, from cleanshaven collegian to Cy Young Award winner, as a step-by-step retrospective on his expanding facial hair. Justin Turner, the slugging Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman, seemed to transform from Everyman to Superman once he adopted an explosion of ginger whiskers that made him look like a berzerker emerging from a Viking long ship.

Can beard magic work for entire teams? The 2013 Red Sox forged an identity and, apparently, a spirit of unity by adopting frontier-trapper beards as “not merely a fashion accessory,” as The New York Times reported at the time, but as “a way to build stronger bonds after the Red Sox’ struggles last season,” when the team finished in last place in the American League East.

Hey, they won the World Series that year.

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