Soccer and suicide

Early this week, I was giving my final lecture in a class I teach that centers on the intersection of soccer and culture.  I happened to be giving a talk on the second half of Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics on the day after Nashville SC’s heartbreaking, gut wrenching loss to the Union.

What a difficult lecture this proved to be.

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Here I was, attempting to push students to distance themselves from “feelings” or “emotions,” to move away from clichés and commonalities, and toward the use of data and rationality in thinking about soccer, while my heart was absolutely broken. There was absolutely no distance between me and my emotions when it came to reflecting on that game.

Looking through Twitter and Facebook, you could see a lot of the same emotional dynamics being played out in the community. There were posts that illustrated the emotions of fans who had lost control of their thinking after the crushing lost (e.g., “This team is terrible; they’ve never practiced penalties;” “Anyone could do better than this”) to people attempting to stay calm and move on to the next season (e.g., “It was a fine year;” “Things happen;” “I’m looking forward to May”). 

While my public persona is always a (sometimes failed) attempt to be more of the latter (I’ve been called a dispassionate fan more than once), my internal disposition is always a wreck (I lost a lot of sleep last Sunday night due both to NSC’s loss and Chelsea’s inability to win). 

As frustrated as I get with all of the hand wringing and the overly negative accusations directed toward the team by some, I’ve really come to settle with the idea that the overall negativity of emotion that often comes with loss—especially a loss as brutal as this was—is a sign of a deeper benefit that we often don’t recognize.

Indeed, one of the arguments Kuper and Szymanski make is that, while we sometimes hear of cases of a person resorting to self-harm or violence as a result of a sports team loss, the opposite is actually true when we move to a meta, cultural, level. That is, when a community (a nation, a city, any self-defined community) is involved in a major victory OR loss (e.g. winning or losing a World Cup, the death of a President, an attack on home soil), the number of suicides and cases of depression actually goes down. 

What accounts for this? In a word, community. 

That is, regardless of our outward reaction, whether it be anger, pity, sorrow, laughter, or joy, we are sharing our emotions with others in the same community. Regardless of how much we disagree with how others are expressing their feelings, regardless of how different or similar they are, the victory or loss encourages a sense of discussion and contact amongst friends, in real life and online.

And those interactions, even if they can sometimes not be to our liking, are evidently (the data shows!) an overall positive for the mental and psychological well-being of the community as a whole.

As evidence, they take a look at the suicide rates in twelve different European countries with a heavy soccer focus and noted that, in years when those countries played in international tournaments (World Cup, Euros), the suicide rate dropped—in a statistically significant way—in 10 of the 12 countries for the entire year. 

Winning or losing is irrelevant. Even when a team loses, supporters bond.

Maybe I’m just looking for something to paper over the cracks in my emotions that this loss has caused. Maybe, just maybe, I’m looking for some way to make sense of what at the time seemed inexplicable (how does a team this good seem to have a meltdown during PKs?). 

Maybe I am, but as Kuper and Szymanski remind us: just because that’s what I’m looking for doesn’t mean it’s not true.  And the data makes a case for it.  And I’m just going to take comfort in it.

Regardless of the loss, regardless of how much I toss and turn in bed as a result, the community upon which these emotions are based is ultimately a positive in my life, and in yours, even when we can’t directly feel it.

I take comfort in that, amidst all the pain.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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