It’s harder to stay sane without sport

The author Hunter S Thompson shot himself in February 2005, four days after writing a note in black marker headed “Football Season Is Over” (he meant American gridiron football): “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring . . . ”

Now football season is over for everybody. Sports worldwide have stopped for the pandemic. That obviously isn’t the biggest mental-health risk around right now.

The French scholar Émile Durkheim showed in Suicide (1897) — one of the first serious sociological studies of almost anything — that when people experienced a sudden change in circumstances, some took their own lives.

He was thinking of changes such as divorce, a partner’s death or a financial crisis, but the current lockdown is a sudden change for everyone, bringing mass unemployment and unprecedented physical isolation.

Moreover, we’re now entering a lethal season: suicides in the northern hemisphere typically peak in May and June. The pausing of professional sports might seem an irrelevance in comparison. Yet it matters. Some sports fans have lost the only community they had. How will they cope?

For many, fandom is just an excuse to gather with others. Borja García of Loughborough University says that when his team of researchers asked supporters around Europe to document what football meant in their everyday lives, almost 90 per cent of the thousand photographs that people sent didn’t show any match action.

“Instead, we saw bus interiors on the way to an away game, minute preparations before taking a child to the stadium, pre-match excitement in the stands.”

Watching a game in the stadium, or on TV with friends, you can lose your individuality and merge into a group. It’s almost a pre-Enlightenment experience. “Anything that can take us away from a preoccupation with our pathetic selves is an emancipation,” says Chris Oakley, a London psychoanalyst who wrote Football Delirium.

He adds that when fans celebrate in the stands, they can shed restraints and enjoy a “manageable dose of madness”. Even defeat is an opportunity to share emotions with others.

In some families, the only tension-free topic of conversation is the team they all support. But the beauty of fandom, especially for certain men, is that conversation isn’t even required. You can just be together.

Shared fandom can connect the most incompatible people. One night during the presidential campaign of 1968, Thompson took a limousine journey through New Hampshire with the Republican candidate Richard Nixon, and they talked football nonstop in the backseat.

“It was a very weird trip,” Thompson reflected later, “probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done, and especially weird because both Nixon and I enjoyed it . . . Whatever else might be said about Nixon — and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human — he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every fact of pro football.”

Then there are the reassuring rituals of following your team from childhood to grave. “I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures,” wrote Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch. Everything else changes — people divorce, move away, grow old, die — but if you’re lucky, your team will always be there for you.

Fandom also enriches our lives with glimpses of greatness. The accessible genius of Roger Federer or Simone Biles shows us the best of what humans can do. It beats reading the daily mortality numbers.

There is statistical evidence of sport’s benefits to mental health. Thomas Joiner of Florida State University discovered that suicides in the US decline in towns where a local sports team reaches the playoffs, and drop nationwide on Super Bowl Sunday, probably because fans gain connection from watching together.

Stefan Szymanski and I showed a similar effect in European football in our book Soccernomics: suicides in a country decline when its national team plays in a World Cup or European Championship.

Almost all our communal habits, from religion to pub-going, had been waning for decades. Now coronavirus has all but erased them. No wonder people worldwide have immediately conceived a new communal ritual, the ovations for health workers. We probably do this more for ourselves than for them.

A few people are now going to bizarre lengths to hang on to sport. A man who has watched football in almost every country on earth recently sent Oakley a picture of himself sitting alone, wearing a mask, in the stands in Belarus, the only European country where the league continues.

Others have sustained their sporting communities in virtual form. Footballers at clubs such as Norwich City have been ringing around older supporters, to chat and see if anyone needs help.

Oakley reports heavy traffic on his WhatsApp groups of Spurs fans, most of whom proclaim themselves delighted that their team’s dreadful season is over for now.

Social media is usually cast as a problem. For sports fans — and others now seeking community — it can be the solution.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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