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There is little doubt that America is a nation of sports fanatics. But when we make this statement, it is important to emphasize that we are not talking about active participation in sports, but rather the passive television viewing habits of the average American male.
It is not unusual for the typical sports-obsessed man to spend three to four hours each evening (and double that amount on Saturdays and Sundays) watching games or sports highlight shows on TV. Even when they are at work, these men will often have sports talk radio playing in the background all day, and before they go to bed each night they will usually head to the computer to post on sports-related internet forums or to visit their favorite off-shore bookmaking service so they can place bets on the following day’s games. Fantasy sports are also exceedingly popular with these fanatics, and they will always find ways to squeeze in a few extra hours of computer time each week so they can keep track of how their imaginary teams are doing in the dozens of different fantasy leagues to which they belong.
What we have just described is excessive behavior of a very high order. And yet, incredibly, the word ‘addiction’ is almost never mentioned in connection with the extreme type of dedication to their hobby that spectator sports fanatics are known for. In fact, this obsessive behavior is considered to be completely normal and all in good fun by those who love sports so much that they can never get enough. Everyone recognizes that gambling on sports can become an addiction, and warnings are frequently issued about the dangers of betting on sports events. But somehow, sitting on your couch snacking on junk food for two dozen hours a week, watching people you don’t know competing in athletic contests held in distant locations while you cheer and yell and scream your head off as you pretend it all has something to do with you, is seen as a perfectly rational and reasonable thing to do by as many as 50 million members of the male population in the United States.
When people invest this kind of time playing video games or watching online porn, no one hesitates to label them addicts or obsessive-compulsives. But because spectator sport obsession is so ubiquitous-and not just in this country-it seems as if too many people are just too close to the situation to see things clearly.
The Anatomy of an Addiction
One of the defining characteristics of the sports fanatic is that he will tend to take the results of the games he watches very seriously, and when his team loses he will often be devastated, frustrated, and depressed for hours or even days afterward. It is obvious that most sports addicts (we will use this term for the moment, but of course it is not presently recognized as a clinical diagnosis) are not just watching games for entertainment purposes, but also because they are living vicariously through the achievements or failures of their favorite teams, and when their teams lose they react as if they were the ones who had suffered defeat. But when their teams win it is just the opposite, as the sports addict is filled with so much joy and satisfaction that it is unlikely any street drug would be potent enough to recreate the intensity of that feeling. And it is that amazing high, and the desire to experience it again and again, that keeps the sports addict coming back to his TV set looking for more, time and time again.
All of their obsessive behavior, and the emotions that sports fanatics experience in association with it, bear the classic hallmarks of addiction. What cinches the case for the reality of spectator sports addiction, however, is what happens to sports fanatics when they try to stay away from sports for awhile, maybe so they can spend the day with their children, or attend a big event like a wedding or a graduation. If there happens to be an “important” game taking place at this time-and for the true sports fanatic, there is almost always an important game going on somewhere-the fanatic will frequently sneak away to check the score and get updates, and until the game is over he will find it extremely difficult to concentrate on anything else. In some instances, the sports fanatic will go so far as to make an excuse to miss the important event or outing with the kids so he can stay home and watch the game instead. Behavior such as this occurs because for the sports addict, not knowing the scores of the games he cares about so deeply and so disproportionately causes him severe psychological and even physical discomfort, and the withdrawal symptoms he experiences are so strong that the thought of staying away from his games for an extended period of time is simply unthinkable.
Facing the Truth and Finding Relief
Whether or not sports addiction will ever gain official recognition as a real disorder is unknown. There are some psychologists who are starting to take the idea seriously, however, and they are warning sports fanatics that if they continue to allow sports to come first, before everything else, it could do real harm to the most important relationships in their lives. They recommend that those who are having trouble getting away from their television screens or computers because they just cannot stop obsessing over sports, should seriously consider seeking professional help-or at the very least, they should try to cut down on the amount of time they are devoting to sports, preferably in a gradual manner so the withdrawal symptoms don’t become unbearable.
There is something else that sports addicts could try that might really make a positive difference in their lives. Instead of just staying inside and watching sports all the time, they could start actually participating for a change. In virtually every American city and town that has a population of more than a few thousand, there are organized leagues available where men and women who want to get more exercise and experience the joy of competition can get together to play softball, basketball, volleyball, hockey, flag football, tennis, and a host of other sport and exercise-related activities.
Sports are actually quite wonderful for both the body and the soul, and sports addicts would undoubtedly be able to improve their lives substantially if they were to begin substituting healthy direct involvement in competitive endeavors for their obsession with spectator sports. This unfortunate addiction has only made them dependent on the success of others for their happiness, and has frequently left them mired in depression, frustration, and misery over something that in reality is entirely trivial.