escape-1-1285565-sPreviously, we resumed our discussion about why people watch sports and explained its simple entertainment value. This week we look at another factor listed as one among many in the psychology literature, yet seems quite common among well-known writers.

Sports on Earth writer and Deadspin founder Will Leitch has summarized sports’ value in various contexts. For example, in explaining the mistake Lebron James made the night of his big Decision, Leitch provided an introduction as to what sports fandom is all about:

“Loving sports, by definition, requires a certain suspension of disbelief and logic. We are all pouring our hearts and souls into cheering for men (and women) who do not care about us, who are not like us, who are not the type of people we would ever associate with (or even meet) in real life. We deify them because it is hard to find people to deify in the real world: Sports spans every age group, ethnic group, political persuasion, and all else that serves to divide us, separate us. We cheer for athletes because sports does not matter, not really. We cheer because sports is, ultimately, harmless.”

A belief Leitch obviously subscribes to, he ends one of his books by concluding:

“It’s a fundamental concept. Sports do not matter. The average fan understands this…and that is why we put sports in the proper place: as something we partake in and enjoy because we want to escape from our jobs, our bills, our responsibilities, our lives….”

The idea sounds so on target it should hardly come as a surprise that others have made the same suggestion. In his first book, Why My Wife Thinks I’m an Idiot: The Life and Times of a Sportscaster Dad, ESPN radio host Mike Greenberg begins his quasi-autobiography by explaining how he entered sports journalism. He describes the beauty of sports in one word, “impermanence,” comparing it to “war without all the dying.”

“Imagine,” he adds, “how intriguing war would be as a spectator sport if, when it was over, everyone shook hands and showered together.” Greenberg recalls a story in which he was asked to interview the family of a teenager who died tragically but was unable to do so. It was then that he realized the beauty of sports:

“There is nothing in the world better than investing everything into something that means absolutely nothing.”

In his most recent book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: A History of Triumph, Mostly Defeat, and Incurable Hope at Wrigley Field, Pulitzer Prize winning George Will shares his co-workers’ sentiment when trying to understand the significance of Wrigley Field, ultimately nothing more a baseball stadium:

“But, in spite of the unending attempts of metaphysicians in the bleachers and press boxes to make sports more than it is, the real appeal of it for spectators is that sports enables us, for a few hours, to step out of the river of time and into a pastime.”

So it seems the writers agree that sports help the fans escape an occasionally unpleasant reality. What does the research suggest about their theory?

Sports fan psychology expert Daniel Wann, among others, confirmed that fans “who are disgruntled by their home life, work, college experience, and so on are able to temporarily forget their troubles through sports fandom.” Interestingly, researchers found two opposite forms of escape provided by sports viewing:

  1. Overstimulation – As a result of too much stress in life, whether global or personal, sports provide a healthy distraction.
  2. Understimulation – Many workers also report that their lives are so tedious and boring that the thrill of sports becomes a healthy escape.

Wann found that more people fall into the former group than the latter, but both are common. For example, you may “escape” to a bar to watch a game after a busy week at the office and find yourself next to someone whose desk job is so dull, he needed to “escape” and watch the game with peers.

The last few months have been the busiest sports months of the year. Baseball season has passed its first checkpoint (Memorial Day), the NFL had its draft, the NBA and NHL playoffs have been very entertaining, and even boxing and horse racing have had their moments this spring.

If you find yourself feeling stressed or bored in your everyday life, why not turn on the television and tune in to some of the action and “escape” a little. Win or lose, it’s fun to “get out.”