Why Do We Care So Much About Sports?

In the moments after the Green Bay Packers lost the 2007 NFC Championship game, I sat in disbelief in my small, college apartment. Brett Favre, now in the Hall of Fame in 2016, inexplicably played like anything but a future hall-of-famer in his wintry final game as a Packer. The New York Giants, who would go on to win the Super Bowl, won the NFC Championship on an overtime field goal set up by a Favre interception–amplifying the finality and devastation of Packers fans like me.

What was the point of all this?–I wondered to myself. I had put off a paper that I should have been writing so I could glue myself to the television for a few hours instead. And I had invested several hours more watching, celebrating, and agonizing through the course of the whole season–believing that whatever turns and bumps along the way, the road would lead to a championship and corresponding elation.

But like so many sports teams in so many seasons, it didn’t end in ultimate victory. And instead of elation, I felt an odd combination of sadness, anger, sardonic amusement, and confusion. Sports are utterly meaningless, I decided. Who the hell gets so invested in this stuff? How did I let myself get so invested? Come next NFL season, I would not waste my time again spending hours in front of a screen watching my team play when I could or should be doing other things. Or allow myself to hope against hope that the Packers could overcome the statistical unlikelihood of them winning a championship that season either.

But when the season started again in the fall of 2008, I eagerly tuned in for as many games as possible, and have done so every season since. And now here we are the start of the 2016 NFL season, the most popular sport in America by far, with hope springing eternally for millions of fans that this will be their year!

Why do so many people care so much about sports?

In the context of society as a whole, sports teams and the fanaticism they generate do not have an obvious contribution to the common good–save for maybe a local economic bump or some additional jobs under the right conditions. Even then, most economic benefits go to team owners and a handful of other powerful interests. And surely the tens of millions of dollars spent on new sports stadiums–sometimes funded publicly–could be spent in a way that more directly benefits the communities in which they’re being built.

Sports fandom is less about the economic, and more about the existential.

I think my college paper avoidance is a clue. Given the choice between writing a paper (about a topic you don’t get to choose) or watching your favorite team in a playoff game, which one would most people pick? Sports is a form of escapism from the rest of life. However awful the workweek was, whatever political disaster is transpiring, whatever relational turmoil you’re experiencing, sports are there as an escapist outlet. The world can be tough and crappy. Here’s something that allows me to get away from that for a little while.

But hardcore fandom is more than just simply escapism from the everyday. Researchers have discovered that “…highly identified sports fans have an above average sense of meaning in life.” Being a fan of a sports team–much like the group identification of a gang, religion, or attendees of Comic-Con–“leads to belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of meaning.” Sports, and other groups with die-hard adherents, create a sense of transcendent belonging and purpose.

Even though I now live in California, as a former Wisconsinite, the Packers are typically the second thing I’m asked about after cheese. It’s a bit stereotypical, but finding out that I’m a Packers fan alerts others to symbols, sports rituals, and a type of community I’m likely to be associated with simply by being a fan.

As a fan of any team, you can be walking down the street amongst strangers and suddenly when you see people with a shirt or hat with your team’s logo you feel that you have “friends…that you feel connected to. You might not even know their names, but you feel as though you are unified with so many other people in the community.”

Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University, has discovered that there are nearly two-dozen well-being benefits commonly associated with sports fans. “Self-worth, frequency of positive emotions, feeling connected with others, belief in the trustworthiness of others, sense of vigor and energy”–and more–show a statistical correlation with degree of fan identification. The more one identifies with a team, the more one feels a sense of belonging, meaning, and enjoyment from it.

Does that mean that sports fanaticism is wholly good? Of course not. The economics of sports–the incomprehensible millions in player contracts, coaches’ salaries, advertisements, endorsements, and executive income–can spark indignation and outrage. Violence is always a possibility when fans and players experience similar blood pressure, testosterone, and other physiological increases. Players are regularly connected to on-field and off-field aggression: concussions, fisticuffs, playboy criminality, and serious domestic violence. The us versus them of fans–hooligans attacking others in the stands or the streets–can get carried away in the same sort of militaristic tribalism that has long been a part of our human history. And the absurd amounts of alcohol, chips and dips, red meat, and other calories consumed on gameday only add to the society-wide health complications of the Western diet. All of these are the things we often downplay or ignore as we aspire to keep sports a place of happy escapist belonging. That denial is when sports are at their most dangerous to individuals and society. Fandom can be fun and provide meaning while we, at the same time, work to address the dark side of sports.

So as the NFL season is set to begin, look behind the sexist commercials, showboating player celebrations, and cliches about winning and losing, for the larger pattern of identification, community, and meaning. Sports fandom is just one among many forms of escapism and finding purpose. And we’re all just looking for some kind of belonging and enjoyment in life–even if you think a little less of me now because you hate the Packers.

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