The Nation's Pulse

The Cult of (Watching) Sports

Is our sports-watching obsession killing us?

By 12.14.11

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It is often said that Americans are "sports-obsessed." But while we obsessively watch, follow and bet on sports, seldom do we actually play them.

Commercials during football games underscore how sports dominates the lives of many Americans. A beer commercial asks "Do you know what love is?" and shows the lengths to which some NFL fans will go to prove their allegiance to a team. For example, a Pittsburgh Steeler fan proudly displays the numerals of all six Steeler Super Bowl wins tattooed down his shoulder and arm.

A Visa Card commercial features Larry, a member of the Never-Miss-A-Super-Bowl-Club. "I have missed weddings. I have missed babies being born. But I have no intention of missing a Super Bowl," Larry says. Then, with an earnestness I'll bet his family appreciates, he adds, "ever."

Don, another member of the club, says, "Super Bowl III, that was like one of my children being born."

The commercial urges viewers to use their Visa Card to become eligible to win a free trip to the Super Bowl "every year for the rest of your life." That's right—spend enough on credit and you too can become just like Larry and Don and make watching other people play games the center of your life.

These commercials work because there's a lot of truth in them. Millions of Americans would enjoy attending the Super Bowl every year. Many of us know people who can't make it through a romantic dinner with their significant other without obsessively checking their smart phone to get the latest update on their team's performance, as seen in a current AT&T commercial.

The lives of millions of American men revolve primarily around sports. These are guys who spend large chunks of their weekends on the couch -- often in their "man caves" -- watching sports; guys whose most anticipated day of the year is their fantasy football league draft day; guys whose most emotional and passionate moments are brought on by the ups and downs of their favorite teams.

Ask these guys which teams should play in the BCS National Championship game, and they'll have a ready opinion, and probably a fairly well-informed one. Ask them about the latest political debate or about anything going on in the rest of the world and they'll respond with a blank stare.

Most of these guys aren't athletes themselves -- at least anymore. They live vicariously through their heroes and their teams.

Football is by far America's most popular spectator sport. Of the 45 most-watched network TV broadcasts of all time, 21 are Super Bowls. According to the National Football League (NFL), a record 22 games attracted at least 20 million TV viewers through the first 11 weeks of this season.

In 2002, the NFL found that the average male surveyed spent nearly seven hours a week watching its product. Those numbers have no doubt grown over the last decade with the advent of huge flat screen and high-definition TVs, the Red Zone channel, and as fantasy football has become more popular.

An estimated one in five American males plays fantasy sports, a billion-dollar industry. A 2010 ESPN poll found that half of American adults have placed a bet on sports in the past year.

Sports have become the centerpiece of our holidays. Baseball is traditionally a part of Independence Day celebrations. Thanksgiving is as much about watching the NFL as it is about turkey or giving thanks. And it was reported that the NBA rushed to reach a labor agreement so as to be able to broadcast games on its most lucrative day, Christmas Day.

But as more Americans follow more sports more often and in more ways, it seems fewer are actually participating in them.

Sure, most parents get their kids involved in sports, and many teenagers and college students play. But at some point after college, most people stop playing.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to curtail sports participation, including work and family obligations. But though they stop playing sports, many men continue to spend lots of time watching and following them.

Everyone knows the effect inactivity has our health. Numerous studies have found a link between TV watching and poor health.

Studies routinely find that most Americans get less than the minimum recommended level of physical activity, about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a day. In fact, according to the CDC, only about one-third (35 percent) of American adults engage in regular physical activity. About the same share, 33 percent, do no activity at all.

Our inactivity helps explain why two-thirds of American adults are classified as at least overweight, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And why there's been a "dramatic increase" in overweight and obesity rates over the last two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010 "no state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%," according to the CDC.

Inactivity is associated with a host of other maladies, including heart disease, diabetes, depression and hypertension. Every year in the U.S. at least 250,000 deaths are attributed to a lack of physical activity.

So is our love of sports killing us? Let's just say that when millions of Americans are spending most of their weekends watching sports and filling out their fantasy football lineups, there's a lot less time for exercise.

Health is not the only casualty. We chuckle at women whose sports-crazed husbands have made them "sports widows." But a clinical psychologist from the University of Alabama recently warned that football fanaticism qualifies as an addiction that can have profound effects on our relationships.

Other psychologists have discussed how sports have become a substitute to organized religion.

And our sports obsessions can distract us from more serious matters.

As former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith has written, "If people would spend as much time investigating and looking at our government or some of the decisions that are made in this country as they do memorizing stats of players, then we'd have a better understanding of the world and would be capable of making better decisions."

I'm no sports hater. Growing up, I spent countless hours every day watching, playing and following sports. I played high school sports and was a scholarship athlete in college. I put in thousands of hours in Tecmo Bowl and Madden Football. I'm a proud two-time winner of the fantasy football league I used to play in.

Now in my 30s, I continue to play sports several times a week, and I still enjoy taking in a good game. But the degree to which watching sports dominate the lives of many American men is, in a word, pathetic.

Sports have much to offer. They can promote teamwork, sportsmanship and good health and instill discipline and humility. But most of these benefits are derived not from watching, betting on, or fantasizing about sports. They come from actually playing them.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.