I chatted recently with a mid-twenties man about the glut of football games at this time of year. He just shook his head as he said, “I don””t understand how so many people let their emotions rise or fall based on the outcome of a game. It makes no sense. For crying out loud, nobody in a football game is finding cures for rare diseases. It””s just a bunch of macho guys knocking heads.”

Understand, this was no wimpy sort of fellow. Stout and fit, he still looked like the wrestler he had been in his high school days. “I follow sports like the rest of my friends,” he explained, “and I like seeing my favorite teams win. But I refuse to gauge my quality of life by a team””s won-loss record and if I miss some of the games, I don””t feel slighted. Sometimes I just have other things to tend to.” He went on to explain that he enjoyed good reading, time spent with friends, and pursuing artistic passions.

I looked squarely at him and said, “You realize that your comments make you something of an oddball, particularly in this part of the state.” He laughed as he recounted numerous discussions with pals who had suggested the same. “When I tell my buddies that I might visit an art museum rather than go to a football game, they look at me as if I had three eyeballs. And when I tell them I don””t care who the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys is, they howl as they immediately debate the merits of one player over another. I””m truly amazed at the emotional energy that accompanies their interest in sports.”

Why do some people get bent out of shape over the outcome of a game? What can we surmize about people who are so fanatic that they cannot contain their rage each time their team throws an interception or fails to get a first down? And what in the world is going on when fans throw beer and other objects onto the guys on the field? Is the behavior of a player so important that it warrants total irrationality?

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that sports occupy a positive place in the lives of many young men and women, teaching the value of cooperation, discipline, and commitment. Guys who play football can attest to the lifelong friendships that can arise from working hard on shared goals, particularly when positive results come. Plus, when approached with a proper frame of mind, football can be fun, and I certainly have nothing against fun.

Football, however, as it is played today, tends to feed on aggression, or more to the point, destructive anger. Other sports also draw out expressions of anger, but the physicality of football stands out as it rewards those who can whallop the other person harder, and it can incite fans to laud meanness and abrasiveness. Even in the stands of junior high football games you will hear shouts like “Rip his head off,” and when an opponent is carried off the field, “Wow, what a great hit! Did you see that?”

When I engage with individuals in psychotherapy, a focal point of my discussions is the recognition of human worth and the right of each person to be treated with respect. When I watch a football game as a fan, I want to see a good effort by the home team, and I””m pleased when they win. I cringe, however, when respectfulness is displaced by viciousness. And something seems woefully wrong when the game breeds feelings of contempt and bitterness.

The more I think about it, the more I like the attitude of my young oddball friend who is out of step with his fire breathing buddies. The next time I find myself unable to shake my misery over the fumble by the star running back, I””ll make a date to go to an art museum.

 

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