A Psychologist’s Perspective on Football Fandom
Watching football, both professional and college, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid I spent many Saturdays and Sundays with my dad watching our favorite teams while yelling at the television (which doesn’t usually work). I consider myself a loyal fan of both pro and college football, and it remains our nation’s most popular sport; however, it is not without controversy. Off-the-field player issues like substance abuse or aggression, a seemingly arbitrary pattern of suspensions, owners threatening relocation unless municipalities publicly fund new stadiums, the fact that the NFL can’t reliably define its own rules…the list goes on, and professional football seems to be going out of its way to make itself difficult to watch. College football has additional controversies, like NCAA restrictions against player compensation despite the enormous revenue some teams bring to their university.
Player Safety Issues
Beyond these are player safety issues. Some players acknowledge regret playing the sport despite wealth and success. In addition to physical injuries, football often results in head injuries. Repeated head trauma (such as in concussions) are associated with memory loss, poor impulse control, anxiety, depression, mood lability, and suicidality. Studies are beginning to link sports-related concussions with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a long-term degradation of brain functioning. Further, concussions during games increase a player’s sensitivity to future head injuries, particularly if they have hit the field too quickly after their injury. However, the NCAA and NFL have pledged to increase player safety via rule changes and support research that examines the impact of the sport on brain functioning and mental health. Although the current season’s total concussions did not decrease significantly, this may be due in part to greater awareness in spotting them.
So why am I still watching? It’s certainly not because my favorite teams are good, as the two professional teams I follow finished a ho-hum 16 and 16 this season and my favorite college teams failed to meet high preseason-expectations. Dr. Matthew Thompson, a colleague and board certified neuropsychologist who actually played football in college, both follows the sport and spends part of his practice assessing traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in a concussion clinic. After speaking with him, he reminded me that although we often hear about “worst case scenarios,” a large majority of players in the NFL fortunately do not seem to experience chronic brain injury symptoms. There are also much better recent mechanisms for spotting concussions. He is most optimistic about the preventative work that many states are doing at the youth and high school levels of football. For example, some states have legislature that immediately removes potentially concussed players from the game and requires them to be cleared by a physician (though not a neuropsychologist) before returning. Some states require training for coaches in spotting brain injuries and other laws regulate the amount of “full contact” practices teams are allowed before a season begins. The best coaches (e.g., Nick Saban, begrudgingly) do not emphasize frequent full contact during routine practice, benefiting player safety. Dr. Thompson would like future research to examine factors (like genetics or frequency of injury) that influence why some players develop chronic problems whereas others do not.
Social Identity Theory
Despite this, football continues to exert additional draws on its fans. Given that it is the most popular sport in the United States it serves as many people’s “common interest” with their friends, the foundation upon which friendships can be built. In fact, helping individuals clarify their interests and identify where they might meet other like-minded people is one of the first steps I take when helping clients build conversational skills and improve social relationships. If sports are an interest of yours they can be a easy way to relate to others. Football is also powerful in that it gets people together whether or not they even watch the game. The Super Bowl is the single biggest sporting event of the year. Last year almost 112 million Americans watched the game, and tens of millions will do so at a party or get-together. Hosting or attending successful get-togethers is often how I might measure my clients’ progress when we work on social skills, as group events are the perfect place to practice new skills with multiple people.
Football fandom (as do other fandoms) allows individuals to feel like they are a part of a group. A colleague of mine at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Dr. John Houser, articulated it best by saying that watching the NFL each week is one of his final remaining connections to the goings-on of his home state. Football (as do other sports) provides individuals the opportunity to participate in a collective experience of cheering or lamenting the outcome of their favorite team. In social psychology terms, football fandom is an example of social identity theory, in which an individual bases their identity and self-concept on the groups they belong to. Belongingness to a team provides fans a certain level of affirmation from in-group strangers and differentiates us from the out-groups, like rival teams. Despite the fact that very few of the players on my favorite teams actually come from the areas they represent they still play for not only “my hometown” but “our hometown.”
Flexing Your Cognitive Skills
Football also allows fans to easily put themselves in the shoes of a coach, and more so than other sports…did you know that being a football coach once even had its own video game? Each play is a collection of many small moments—a complex series of blocking, running routes, handoffs, and fakes that sum to greater than their parts. Because of football’s discrete start-and-stop nature after which the outcome is immediately known, it allows fans the unique opportunity to “play along” for each decision. It also provides a good opportunity to flex cognitive skills such as our working memory for receiver routes, visual information processing to read a defense, and our speeded access to a fund of knowledge in selecting the right play for the situation. We can play with the contents our executive functions in our mind to make tactical decisions that outwit the other team and see how we stack up with the coaches without having to leave the couch. This likely contributes to the immense popularity of fantasy football (which is, admittedly, deserving of its own analysis).
I’ve always enjoyed watching football but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify three to four hours of my time watching what I believe is harmful for its participants from both a neuropsychological and physical perspective…all in the name of a good show. However, it’s also difficult to miss out on the fun and connectedness because the fandom is so pervasive. Many of my friends could not care less about football and are oblivious to the emotional highs and lows experienced by millions each week—and their number seems to be growing as the NFL’s viewership is in decline. However, the sport seems to be working on regulating itself to be safer and more streamlined. One thing is certain for now though, I’m ready for a break and I’ll be happy to get my Sunday afternoons back.