Breaking My Addiction To Sports

When I moved to California from Australia in May of 1977, I was 11. Over the next year, a major way I assimilated to American culture was by learning its sports. They were a narcotic that soothed my loneliness over the next seven years. Much of that time, I dreamed about becoming a sportswriter or sportscaster when I grew up.

After I graduated from high school in June of 1984, I moved back to Australia for a year to live with my brother. It was hard to stay in touch with the fortunes of my favorite American sports teams (particularly the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Dodgers). The Australian national newspaper had a weekly column on American football and through it I learned that the Dallas Cowboys had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1974. In October of 1984, I didn’t see a minute of the World Series. In January of 1985, I didn’t get to watch the Super Bowl live. I had to wait for a week for a friend to mail me a videotape of the blow-out 49er victory.

I returned to California in June of 1985 and worked that summer in the newsroom of KAHI/KHYL radio where I covered sports along with the rest of the news. My favorite baseball team, the Dodgers, lost in the NLCS to the Cardinals setting up a World Series of Kansas City vs St. Louis.

As I started watching this series, I realized I just didn’t care who won. I had no feelings about these two teams. They bored me. It was the first time I checked out of a World Series in years and I realized at the time it was a symptom that I no longer cared so much about sports. I was growing up. I was creating a great life. I had adult things to accomplish.

The San Francisco 49ers trained at Sierra Community College, which I attended from September of 1985 until August of 1988. During the summers of 1985, 1986, and 1987, I went to the 49er training camp regularly to report for KAHI radio. I even covered two of their games at Candlestick Park during the 1985 season (a loss to New Orleans and a win over the Dallas Cowboys).

The Cowboys were my favorite team, so it was a thrill to go into their locker room after their defeat and see Tom Landry, Randy White and others stars of my childhood.

Landry was standing outside the locker room when I stopped by and he was talking about Skip Bayless. He said he hadn’t spoken to Skip in years. He was so close I could touch him.

By covering the Cowboys professionally, I felt like I had squared a circle. I was no longer just a fan. I was a big boy.

When you take a hobby and turn it into a job, something changes inside. When I covered professional sports, I quickly stopped being a fan. There’s no cheering in the press box. It was easy for me to turn off my feelings, step into the objective reporter mode and to talk dispassionately on the air about the San Francisco teams of primary interest to my radio listeners.

My favorite local sports columnist was Lowell Cohn and I often saw him at the 49ers training camp and at Candlestick park. I never spoke to him. He intimidated me.

In 1986, I decided to become an economist. My life was full. I didn’t need sports to distract me from my miserable life because I was no longer miserable. I didn’t loathe myself anymore. I liked where I was going with my life. I had big plans. Things were finally on track. The Dallas Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs for the next few years and that had almost no effect on my happiness.

I moved to Los Angeles in August of 1988 to go to UCLA to major in Economics. A friend took me to Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Sept. 10 to watch UCLA’s shocking 41-28 defeat of Nebraska behind the accurate passing of quarterback Troy Aikman.

One time during the following school year, somebody told me I looked like Troy Aikman. I never forgot that. I’ve repeated it to dozens of people. They often say I look more like Brad Pitt or Bill Clinton.

I shared a mail box at the Rieber Hall dorm with somebody subscribed to Sports Illustrated magazine and when it had a cover story on the new Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, I borrowed it without permission and read it avidly before returning. The Cowboys then drafted Aikman as the number one pick in the draft.

I was a Dodgers fan and the Dodgers were doing well that fall of 1988 and I enjoyed reading about them in the newspaper but I rarely, if ever, listened to their games. I was focused on getting ahead with my life.

I didn’t have a TV in my room at UCLA and in that fall, I didn’t seek one out to watch the Dodger games. I was sitting in my room studying on the Saturday night that began the World Series. Suddenly there was a loud roar all around me, unlike anything I’ve heard before or since. It was a reaction to Kirk Gibson hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth to give the Dodgers an unexpected victory.

I don’t think I saw a minute live of that World Series.

Look at the LA smog at the beginning of this 1988 Game One of the World Series video. It was so bad some days that it would hurt to breathe when I played basketball. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since.

I was thrilled to be living on my own in Los Angeles — home of the world’s most beautiful women — and a little smog didn’t bother me.

In February of 1988, I came down with an illness that felt like mono, only it didn’t go away. In the Spring of 1989, I got the diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I realized I might be sick for a long time. I was now willing to distract myself with sports once again, and I’d wander into a dorm mate’s room to watch March Madness college basketball.

