Watching football is bad for your health

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Only those who always prefer sociological explanations to physical ones would be surprised by the rioting, looting and stabbing that tend to accompany the England football team - especially when abroad. References to "a small minority", "failures of policing", "poor organisation" do not begin to capture or explain the depth of commitment of so many males to football, and nor do labels such as "nationalism" or "xenophobia".

The reality is that, for the football-obsessed individual, the game as a universe (not just "his team") serves as a receptacle for vast amounts of physical, sexual and psychic energy. Its claims, in fact, are truly visceral. When fans say they are "gutted," that is exactly what they are expressing.

Part of football's fascination is everyone's desire to belong to a larger group, and to close off this group by having groups of "others" to oppose. One great advantage of football identity is that it is multi-layered: one's own local or city team, perhaps a regional one, and then the national team, are all complementary. A "dream" national side would contain several players from one's "own" team. At the same time, football fan-dom offers a double dose of belonging: identification with the team itself, and membership of the peer-group of fans when actually attending matches.

There is a major gender issue here, and a social one too - since working-class and lower-middle-class men are the most passionate football fans - although such passion is by no means confined to them. As anyone who has taught in school will recognise, identification with football for such males is total - and their feelings for

it are actually physical.

One of the most intriguing aspects is that this effect is being produced on spectators, not participants - or, rather, what occurs is a particular form of participatio n. We are not a nation of keen soccer players - except in imagination. It all turns on the nature of the identification.

It is now known that male spectators of football games experience testosterone and other physical effects similar to - though less in degree - than those of the players. Identification with a particular team, it would seem, is a way of achieving a particular kind of physiological stimulus, not an end in itself.

Boys between 11 and 13 whom I have taught in the past were genuinely anguished by England's last World Cup performance. They grieved as for a death in the family - as they are no doubt doing today following Tuesday's defeat by Argentina.

We all have mental and physical capacities that are not efficiently deployed; those for whom work is mentally and emotionally satisfying are the fortunate few; the rest must seek compensation in their own time and with their own resources. Entertainment thus becomes a special, protected, living space available to all consumers. Along with all other pastimes and diversions, from the contemplative to the visceral, entertainment can be analysed by the theory of games (not "game theory", which is quite different).

In a game, a stimulus causes the deployment of mental, emotional or physical resources, and it is the activity - specifically the neuro-chemical output consequent upon it - that generates the effect, and therefore the satisfaction experienced. Who can forget the rapturous absorption of playing marbles after primary school had finished for the day? A game of physical skill and complex rules: a true game.

Play deploys mental and physical powers manifested as effort (or energy), skill and imagination. Now this could just as well be a description of playing a game of chess or tennis, or the activities of skiing or swimming. Games and activities share the same sources of satisfaction: benign mental and physical challenges, inducing the deployment of mental, emotional and physical resources. Real satisfaction comes from what evolution prepared us to do: it's the doing that counts.

Most of our leisure pursuits can be placed on a continuum from the most to the least active - from playing sport or music, through chess and reading to merely viewing television. Physical exercise results in a "feel good" effect, which can be a powerful mood improver.

By contrast, when a worked-up fan is watching football on television, he merely floods his system with stress-inducing hormones and neuro-chemicals.The physiological effects are quite different from those of actually playing games or carrying out physical activities such as swimming.

For people whose lives are otherwise full and relatively satisfying - as are those of the lite consumers of art - a strongly physical relationship to football is neither required nor even wanted. For them, visceral release is either not a need, or they get it elsewhere, such as at the gym.

But watching team ball games is something else, as is plainly shown in the closing lines of William Harrison's story Roller Ball Murder, published in 1973: "A chorus of voices joins the band now as the music swells. 'The game, the game, all glory to it', the music rings and I can feel my lips move with the words, singing".

Dr Charles Maisels is a lecturer and author. His latest book is to be published by Routledge in the autumn

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