Just a sec, Honey; It’s fourth-and-goal: The ins and outs of football addiction

By Frederick G Grieve, Ph.D. & and Daniel L. Wann, Ph.D.
January 1, 2010



The bowl games are here – the college bowls and the Super Bowl. Since fall began a man’s fancy has turned to … football.

For many men each fall, Saturday is College Football Day and Sunday is for the National Football League (NFL). This means a day of sitting in front of the television and watching football from about noon until the wee evening hours, with little attention left over for anything else, including household chores, significant others and children.

Many people use the term “football addiction” to describe these behaviors. And while the term is not necessarily correct – at best it is a process addiction (an addiction to a process or behavior)—the set of behaviors is definitely problematic.

The behaviors associated with football addiction can negatively impact people’s functioning, including their social functioning. The problematic behaviors do not involve solely watching football. Included, too, are researching football information on the Internet (including, in the off-season, information about the NFL Draft), discussing football with colleagues and playing fantasy football. These behaviors, in isolation, are appropriate. However, it is when they are seen in excess that impairment occurs.

There is not a lot of information about football addiction. There is a dearth of systematic research studies on the topic, as a quick Google search will show. However, there is a lot of anecdotal information about those who exhibit the behaviors and their long-suffering spouses, often called “football widows.” It is in this area that football addiction has its biggest impact.

The spouses and significant others who do not enjoy football are left alone on weekends in the fall and often feel misunderstood and ignored. Anecdotally, football addiction has led to the demise of many a relationship (although it is important to note that many couples report that fandom is beneficial to their relationship). And, yes, it appears that football addiction is a predominantly male phenomenon.

One reason for the conflict between partners is that men and women tend to watch sports for different reasons. Women watch sports for its socialization benefits – they like to be around family and friends. Men watch sports as a means to an end. They are more likely than women to be affected by the outcome of the game – especially a game involving a team with which they are identified. Some argue that participating in and watching sports helps men maintain and reinforce their masculinity.

Since the research literature is sparse, we can only speculate on the characteristics of those with football addiction. It is likely that the man who watches football all weekend long considers himself to be a “big football fan.” He may also be highly involved with fantasy football, spending his leisure time not just as a fan but also as an amateur general manager and head coach. He is likely to identify with at least one of the teams he is watching but, more likely, being a football fan is part of his sense of self.

Because of this, interventions are going to be difficult, as the individual experiences the symptoms as egosyntonic. Further complicating things is that it is likely the football addict has been expressing these behaviors for a long time. The anecdotes describe “middle-aged men” who display these behaviors. Thus, it appears that the Saturday and Sunday behavior patterns are well ingrained.

Interventions that work with process addictions should be effective in reducing the problematic behaviors associated with football addiction. First, it is desirable to target a decrease in the amount of time watching television. This behavior is likely to be highly reinforcing for the person, so getting him to cut back will be difficult. Some argue that this reduction is best done “cold turkey,” or all at once. While such a tactic works for some men, it will not work for all. Successive approximations to the desired behavior or cutting back on the number of games watched, is likely to be the most effective strategy to use with most men.

Working on enhancing the relationship with the spouse is important. Since the behaviors have been extant for years, there may be a lot of past transgressions that need to be addressed. Teaching and using such techniques as compromise (each one gives a little) and quid-pro-quo (one gives one time and the other gives the next) can serve to strengthen the spousal relationship and help to increase the likelihood of behavior change.

Further, an exploration of masculinity, what it means to be a man and how masculinity can be expressed could also help to ameliorate some of these behaviors. Such a discussion would, let’s hope, allow these men to recognize the maladaptive nature of their behaviors and select other behaviors to substitute that would not lead to a decrease in perceived masculinity.

Another intervention that could be useful is to encourage the adoption of behaviors that are incompatible with watching television. These could include such things as spending time outside, exercise, playing with children and watching movies.

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Frederick G. Grieve, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University (WKU). He is a clinical psychologist by training and coordinates the clinical psychology master’s program at WKU. Grieve can be reached by e-mail at: rick.grieve@wku.edu

Daniel L. Wann, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Murray State University. He is a social psychologist by training, is the foremost authority on sport fans in the United States and consults regularly with professional and collegiate bodies about sport fans. The two have co-authored more than 15 articles on sport fandom. Wann can be reached at: dan.wann@murraystate.edu.

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