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Sports Fans: On the Road to Sanity

Strong ties to a team improve mental health

SATURDAY, May 12 (HealthScout) -- You've seen those fat, half-naked guys on TV. The ones in the stands at a December football game, bare-chested in the freezing cold, their beer bellies proudly painted in their team's colors.

Sure, they look crazy. But the crazy thing is, they may be saner than you.

Being a sports fan, researchers say, is good for your mental health.

"If an individual is strongly attached to a local team, they have better psychological health than those who aren't," says Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky and co-author of Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators.

"I can account for 5 to 6 percent of an individual's mental health based on their identification with a team," he says.

Whether you're a Major League Baseball fan just settling into the rhythm of the long season, or a pro basketball or hockey buff gripped by playoff madness, you're likely in good stead: More than a half-dozen academic studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between team identification and psychological health, Wann says.

Or could it be that psychologically healthy people are simply more likely to become fans in the first place?

That chicken-or-egg question, Wann says, will be answered by his latest research, which hasn't been published yet. He followed a group of fans and non-fans through the most recent season of the Murray State basketball team, roughly October through February.

At the beginning of the season, he assessed their psychological health, including loneliness and stress, along with individual and social self-esteem.

"At the end of the season, we asked the same questions," Wann says. "We found that, for the people who were fans, their psychological health improved over the course of the basketball season."

Sports as a religious experience

Scholars say such findings reflect the importance that sports have assumed in modern American society. With families scattered across the country, and institutions such as churches, schools and the government held in less esteem, sports have become an area where we can come together.

"Sports, it seems to me, has become a site of identification," says Larry Grossberg, a professor of communication and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It is a place where communities self-identify with their teams. So, the spectator ritual of sports has become more important in our society."

Some say the act of being a sports fan even can become a sort of religious experience.

"Sports provide a sense of belonging to something larger than yourself," says L. Gregory Jones, dean of the Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "And there are various ritual functions that appeal to people."

Gathering at a special place, wearing ceremonial clothes, singing and chanting: These religious rituals apply to sporting events, as well, Jones says.

Bob Ross already knows that. A Wisconsin native, Ross grew up in "the church of the Green Bay Packers," as he calls it.

The cheeseheads, as their most rabid fans have been dubbed, are so wild about their pro football team, Ross says, that when he was in elementary school, every sixth-grade class was shown a film on the life of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

"It is part of the culture of my state to be educated in the legacy of the Packers," says Ross, now 38 and living in Massachusetts, where he edits academic publications.

Fans yes, fanatics no

But like anything, sports fandom can go too far. Some fans become addicted to sports, damaging their work, finances or personal relationships.

But that's rare, Wann says. Research from the University of San Diego shows that fewer than 2 percent of sports fans have problems in their relationships because of sports, he says.

And if you don't like sports, don't despair, Wann says. The key is to be passionate about something -- whether it's football, opera or gardening.

"We make the point that this phenomenon is not sports-specific," he says. "You could find it in any number of entertainment options.

"The moral is, you should be involved in and enthusiastic about something that connects you with other people," Wann says.

Ross, the Packers fan, says his team does just that.

"Love of the Packers binds many of us to our home state and provides a common discussion topic among friends," he says. "The team is a unifying force in the community and also among former Wisconsin residents and fans throughout the world."

But is it good for his mental health? Ross thinks so.

"It does give me a sense of pride," he says. "It's also a piece of Wisconsin that I can pass on to my spouse and my children."

Just ask Ross' son, Brett.

That's Brett as in Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre.

What To Do

To hear a psychologist talk about sports fans, go to the Psychology of Sports Web site and click on the "Mind of a Sports Fan." Or, if you want to find other sports fans to chat with online, visit the Sports Fans of America Association Web site.

To read more on how Americans identify with sports teams, check out PopPolitics.com.

Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on mental health and on other health aspects of sports.

SOURCES: Interviews with Daniel Wann, Ph.D.,associate professor of psychology, Murray State University, Murray, Ky.; Larry Grossberg, Ph.D., Morris Davis distinguished professor of communication studies and cultural studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, N.C.; L. Gregory Jones, M.Div., Ph.D., dean, Duke University Divinity School, Durham, N.C.; and Bob Ross, editor, Melrose, Mass.
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