Watching football or other sports is a big part of American life. But why are Americans so passionate about it? “During the Super Bowl on February 5, I happened to be on a plane from Florida to Boston,” Howard Katz, M.D., a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School, said during a recent interview. “It was a bit like a flying sports bar. Everybody had a little television on the back of the seat in front of them, and everybody was glued to the football game. When the New England Patriots made a play, there was a cheer, and when something went bad for them, there was a groan. And here we were, a bunch of strangers, sort of united by this thing that was bigger than ourselves. So that is one reason why Americans are so keen about watching sports.”
Yes, “the Super Bowl is a time for everybody to come together,” Ronald Kamm, M.D., director of Sport Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, N.J., and a past president of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry, observed during a recent interview. “There aren’t many collective things that Americans can do any more, people are so dislocated from their families.”
Yet there are other reasons as well that Americans are so fiery about sports, said Katz, who is also a training and supervising analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and who gave a talk about sports fans at the recent meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
“When people are passionately involved with sports, they are engaged in something that touches their own high aspirations. … People are passionate about other cultural products too—movies, literature, and so on—but sports hold a particular interest, I think, because they touch on the muscular part of being, which is how we started exploring the world and developing a sense of mastery.”
And sports “have become a religious experience for many people,” Kamm observed, “a way of transcending their generally bland existences. You see fans in prayer shawls—really costumes. The stadium is a temple, and if your team wins, there’s a chance for redemption.”
All told, sports are “an important part of our identity,” asserted Ira Glick, M.D., a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University and one of the founders of the field of sport psychiatry. “When I was in New York, I was a Giants fan. Now that I’m in San Francisco, I’m a fan of the Warriors and the 49ers. And identifying with a particular team in a particular place can involve feelings of racial, ethnic, and tribal identity and loyalties that go back not only years, but centuries. By way of example, when studying the history of warring tribes in South America, [I found that] it evolved from one tribe fighting another. After peace negotiations, they decided, ‘Why don’t we have a match?’ using their form of what we now call soccer. At first, the losing team was executed. Then it evolved into only the captain of the losing team being executed. That evolved into simply winning and losing without penalties. And today it’s ‘Let’s all go and have a drink … and forget the hard feelings we had during the match.’”
So considering the reasons that Americans are so enthralled with the Super Bowl, March Madness, or other sports events, can it benefit them psychologically? “Absolutely!” replied Antonia Baum, M.D., a Maryland psychiatrist and vice president of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry (also see Patients’ Sport Interests Can Be Harnessed in Treatment).
“The sense of belonging to something can be positive. I recently did some work with Wounded Warriors at the Walter Reed National Medical Center. It was so interesting to see the esprit de corps and motivation in some cases for these young men to join the military. It is not unlike the kind of affiliation people get, I think, from affixing themselves to sport teams. Sometimes it’s a replacement for not having a sense of belonging with their family of origin,” she said.
Sports are also “a way for men to bond,” Baum noted. “They get companionship without having to be intimate. It’s almost like parallel play among toddlers. They sit there on the couch with their beer in hand watching a game.” However, sports can lead to bonding between men and women and within families as well, Kamm noted. “One of the greatest connections a female patient of mine had with her father,” he related, “was that they would wear the same clothing when they watched the Giants. They would sit in separate rooms—they couldn’t be together— but at half time they could talk.”
And of course sports fill people’s needs for heroes, said Kamm. For men especially, “it’s an escape from the push now that guys are soft, guys are sweet. It’s a return to, hey, guys are tough. Look what can happen when someone—not me—but someone actually puts their life on the line. Because in football or boxing, you can be killed, or paralyzed, or experience brain damage at any point.”
True, being a fervent supporter of a particular sport team is stressful, Kamm admitted, but “rooting for them year in and year out, even when they lose, can build emotional resilience.” Also, “there is a fantastic emotional release that highly identified sports fans can experience when their team does win,” he said. He cited as an example a video clip of a New York Giants fan on You Tube after the Giants won the Super Bowl in February. The fan was holding his wife on one side, his daughter on the other, and he was bellowing like a male gorilla in triumph. “There aren’t many opportunities to scream like that!” Kamm commented with a chuckle.
Following sports is also “an extremely healthy outlet for aggression,” Baum suggested, “especially in our society where people sit in front of computer screens all the time.” Sometimes, though, being vehement about sports can prompt fans to act aggressively, she admitted. Indeed, some soccer matches in England, Africa, and the Middle East—in Egypt recently, for example—have been followed by riots, some of them deadly, Glick pointed out. “And this past year, a San Francisco Giants fan was beaten into a coma by some Dodger fans,” Kamm stated.
So being enamored of sports isn’t always psychologically healthy, he concluded—in fact, it can be an unhealthy addiction when, in extreme cases, for example, “a man gets so angry when his team fails that he takes it out on his wife and kids in domestic or child abuse.”
If psychiatrists better understood why Americans are so passionate about sports, could they use this understanding in their practices?
“I think so,” Howard Katz, M.D., a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School with a special interest in sports, told Psychiatric News, since “when a patient brings whatever he is passionate about into the psychiatrist’s consulting room—whether it is sports or something else—it provides a window into his hopes, fears, aspirations, competitiveness, narcissistic vulnerabilities, and the defenses he uses to manage them.”
For example, Katz said that he has had patients whose profound disappointment with a sports hero was connected with their profound disappointment with their own fathers.
You can also use patients’ interests in sports as a “metaphor for other things,” Ira Glick, M.D., a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University and one of the founders of the field of sport psychiatry, suggested. For example, Glick often works with schizophrenia patients who have negative symptoms such as decreased energy, drive, and interests. If such a patient mentioned an interest in sports, Glick might prescribe a daily “dose” of sports for the patient—for example, playing pickup basketball, tennis, or running—as an active way of treating the negative symptoms.
Patients’ interests in sports can also bring an important element to psychiatric diagnosis, Ronald Kamm, M.D., director of Sport Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, N.J., said. For instance, Kamm might ask a patient whether she is interested in sports, and if she answers in the affirmative, Kamm might comment, “Your team played well yesterday. Did you watch it?” and if she says no, it might be a clue that she is depressed. “When somebody is a highly identified Giants fan, for example, and doesn’t watch a Giants game or care how the Giants fare, that’s a big marker for me,” he said.