By Thom Loverro

When fans in Cleveland felt jilted by hometown hero LeBron James' departure from the Cavaliers, they reacted by burning his jersey in the streets, as local news cameras recorded the act of outrage. Same in Los Angeles -- the city of cool -- where, after just one season as a Laker, fans were so offended by Dwight Howard leaving for Houston that they set his jersey on fire as well. The visual spread all over the internet: The angry fan, speaking out the best way he or she knows how.

A Milwaukee Brewers fan, feeling betrayed by Ryan Braun's admission that he used performance-enhancing substances in the course of baseball's Biogenesis investigation, wore a modified Braun jersey to a Brewers game at Miller Park. She changed the name on the back to "Fraud," and was asked by ballpark security guards to remove it or leave.

In New England, when one of the Patriots' star players, Aaron Hernandez, was arrested on murder charges, how did the team respond? They offered to take Hernandez' jerseys back, allowing fans to exchange the disgraced items but still express their devotion to their team.

The jersey has become the flag of sports -- the most powerful symbol of the connection between fans and their teams.

"You can't do any more than wear a player's number on your back to show that connection," said Merrill Melnick, a retired sports sociologist at SUNY Brockport who specialized in studying fan behavior. "Jerseys have gained a greater symbolic value, and the average fan has some need that the jersey satisfies more than ever."

At ballparks, arenas and football stadiums across the country, both college and professional, grown men and women can be seen at games flying their team colors on their backs, professing specific players as their favorites. In cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other football towns, men and women come to professional work places on the Friday before a game wearing their Joe Flacco or Troy Polamalu jersey.

"Jerseys are a tangible way for fans to connect their identities with the identities of their team and favorite players," said Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, who has also studied the psychology of sports fans. "This provides an even more personal way to incorporate that identity into your own sense of who you are."

This need to identify is big business. Retail sales of licensed apparel based on sports figures and organizations totaled $5.1 billion in 2012 -- or the equivalent of 39 percent of all retail sales of licensed merchandise based on sports, according to EPM Communications, which publishes newsletters, research studies and directories focusing on marketing, consumer and retail trends.

"While we don't break out jersey sales from apparel overall, a hefty chunk of that $5.1 billion last year is jerseys," said Ira Mayer, EPM founder and president. "Jerseys aren't cheap -- at least not the good ones -- and people buy and wear them because they like the team and/or particularly like a player," Mayer said.

When they don't like them anymore? "Jerseys are their voice," he said. "Burning a T-shirt or a pennant just doesn't seem like as much of a statement." 

The Patriots decision to accept returns of Hernandez's jerseys for one weekend in July in exchange for a new Patriots jersey of comparable value was the opposite -- the team trying to connect with its fans with the message that this was not the franchise identity. 

"We know that children love wearing their Patriots jerseys, but may not understand why parents don't want them wearing their Hernandez jerseys anymore," said Patriots spokesperson Stacey James. "We hope this opportunity to exchange those jerseys at the Patriots ProShop for another player's jersey will be well received by parents."

It was perhaps the most significant statement yet about the power and influence of the jersey.

"That was unprecedented," said Dr. Daniel Wann, a Murray State professor who has specialized in the study of sports fandom -- in particular the causes and consequences of sports team identification.

"The wearing of a jersey of a favorite athlete is a fan's way to publicly identify their relationship," Wann said. "If a fan is going to wear a jersey, from their perspective, this is publicly saying 'this is who I follow.'"

When the relationship ends, for whatever reason, it is almost like ending a romantic relationship.

"When the athlete does something to let them down, they can't take them to court, so symbolically they burn a jersey," Wann said. "It's like someone throwing a ring back in the face, as publicly as they could possibly cut off the ties to the athlete.

"Athletes see what they do, like Dwight Howard or LeBron James leaving, as a business," Wann said. "But fans see it as a rejection, and, let's be honest, they were rejected."

If those rejections seem to cut deeper in today's world, perhaps it's because the devotion also seems to run deeper than ever -- and the jerseys may speak to something more complicated than just fandom.

"Wearing of jerseys is manifestation of ego screaming, the need to announce to strangers that I am important," Melnick said. "To identify with someone successful allows me to take a bath in reflective glory. It announces the personal relationship you have with that person, real or imagined, but it is a real physical manifestation of my desire to be important.

"When that person does me bad, my reaction should be quick to renounce that connection and rid myself of that onerous symbol," Melnick said.

Then again, some relationships can be repaired. In Cleveland, speculation is that LeBron James may return to the Cavaliers someday. The fans that didn't burn his jersey can then take it back out of the closet and declare his or her love and devotion again, for the world to see.

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Thom Loverro is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.