Hi, My Name Is Brett, and I Am an Addict: Brett Favre and Football

Daniel McGowinCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 07:  Brett Favre #4 of the New York Jets  looks on against the San Francisco 49ers during an NFL game on December 7, 2008 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Football is indeed the new favorite pastime in the United States, supplanting baseball for that honor. This status is exemplified by how ESPN and other sports media cover the sport 365 days a year. The ESPN program NFL Live airs every weekday throughout the year, and well after the season has ended!

So it should come as no surprise that we become inundated with "news" and drama about football and professional football players even during the offseason—and the player that has filled offseason news over the last two years is none other than Brett Lorenzo Favre.

Last year, after retiring in early March, Favre began hinting at returning to football. What ensued afterwards was a long, drawn-out soap opera complete with an appearance with Greta Van Susteren. After formally filing for reinstatement at the end of July, the Packers agreed to move Favre to the New York Jets.

After a solid season with the Jets, Favre once again announced his retirement. But that itch returned, and now after having arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder, he is close to returning again, this time with the Minnesota Vikings—and once again we are faced with the drama surrounding his return.

Many people are tired of his retired-not retired routine and have begun labeling him, just as they have in the past.


Prima donna.


Past his prime.


While it might bit of a sensitive word to use with Favre given his past addiction to painkillers, it is becoming evident that No. 4 is addicted to playing football—and it is quite understandable.

We mostly associate addiction with drugs and alcohol, so that seems to be a good place to begin.

According to a report published in the January 2007 edition of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, addiction is related to the brain's memory capacity. 

Addictive drugs—from cocaine to alcohol to caffeine—stimulate something known as "reward circuits," which registers the value of important experiences. These experiences trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that essentially tells you to "do it again."

What this research notes is that addiction is involved with the same brain activity that dictates learning and memory, particularly long-term memory. Drugs, as with any perceived reward, can increase something known as transcription factors, which are formed by our long-term memories. 

The more drugs one person takes, the stronger the memory of those pleasurable effects become.

As the news release of this report states, "Even after transcription factor levels return to normal, addicts may remain hypersensitive to the drug and the cues that predict its presence. This can heighten the risk of relapse in addicts long after they stop taking the drug."

Now, making the leap from a drug or alcohol addiction to an addiction to an activity such as football might seem large. As a great animated illustration from Time notes, addictive drugs do things such as increase dopamine levels, block the uptake of dopamine (which helps balance brain circuits and rewards), or block inhibitory neurotransmitters (which prevents overstimulation).

However, there is plenty of research in existence that points to addictions such as gambling, eating, shopping, video games, the Internet, and sex (see David Duchovny). To suggest that an addiction exists with football seems to fall in line with these types of addictions.

When people become addicted to a drug or an activity like compulsive eating, it ends up consuming their life. In many ways, it defines their life because it is all that they know and understand. This is related to what they have "learned" and their memory.

For Favre, his transcription factors have been greatly increased because of the long-term memories that have been crafted by playing football. Those reward circuits have fired off so much dopamine over the years that those pleasurable memories of slinging the ball downfield are very strong.

Thus, once he stepped away, he became "hypersensitive" to football. Sure, it is easy to retire in February or March. But when those "cues that predict its presence" emerge—be it the NFL Draft, Organized Team Activities, or the preseason—relapse could be imminent.

Football is life—and it is very difficult to step away from the life.

My grandfather worked every single day of his adult life, even though he retired. The man ran a part-time printing business by himself well into his 70s and managed rental property, including doing the maintenance and upgrades himself. He worked until the day that he died, peacefully in his sleep.

That was his addiction—work. It was all that he had ever known, and it was ingrained in his long-term memory to work because that is what he enjoyed doing.

We see this in sports as well.

Paul "Bear" Bryant coached from 1945 until 1982, when he officially retired following Alabama's Liberty Bowl victory over Illinois. Bryant passed away less than a month after that game.

While perhaps a stretch, popular Southern folklore claimed that Bryant knew he would die once he quit coaching. His life, which was predicated on his addiction to football, was driven by the sport, and once the cord was pulled on Dec. 29, 1982, it was only a matter of time before he passed.

Some speculate that a similar addiction to football drives Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden. The addiction has so consumed their lives that once they stop coaching, perhaps they would follow Bryant's path to the gridiron in the sky.

What this illustrates is how difficult it is to end a dependency, in this case a dependency on football. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that there is no known cure for alcoholism; only treatment. 

Thus, there is likely no cure for an addiction to football—simply treatments or, at the very least, lower dosages (call it steps, if you will).

Some are able to walk away through some form of "treatment." Bo Jackson's treatment is bowhunting and being an investor in a bank in Illinois. Tom Osborne became a U.S. Representative (he has since partially relapsed).

Others who were addicted to playing the sport find treatment in lower dosages, such as being a coach or an owner of a franchise. 

Jack Del Rio, one-time Pro Bowl linebacker and Super Bowl champion, helps calm his addiction as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

Michael Jordan, who suffered a couple of relapses, has found solace first as the president of basketball operations with the Washington Wizards and now as part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.

Perhaps Favre, who appears to be on the verge of feeding his addiction once again, needs some sort of treatment. Maybe he could coach a high school team in Mississippi. Or he could focus on building on his outstanding acting performance in the film There's Something About Mary.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that Brett Favre is addicted to football. It might not be as devastating as an addiction to alcohol or drugs or gambling could be (well, unless he ruins the Vikings' season if he plays). 

He might not acknowledge that addiction, but we should all acknowledge it—or we should at least understand how difficult it is to break an addiction, especially when the temptations (and exposure) from football exists 365 days a year.


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