Mental health expert discusses 'cathartic release of tension' when rooting for Buffalo Bills

Jan 22, 2021

The Buffalo Bills fan base has developed a reputation of loyalty and generosity, even with the team losing for the good part of the past two decades. And excitement is the highest it has been in years heading into Sunday's AFC Championship game. Alan Pringle, a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Nottingham, has studied the impact European Football events have on a fan’s mental well-being. He spoke with WBFO’s Nick Lippa about his research and the similarities he sees between Scotland football fans and Bills Mafia.

  

Fans tailgating outside the 2019 Buffalo Bills home opener
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Nick Lippa: Can you tell me a little bit about your work in regards to sports and mental health?

Alan Pringle: My background is I've worked in mental health for 40 years and I was a clinician for many, many years working in Mansfield (England). Worked on a study surrounding, ‘Can watching football be a component of developing a state of mental health for men?’ For a lot of men, an awful lot of that was tied into masculinity.  And the meeting time was very alcohol fueled, right? Not a huge presence of drugs, you know, and the hub of the community was the miners social club. You drank there, your dad drank there, your uncle drank there, your cousins drank there. You met your good old friends there. So there was a very alcohol fueled social scene. And what that meant was that we were getting lots and lots of guys who were having serious depressive illnesses, serious anxiety disorders, and huge amounts of alcohol problems. And the genesis of a lot of this is the strangest thing. It was a local radio phone in. The Mansfield Town, they are a professional club and they've never really done well, they've never had the resources to match the big clubs, the glamour clubs. And they float between relegation and promotion. In the lower leagues. They've got a solid fan base, absolutely solid fan base. But it's fairly local. It's very contemptuous of big clubs. The idea that someone might travel from London to Manchester to watch Manchester United is treated with absolute contempt. If you live in Manchester, yeah, by all means, watch Manchester United, but you should support the local boys. You know, it's got a youth policy that brings local guys through, and they're treated as local heroes. 

You know, if you said to most people in England, have you ever heard of Mansfield Town? They’ll say I've heard of it. But if you said, can you find it on a map? I don't really think so. 

So we looked for one of these sort of quirky, you know, let's find the most eccentric man to define. And of course, let's get our mental health professionals in here to be part of this judging panel. But what struck me over two nights as we started taking phone calls-- we had the most senior churchmen in the town who will tell you he’s a season ticket holder. 

And then there'll be a 17 year old with no job. 

And then there would be a woman with two kids. 

And then there would be a 50 year old police officer. 

And all of these people are totally different. But the one thing that really united them was this football. And you got thinking, these guys were talking about (football) on a Tuesday night, right? Sub zero temperatures. The rain is lashing down. We're losing four to nil. 

What the hell am I doing here? What decision-- I must be mad to watch this slaughter. I must be mad. And you started thinking, actually no, maybe there's something of the absolute opposite over here. Because there must be something that's driving you to spend good money and stand in the rain, and expect defeat.
Mansfield will have one good season and then they'll have 7, 8, 9 seasons of mediocrity, then two or three that are off. And then one good season. So you're looking at a good season seriously once every 10 to 12 years. So for the most part, you're watching a mediocre or poor team, lose with alarming frequency and suffer the absolute disappointment that that brings. And you work hard for your money and you pay it to stand in the rain and watch rubbish. But when you started to dig into it, you started to find some really, really interesting things. And they kind of fell into three main themes. 

One was a sense of continuity and consistency. So we talked to an awful lot of fans. And they would say when I was a kid, my dad used to bring me here. And we’d stay in the same place. My seat is in the same place in the stadium. My grandad came here, my dad came here and I came here. And I bring my kids here. 

What it brought for these generations was two things. One was it cut across and it gave four generations a shared language. I don't think many grandparents will actually want to talk to the grandchildren about the likes of Super Mario Kart. And I don't think many grandchildren are that interested in listening to the grandad talk about something unrelatable.

But when fans got talking about matches that they'd seen and players that they'd had, there was suddenly a shared currency. And it was an equal currency. And suddenly, an 18 year old and a 69 year old could actually have a sensible, reasonable conversation that was actual dialogue. The real thing that impressed fans is how long you have been a season ticket holder.

I went along a lane one day, just out of curiosity. And randomly asked people their profession. I'm in the stadium and I'm just walking across a lane. And you got unemployed, police officers, lawyers, shop assistants. Sure enough, in the same geographical space. People who would never socially mix. Never. What was bounding them was this common currency. 