Andrew Gaze, an Australian, led Seton Hall into a thrilling overtime loss to Michigan in the NCAA championship.

I didn’t pay much attention to sports until January 6, 1992, when I shuffled to the mail box and opened up my neighbor’s newspaper and saw that the Dallas Cowboys had lost to the Detroit Lions in the playoffs. I had no idea the Cowboys were back in the playoffs.

I kept track of the Cowboys the next season but never watched a game until the NFC championship versus San Francisco, when I called my former classmate Kevin McKee and asked if I could come over like I had years before and watch the game with him and his dad.

I think that was the last time I saw them.

I watched the Cowboys Super Bowl victory on my own. I had this vague sense that my life was turning around like the fortunes of my favorite football team. Over the next few months, I’d have a few girlfriends, begin a partial recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and move to Orlando and finally Los Angeles in March of 1994.

I’ve never fully gotten over CFS so I’ve had to live more gently over the past 20 years than I’d like. One of the ways I take it easy on myself is to watch some sports. I only follow football avidly to make sure I don’t waste too much time. I also give myself permission to watch as much sports as I like as long as I have the sound turned off so I can listen to a lecture or a Dennis Prager radio show or a book on CD at the same time so I’m not wasting my life.

Sports no longer occupies the same role in my life that it did from 1977-1984, but my happiness is affected by the fortunes of the Dallas Cowboys. I remember in the fall of 2007 telling a friend that nothing was going right in my life then except the Cowboys (who went 13-3 before losing in the division round of the playoffs to New York).

I don’t feel the same control over my life I had in 1985-1987 when I felt like I could do anything. I’m not as strong and as a result I can’t be quite as driven and focused and aggressive and ambitious. I have to take it easier than I like and with my failures to bond normally to others, I still spend too much time with sports. It’s a symptom of my attachment disorder.

In 2008, I interviewed by phone my childhood hero Lowell Cohn, the sports columnist.

I’ve never touched illegal drugs nor had more than a few mouthfuls of beer and wine, but over the past year, I’ve received great benefit from listening to 12-step lectures for drug and alcohol addicts. I feel like I have a similar hole in my soul.

I was just reading the 2011 biography of the late sportscaster Howard Cosell and it remarks that sports is a narcotic.

Hmm, that hit me hard. I’m a big sports fan. I’ve also noticed that the more devoted the sports fan, the more likely that he’s unhappy.

So that has started me thinking, what have been my favorite escapes from reality? What have been my favorite drugs? And can I rank them in terms of time I’ve expended?

Here goes:

* Following sports got me excited. I wasn’t happy with the life I had, so I shucked it off and dissolved myself into the identity of my favorite teams, which I selected largely on the basis of their winning ways.

* When I moved away from my parents in January of 1980 to stay with friends of the family so I could finish eighth grade at Pacific Union College Elementary School, I started listening to pop music on KNBR and KFRC every night. Listening to pop music was a sin in my home, but out on my own, I had more freedom. I quickly found out that pop music articulated everything I was feeling and it has been my major source of solace over the years.

* I was an unhappy kid. I didn’t have many friends, so I read a lot of books. They stimulated my imagination. I developed the skill of sitting in a chair and telling myself thrilling stories of battles and explorations where I was the hero. I could bliss out within seconds and stay distracted for hours. As I grew older, my fantasies of grandiosity traded time with romantic and sexual obsessions.

* In eighth grade, I became good friends with my classmate Andy, who who was bigger and stronger than me and he ate an enormous amount of food. I tried to keep up with him and got into the habit of stuffing myself. I got attention for the amount of food I could put away. I liked that and I liked how a full stomach took away my anxieties. I still struggle with over-eating.

* At age 12, I took up long distance running (I started running a couple of miles every day in fifth grade), logging more than 30 miles a week. I finished five marathons. I found that when I physically exhausted myself, my anxieties went away. Exercise was a great distraction from my failure to connect normally with others.

* Attention-seeking aka chasing distinctions. I entered school in second grade and my smart mouth didn’t make me many friends. When I came to America in sixth grade, I used bizarre tricks to get attention such as eating insects and stuffing eight bananas in my mouth at once. I’d also try to stir up debates in class and rip loud farts. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this one question running through my mind — “How can I get the most attention?”

* My anxiety goes away when I can throw myself into my work, particularly if I enjoy it and I am good at it and I’m around people I like and I get recognition for my efforts. From age 19-21, I spent many weeks working over 60 hours.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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