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Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide note was revealed last month. Four days before shooting himself in February, the great man had written in black marker, under the title “Football Season Is Over”: No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring….

And so on. The invocation of football befitted a man who – like Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner and other great American writers – was a sports journalist. In fact, Thompson’s final article described a sport of his own invention called Shotgun Golf. “The purpose of the game,”he explained, “is to shoot your opponent’s high-flying golf ball out of the air with a finely-tuned 12-gauge shotgun.”

Thompson’s sporting pinnacle was probably his limousine journey through New Hampshire with Richard Nixon one night during the presidential campaign of 1968. The two men talked football nonstop in the back seat. “It was a very weird trip,” Hunter later admitted, “probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done, and especially weird because both Nixon and I enjoyed it.”

The reminiscence, in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, segues into an ominous musing on suicide, as a Nixon aide snatches away the cigarette Thompson is smoking over the fuel tank of Nixon’s plane. “You people are lucky I’m a sane, responsible journalist,” Thompson tells the aide. “Otherwise I might have hurled my flaming Zippo into the fuel tank.”

“Not you,” the aide replies. “You wouldn’t do anything you couldn’t live to write about, would you?”

“You’re probably right,” says Thompson.

He was wrong about that – one wishes he had lived to write about his ashes being fired from a cannon – but in linking suicide with the end of the football season, Thompson was on to something. Academics agree with him: it turns out that, deprived of sport, some fans do indeed become suicidal. The numbers involved could be significant. Given that more than 80 per cent of the 30,000 Americans who kill themselves each year are male, and most sports fans are male too, protection through sport matters.

Frank Trovato, sociology professor at the University of Alberta, was among the first to link suicide with sport. He found that when the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team was eliminated early from the playoffs between 1951 and 1992, Quebecois males aged 15 to 34 became more likely to kill themselves. Robert Fernquist, a sociologist at Central Missouri State University, went further. Studying 30 American metropolitan areas with at least one professional sports team from 1971 to 1990, he showed that fewer suicides occurred in cities whose teams made the playoffs more often. Routinely reaching the playoffs could reduce suicides by about 20 each year in a metropolitan area the size of Boston or Atlanta.

The obvious explanation would seem to be that losing makes people so unhappy they top themselves. In fact it’s not that: fans of the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, traditional losers, do not kill themselves very often, Thomas Joiner, author of the forthcoming book Why People Die By Suicide, told me. Joiner, whose father committed suicide, believes that what protects sports fans is the sense of belonging they get from supporting a team. Take that away – when the playoffs or world cup end – and some of them are at risk.

Fernquist’s own later work bears this out. He showed in 2001 that when teams move town, some of the fans left behind commit suicide. It happened in New York in 1957 when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left, in Cleveland in 1995-96 when the Browns went to Baltimore, and in Houston in 1997-98 when the Oilers departed. In each case the suicide rate was 10 to 14 per cent higher in the two months around the team’s departure than in the same months of the previous year. Each move probably helped prompt a handful of suicides.

Joiner has gathered some of the strongest evidence yet that what protects fans is not winning matches but “pulling together”. It’s true that he found fewer suicides in Columbus, Ohio and Gainesville, Florida in the years when the local college football teams did well. But Joiner argues that this is because fans of winning teams “pull together” more: they wear the team shirt more often, watch games together in bars, talk about the team and so on. It’s the shared experience that matters, not the winning. Indeed, Joiner found fewer suicides nationally on Super Bowl Sundays than on other Sundays at that time of year, even though few of the Americans who watch the Super Bowl are passionate supporters of either team. What they get from the day’s parties is a sense of belonging.

Most strikingly, in the week after John F. Kennedy’s murder in 1963 – a time of American sorrow but also of “pulling together” – not one suicide was reported in the 29 cities studied. Likewise, in the days after the September 11 attacks, another phase of “pulling together”, the number of calls to the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline halved to about 300 a day, “an all-time low”, writes Joiner.

He speculates that “pulling together” through sport may particularly suit “individuals who have poor interpersonal skills (often characteristic of depressed or suicidal persons)”. You don’t have to be charming to be a fan among fans.

Perhaps the closest we have to a case study is Frederick Exley’s “fictional memoir”, A Fan’s Notes. The main character – called Frederick Exley – is a classic suicide risk, being an alcoholic man separated from his wife and living in a mental institution. What appears to save him is supporting the New York Giants football team: “a life-giving, an exalting force”. Football, writes Exley, was “the only thing that gave me comfort”. There are probably thousands like him.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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