My favorite thing that came out of that was talking to someone who said to me, ‘When I was a kid, I was here, you know. And then when I was married, I used to come here. And when I got divorced, I came here. And when I got married again, I came here. I'm gonna get divorced again.’ 

And he says, ‘You know, this is the only thing that's actually constant in my life. Jobs come and go off and relationships come and go. I've had kids come and go. And the only thing that's actually consistent in my life, is this rubbish little mediocre club, with their little yellow shorts and little blue shorts. And their run of poor results. And it's a really consistent thing in my life.’

And it was the one place in the whole world, that he felt that he could be connected. Now, because he tends to sit in the same seat all his life, as many people do, he’s got older people around him who have sat with him a long time. 

So he tells me, ‘I've sat in the same section for all these years and I don't even know these people's names. But we sit and we chant. And we just chat rubbish about the game.’ 

And one of the things that was interesting, I started working with a bunch of lads who had had serious depressive illnesses, totally lost their confidence and couldn't get out. And they started to see that going to a match was one of the first places that they could get back out. Because nobody asked you how you were feeling. And nobody asked you if you were taking your tablets. And no one asks you for your symptoms. They asked you whether you thought that was offside. They asked you whether you thought this player was better than that player. You asked who you would bring on as a substitute. And they said, if you're just feeling your way back into society, that's the conversation you want. That's the kind of place that you can start to answer people back and get engaged and talk to people.

That was where the real mental health value was. That I could enter this place and feel this would be absolutely safe for me. And I didn't feel like a mental health patient. I didn't have people looking at me saying, you tied to kill yourself, when do we think you're gonna do it again? I wasn't being analyzed. I was just a football fan at a football game. And that was when I was safe. So that sense of continuity, that sense of safety was one of the themes that came through very, very strongly. 


Nick Lippa: Your research says by watching the games, even though they often lost, there was a cathartic release of tension. And you see comparisons between Bills fans’ attitude and Scotland’s European football clubs. The Bills have struggled for decades to beat the Patriots. Scotland does not fare well against England. But fans for both teams continually show support. And in the case of Bills Mafia, sometimes they raise money for charity. Through all that losing, what brings them back?

 

AP: There's two things that come from that, you know. One is there's comfort in it. Mansfield fans do not expect to win. Scotland fans don't expect to win, right. And it's interesting to talk about the (Bills) Mafia. Because in Scotland, the fans are called the Tartan Army, right?

For those who don’t know, the Tartan Army is known for a wide variety of things. Friendly behavior. Charitable work. Jeering at ‘God Save the Queen.’  

And there's an interesting belief in the Tartan Army and that belief is, we're not likely to win. But what we are going to do is we're going to come to your town, we're going to drink it dry. We're going to sing our songs, we're going to waver flanks, and you're going to love us. And we will be those brilliant, losing underdogs that you love and want to drink dry. And that was what the army did, you know? And obviously, Scotland had that target, the bagpipes and all the very big visual symbols. 

What was really interesting, I don't know how familiar with how bad England fans get along in Europe, France. We did a whole pile of interviews. And they were really revealing. So the Scotland’s fans mentality was we don't expect to win. But we expect to have fun. We expect to drink. We expect to just pass it on. And if we win, oh my God, it's a bonus. That was the mentality. So they expect it to be liked. 

England fans, they're going to expect to win, right? And then go to a bar or match. And if they enter with a mentality that said they Dutch don’t like us. The Italians... the Germans hate us. The French loathe us. So they would approach a match with a defensive mentality that said, these people don't like us. So they'd be sitting in a bar in France, they'd be sitting in a bar in Italy, waiting to be attacked. And as soon as there was any hostility, they would get frightened. So they would say, well, ‘We will get (into the stadium) first.’ 

And that was why, when you're looking at people that are getting arrested, these were people that had good jobs. These were not thugs, these were guys with professions. But the mentality was because they don't like us. So the mentality of the underdog was, in some ways, is a lot safer, because the mentality of the underdog is we don't expect to win. So we're gonna drink and have fun. We're gonna drink that whole table and you're gonna love us for it. And you're gonna love the fact that you can't keep us down. 

So as a kind of defensive mechanism, as that's the kind of thing that says, we expect nothing. So anything we get is a bit of a bonus. But there's also, at the very heart of it, and we see it in Mansfield fans and Scotland fans, is every new season there’s hope. Maybe this year. You know what, maybe we can write off the last 18 years (referring to Bills playoff drought). Maybe.