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.

This Week in Upgrades: April 18

Hello, good people. How was your Monday? Still grinding it out? Maybe I can help.

These links may be going up late, but there’s some great stuff in here to get your week on the right track. Stuff like…

100 years of film in 100 shots. Fantastic.

Or, every Disney song ranked worst to best. Do you agree?

I 100% agree that top sheets are a scam.

Hopefully we all can agree there should be more women on American currency, and it seems like it’s finally going to happen on the $20. Long-forgotten Hamilton stays on the $10, a woman gets the bill everyone has in their wallet. Win-win?

Speaking of Hamilton, as the musical’s popularity booms, more critics have weighed in and not everyone’s a fan. Is the musical actually racist, though?

In fascinating science things, the tree of life just got a whole lot more interesting.

Homo sapiens is pretty interesting on its own (hence this whole blog). Maybe we’re not as civilized as we think?

One thing’s for sure: the automobile is a sham.

Here’s another good reason to take it easy on the fast food. Eat well and cook!

Have an awesome week! You got this.

Kimmy Schmidt
via GIPHY

How to Adult: Eating

From the moment you’re born you have to put food in your pie hole to stay alive. But because human beings can consume practically anything, it makes it difficult to know what we should eat. You could survive on everything from the latest Taco Bell mashup to vegetables grown in your backyard. But your health will probably look a lot different depending on if you eat more things like fast-food Tex-Mex or more things like fresh-picked veggies. I gained a good twenty pounds in my first couple years of college on a pizza-, nachos-, and ramen- centric diet. Cliche? Sure. Filling? Yes, and then some. Healthy? Decidedly not.

So how do we navigate all the different things we can consume? No one really teaches us how to eat as we grow up. We mostly end up feasting on whatever is served to us by family or whatever we can afford when we’re buying groceries and meals for ourselves.

The latest science and health news isn’t a very reliable guide. Over the last several decades, it’s vacillated between very pro this or that–carbs, fat, protein, etc.–and villainizing them. Empirical studies of nutrients have given us vastly different answers on different occasions.

Either way, a full-fledged diet rarely works. They’re often too restrictive and make you loathe eating altogether. Or cut out foods that are actually beneficial for you. Or help you for a time, only to have you falling back to earth when you plateau or can’t maintain it.

So if stringent self-limitation and the lack of clarity over good and bad nutrients are ineffective, what can guide us to eat well?

The best thing I’ve come across is in the writings of Michael Pollan. If you don’t know his work, you should check it out. Not in a fad/cult kind of way. We don’t need another Oprah or Dr. Oz, and I don’t sense that he’s trying to be one. As a regular-person journalist, Pollan’s books and speeches are primarily investigative–trying to comb through research, culture, and real life to get to the bottom of our relationship with food and what constitutes eating for wellness. Appealingly, his advice can be summed up in three short sentences.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

You can’t simplify things much more than seven words. So what does it mean?

Eat food: As in consume things that are real food. Not food-like stuff–processed science projects, tweaked for shelf life or taste, that your body can’t easily recognize. Soda is out. Most things that come from a drive thru are out. Anything with a bunch of ingredients you can’t understand is out.

Look for actual food. The more whole or original its state, the better it probably is. Whole grain (with the beneficial germ and bran). Whole apples, avocados, bok choy, ginger, and the rest. The spectrum of edible things is still vast and compelling even after you take out what went through an R&D lab. Eat lots of different food.

Not too much: This is primarily about the manner in which you eat. The French (excusez-nous for generalizing) have notoriously rich, fatty meals. And yet, their overall health is quite exceptional. Why? Many think it’s because they slow down and have multiple small courses over a long period of time. Lots of socializing. Lots of effort preparing the different dishes and plates. Lots of pauses to let the digestive system do its thing.

Eating is supposed to be a gratifying social experience–from the growing or purchasing of the ingredients to the shared experience at the table with family and friends. Many people eat too fast. Eat alone too often. Eat too much at once. Eat too many of their meals on-the-go, at odd times, or in front of a screen.

Food should be savored in smaller portions, at regular sit-downs, with people that you want to share time with. The fact that work or a general culture of busy challenge this possibility suggests there is an issue with work and culture–not with eating. We need less food that’s ready to eat on the move and more respect for the meal table. Eating food is more than a nutrient delivery system–it’s for pleasure, identity, ritual, wholeness. The manner and context in which you eat are significant and meaningful.

This also means we should ensure that we’re not obsessing over what’s on the plate in front of us. “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Forgive yourself for breaking the rules once in awhile. If you’re stuck getting a burger from a chain for lunch, or decided to snack on some Oreos (like I did the other day), don’t be too hard on yourself.

Mostly plants: Perhaps the most controversial, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s mostly plants, not only. There’s still room for meat every so often (if that’s something you want to chow down). It’s just that plants have been shown over and over again to improve overall health and life-expectancy. There are vibrant Seventh-Day Adventist communities–eating mostly plants or strictly vegetarian their whole lives–with an average age in the 90s. They’re clearly doing something right.

Plants are remarkably diverse, and can provide us with an equally diverse array of things that our bodies are looking for. We don’t fully know what makes plants so great, but it’s likely that fiber, omega-3s, and phytochemicals (being careful not to render anything angelic or immortalizing) are just some of the things that are super beneficial for us. Stick to the broad rainbow of vegetables as much as possible, and let meat, fish, and other foods be subtle complements.

Eating like an adult–a healthy adult–does not have to be hard. It’s even better when you yourself cook everything you eat. That, of course, takes time and know-how–something I’d love to talk about in a future How to Adult post. But for now, whenever you’re about to eat, remind yourself to: eat food; not too much; mostly plants.

 

This Week in Upgrades: January 11

Some of the best human things from the last seven days. Have a good week!

 

L’Oreal unveiled a UV patch that tells you your sun exposure and potential skin damage.

 

Do you understand the new dietary guidelines? Here’s a solid explanation.

 

How likely is it that a robot will take your job in the near future? An interesting chart.

 

Perhaps the gun legislation we need will come through the states.

 

Would a variable velocity gun help reduce the number of deaths?

 

Drone ride for one. The future of transportation? Would you ride it across town?

 

ICYMI: California has declared a state of emergency for its methane leak.

 

The science behind Brendan Dassey’s forced confession on Making a Murderer.

 

What’s the fastest way to defrost your car?