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Can Baseball Become an Addiction?

Experts explore the fine line between being a dedicated sports fan and addictive behavior.

Attributes of a Sports Addiction continued...

Why do people become so obsessed with baseball?

Wann says the explanation lies in two fundamental human traits. We like to belong to a group with common interests, which baseball certainly provides. "Over 90% of fans attend sporting events in a group," Wann says.

Also, sports provide an opportunity for fans to succeed vicariously on the big stage of sports.

"You may not be able to throw the game-winning touchdown pass or hit a game-winning home run yourself," Wann notes, "but you can identify with those who do."

Kevin Quirk agrees, but while writing Not Now Honey, I'm Watching the Game, a book about obsessed sports fans, he identifies another reason.

"Following sports is also a nice way to hide from feelings we don't want to confront about our own lives," he says. "Our job, relationships, financial problems -- when we tune in to games and discuss our team with others, that's all time we don't have to spend on those problems in our lives that are mundane, difficult, hard to change. Unfortunately, sports can work as a convenient hiding place."

Avoidance of Pain

The need to hide from painful feelings is a familiar aspect of addiction, according to Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion. In her book she explains how certain chemicals, when they act on the brain, produce pleasurable feelings. It makes no difference whether those chemicals are ingested, like heroin or cocaine, or produced spontaneously by the brain in response to enjoyable activities such as sex, eating, or being with friends. They will make a person feel good. People who become addicted to those good feelings, however, are usually trying to escape painful feelings as well.

"Behavior becomes addictive because it releases pleasure chemicals in the brain, so in the beginning it's about pleasure," says Pert, "but as time progresses it's about the avoidance of pain. It becomes less about getting pleasure and more about avoiding pain. People who really become addicts have some core traumas."

Fever Pitch, for example, is based on a memoir by novelist Nick Hornby, an obsessive soccer enthusiast who became hooked at the age of 11 after his parents separated. When his father took him to a soccer match, the young Hornby became so infatuated with the game that everything else in life -- school, chums, even girlfriends -- receded into the background. Part of the reason, he concludes, was the connection the game provided with his father.

"Football may have provided us with a new medium through which we could communicate," Hornby writes in the memoir, "but that was not to say that we used it, or what we chose to say was necessarily positive."

Recovering From Addiction

Recovery from any addiction, including extreme enthusiasm for sports, requires withdrawal from the addictive substance or behavior. But for many who live and breathe baseball, that's not easy, especially during the playoffs and the World Series. They tend to deny that they have a problem, and even if they suspect they are taking their enthusiasm too far, they are constantly tempted by unlimited sports offerings on cable TV and the Internet.

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