In tough times, try fun and games

Newsday – John Jeansonne – Just what we need: Permission to burrow even farther into a fantasyland of fun and games while the real world falls apart. Wars are raging, chislers and swindlers are roaming the earth, providing an extra kick in the pants to the honest thousands losing their jobs to a squeamish economy, yet the message from John Murray is to stop worrying and take in a ball game.

Murray, the Florida-based psychologist who has dealt with all professional sports and the elite athletes who people them, offers five activities to cope with the stress pounding John Q. Citizen these dark days: Read, attend a workshop, join a group, visit a museum or …

“Become an even more frivolous sports fan.”

This is opposite — “and more positive,” Murray said — than the reaction being voiced by those fans suggesting that the entire professional sports enterprise, with its enormous player salaries and free-spending teams, deserves to go belly up.

“That’s like, ‘I’m suffering so you should be, too,’ ” Murray said. “That’s jealousy. That’s envy, and envy is one of the seven sins. I don’t want to get too religious here, but if you experience envy, you not only lust after what somebody else has, but wish they didn’t have it, either. We know that’s not good.”

Better — and healthier, he added — to take the escape route. “What we experience vicariously as a fan can be even more prominent in times of stress,” he said. “We need to balance the amount of economic stress we’re feeling, and what’s more distracting, in a positive way, than painting our face and acting like an idiot for a few hours?”

It is the latest lesson in the study of sports anthropology — “Proof,” Murray said, “how important a role sports plays in our society.” It reflects an observation in Tuesday’s Columbia Journalism Review essay by Gary Andrew Poole, considering the disappearance of good sports writing in an age of blogs and BlackBerry posts, that to “go to any major sporting event and you’ll see that the importance of sports to our culture is obvious; they are part of people’s dreams, of how they define themselves.”

Poole argued against “those who think the mission [of sports sections] is more fun than consequential.”

Murray, when he attended last weekend’s Miami Dolphins playoff game, found the crowds larger than usual, though Florida is among the states suffering the most in the economic downturn. “Everybody is broke and shops are closing up,” Murray said, “But people still spend money on alcohol and cigarettes. They’ll keep paying the Direct TV bills to get the next games.

“When you’re struggling, when you’re lacking something, this fills that gap. When reality sucks, fantasy becomes more important. It’s one form of denial, or escape, but a positive escape, as long as you don’t gamble away the money you do have on it.”

History shows that the sports and entertainment industries fare inordinately well in dire economic times. Beyond the anesthesizing effect of fandom, blotting out their own real-world discomfort, fans are able to accept the outrageous salaries paid star athletes, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist recently noted, because it “makes superheroes a little more superhuman. That’s part of the allure of sports.”

So stop worrying and take in a ball game. Murray’s attitude is: “There always will be some people who have money to purchase things, like a ball team, even when the rest are suffering. If they’re doing it for my pleasure, great.”

Get in touch with your inner frivolity.