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What it means for sports fans' mental health when their team loses


All right, Cincinnati Bengals fans. I am sorry. I know you are licking your wounds today after a really painful loss to our Los Angeles Rams in last night's Super Bowl. But please take heart in the fact that every sports fan out there can relate to the gut punch of losing a big game.

ANDRE CHASE: I'm watching the game in my mom and stepdad's living room. And I almost put my left hand through a wall.

TYLER JACKSON: And my kids came into the room, and I was like, you got to go away, please. Just give me five minutes alone (laughter).

MEREDITH SAUNDERS: I was heartbroken, devastated. It's been eight years, and I still don't like thinking about it.

GREG MILLER: And I'm just catatonic. And my wife is looking at me, and she's concerned because she's like, I've never seen him like this.

CHANG: That was Andre Chase (ph) in Waukee, Iowa, Tyler Jackson (ph) in Raleigh, N.C., Meredith Saunders (ph) in Lake City, Fla., and Greg Miller in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Now, Miller may live on the East Coast right now, but he grew up in San Francisco, so he's been a 49ers fan his entire life.

MILLER: And throughout my childhood, the Niners were a great football team. They'd gone to Super Bowls. They'd won Super Bowls.

CHANG: But as an adult, Miller has seen his team limp through a lot of painful losses. And that is why he was ecstatic in 2013 when the Niners were headed to New Orleans to play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.

MILLER: And I had gone up to New York to a San Francisco 49ers establishment where it was just all Niners fans, and we are super pumped. We're excited.

CHANG: And then...

MILLER: The first half, they get blown out. They're losing by at least 20 points, and it's just bad. And that was the year that they had the blackout at halftime.

CHANG: He is referring to what happened after Beyonce's electrifying halftime performance, when the power for half of the stadium went out for 34 minutes. And Miller thought...

MILLER: Maybe this is an act from God that they needed this time to clear their head and get back into the game. And they fight and they scrap and they come all the way back. And we're super excited and fourth down in the red zone.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: One hundred fifty to play and fourth and goal. Kaepernick lofts it in the air - no flag, incomplete.

CHANG: Incomplete.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Super Bowl belongs to Baltimore.

CHANG: Ravens won.

MILLER: And I'm in this room of just despondent Niners fans, and I'm in shock. And my wife and I leave and we go to a restaurant where I'm eating, like, the world's saddest hoagie sandwich at 11:30 at night.

CHANG: Miller says his wife was genuinely worried and asked him, are you OK?

MILLER: And I'm like, no, I don't think I'm OK. I think I'm legitimately hurt and upset by this.

CHANG: He says the Niners' loss hurt for a few days, and then when they got some distance from it, he started to gain some perspective. Well, that perspective has now helped others because Greg Miller is a licensed therapist who has worked specifically with people struggling to manage these emotions after watching their sports teams lose. Sometimes they even exhibit signs of depression, which is what I spoke to Miller about.

MILLER: Well, I think we have to kind of add a little bit to the depression piece and start just on a concept of grief. So just breaking that down, it's just the feelings of complication that come from when something is lost or you lose something. Now, that could be a relationship. It could be a job. It could be a loved one. Or in this particular case, it's the investment in a sports season or in a team that was meaningful to you.

So in this particular sense, it's more grief to begin with and what we would call acute grief, which is that initial intense feeling after a loss takes place. So that's when you get that kind of crying, like, anger, frustration, disappointment, all those really complex feelings that we don't like talking about and we don't like admitting, especially when it comes to sports.

Once we get into extended periods of time where it starts to impact daily functioning, whether that's our ability to work, our ability to eat or sleep, that's when we might be starting to get into some of the depressive symptoms or complicated grief that comes with a loss or a relationship that can impact our overall daily functioning.

CHANG: You know, I'm thinking about teams that are historically not very good, like a team that chronically loses. Could being a fan of a team like that cause even more severe consequences for someone's mental health?

MILLER: So let's take the NFL because that's a topic that we have in hand. So we look at some of the franchises, you know, the Detroit Lions, and I know your producer, Jason, is a Detroit fan, so I want to be polite when I talk about this.

Their last NFL championship was 1957. So they've never been to a Super Bowl. They've been to the playoffs a handful of times. They've had some of the really, truly great players in NFL history - Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson - and have not been able to even come close.

And I think that does wear over time where you kind of start to wear it, A, like a badge of honor like the Chicago Cubs used to. But I do think that it starts to become kind of identity based, and you start to realize, like, we're never going to win. I root for this team that never wins. And we're just going to own it.

Now, if you own it healthy and you're like, ah, ha, joke's on me, we're not good or you own in an unhealthy way where it's like, I'm just constantly sullen and disappointed and frustrated, and I'm passing it down to my children who are passing it down to their children. And now it's a generational issue.

CHANG: How about betting? Like, how does betting complicate all of this when money gets involved? Because sports betting, you know, it's legal in, like, half the country right now after the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports betting. I imagine having money on the line can make the mental health piece of this potentially worse.

MILLER: So if you think about sports fan depression or grief on its face, you root for a team, you're invested, you spend 3 to 6 months rooting for them, and at the end of the day, they don't win. There's an emotional investment. There's a psychological investment. But the physical investment outside of your time is fairly minimal, and ultimately, you'll be able to walk away from it fairly scot-free.

When you're talking about the financial investment - and this is twofold - so first off, with gambling and betting on games, you can get into 5,000, 10,000 50,000, $100,000 holes. And now there's not just emotional and psychological consequences. There's physical and financial ones, too. So now it's having real-life consequences that now we can actually start looking into clinical areas of depression, of anxiety, of bereavement, of all kinds of other problematic mental health issues. The financial piece exponentially makes this problem worse.

CHANG: OK. So then what's the solution here? After someone has concluded that they are indeed experiencing sports fan depression, how does that person regain some balance in their perspective? What do they do with their consumption of sports?

MILLER: I would say taking a step away from it and going to do literally anything else, anything else, taking some time to find something else that you enjoy, whether that's music or television show, movie or some other type of pop culture or just kind of unplugging from the football or sport experience to give yourself a little bit of emotional distance where you can kind of clear your head, where you're able to separate yourself, distance yourself emotionally from what's taken place so you can be a little bit more reasonable and a little bit more understanding of, yeah, that loss was hard. I had a difficult time watching it take place. And I am putting myself on a path to move forward by taking time for myself.

CHANG: Greg Miller is a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MILLER: Perfect. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.