Crying Is Healthy, Even for Tough Football Players

college football players
College football players accepted tearing up as a typical and appropriate reaction after losing a game, the study showed. (Image credit: Nagel Photography | shutterstock)

Everyone needs a good cry now and then — even football players.

College football players who think it's OK to cry, say, after losing a big game, have higher self-esteem than those tough-guy players who say tears are a no-no, a new study shows. The researchers also found that players who show physical affection toward their teammates are happier.

The researchers studied how gender stereotypes about crying affect football players, and how their beliefs regarding emotion on the field influence other aspects of their lives.

Participants included 150 college football players from two universities, one in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II and the other in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The participants had an average age of 19 and were mostly white.

The students read a scenario about a football player named Jack who cries after a game, with participants reading one of four twists to the story: Jack just tears up after losing the game; he tears up after winning the game; he sobs after losing the game; or he sobs after winning the game.

Students tended to think tearing up after losing a game was typical and appropriate for a football player. However, they didn't accept sobbing as an appropriate reaction in the losing situation. The players also said they would be more likely to tear up than sob if they were in Jack's place.

The study also showed that the group that read a story in which Jack sobs after losing a game asserted that his reaction was more typical among football players than the group that read a story in which Jack sobs after his team won the game.

"In 2009, the news media disparaged University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow for crying on the sidelines after losing a big game, even labeling him Tim 'Tearbow,'" study researcher Y. Joel Wong, a psychologist at Indiana University-Bloomington, said in a statement.  

In a second experiment, 153 football players, who were also mostly white and had an average age of 19, answered questions regarding whether they felt pressured by society to act powerful and competitive while displaying little emotion and affection in front of other men.

The researchers also questioned the subjects about their overall life satisfaction and the ways in which they expressed emotions on and off the field. The experiment's results showed that football players do feel pressure to conform to gender roles when it comes to expressing emotion, but also found that players who were never showed affection toward their teammates were less satisfied with their lives.

Overall, college football players who "are emotionally expressive are more likely to have a mental edge on and off the field," said study researcher Jesse Steinfeldt, who is also a psychologist at the university.

The findings may also speak to the aforementioned incident in which Tebow was ridiculed for crying on the sidelines after losing a big game. [Read: Touchy-Feely NBA Teams More Likely to Win]

"The college football players in our study who believed Jack's crying was appropriate had higher self-esteem," Wong said. "In contrast, players who believed Jack's crying was inappropriate yet felt they would likely cry in Jack's situation had lower self-esteem."

The study was recently published in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter @remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.