Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Sports Communities: What We Can Learn from Green Bay

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In general, David Brooks’ best writing is about cultural issues, rather than economic or foreign policy. Today’s column, about sports and American ideals, is no exception, though I think he gets some stuff wrong. He cites Duke professor of political science Michael Allen Gillespie, who describes three athletic traditions: an ancient Greek tradition that prized individual achievement and glory, a Roman tradition that emphasized spectacle (think Gladiator) to display the “awesome power of the state,” and a British tradition that emphasized teamwork, discipline, and sportsmanship. According to Gillespie, America has blended all three traditions. Yet he laments the “Romanization” of American intercollegiate athletics.

Brooks disagrees. He sees intercollegiate athletics as fostering a sense of community:

In a segmented society, big-time college sports are one of the few avenues for large-scale communal participation. Mass college sports cross class lines. They induce large numbers of people in a region to stop, at the same time, and share common emotional experiences…. Mass college sports are the emotional hubs at the center of vast networks of analysis, criticism and conversation. They generate loyalties that are less harmful than ethnic loyalties and emotional morality plays that are at once completely meaningless and totally consuming…. bigness has virtues as well as vices. Big-time college sports are absurd, but we would miss them if they were gone.

I sort of agree with Brooks here. But I think Gillespie’s point, that today’s college athletes “have become a separate gladiator class” is worth pondering. I wrote a paper on this as an undergrad, relying largely on W.G. Bowen and J.L. Shulman’s great book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Sixty years ago, varsity athletes at Ivy League schools actually got better grades, on average, than their non-athlete peers. At the very least, the academic profiles of athletes and non-athletes were much more similar. I suspect that was true to some extent at college across the board.

Obviously, that has changed now, particularly at powerhouse football and basketball schools, where the athletes are essentially pre-professional, and their lives bear little resemblance to those of the student body. So yes, college sports do foster community, but there’s something highly illusory about it. Many of these elite athletes don’t graduate, and in basketball, those bound for the pros often stay only one year.

Professional sports has actually followed a similar trajectory. Up until the 1960s, pro athletes were often well paid, but not extravagantly so. The average players held jobs in the off-season, hard-nosed ballplayer Ron Hunt drove a truck. And players frequently stayed with the same team for their whole careers, often because of unfair rules like the reserve clause in baseball. The famous “Curse of the Bambino,” resulting from the the Red Sox’s famous sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, became important in part because that type of transaction was much less common.

Today, of course, professional athletes are multi-millionaires, and will leave one team for another at the drop of a hat. Sure, Red Sox Nation is a nice “imagined community,” to borrow Benedict Anderson’s phrase, but the players don’t really feel much loyalty to it at all, and the members of the nations don’t have all that much in common with those players.

I think this is a reason why the Olympics, and the World Cup, and international sports competitions inspire so much fanaticism. Tony Judt has argued that European social democracies function well because people have the sense that their fellow citizens are “like” them and “see the world” as they do.” So too in sports, fans of Team Canada can appreciate that these athletes resemble them, at least in national origin, if nothing else. This slim measure of similarity is enough.

I also got to thinking that another reason that sports fit in so well in America is because of the fundamental belief in meritocracy. The world of sports is more meritocratic than any other pursuit I can think of. As long as everyone is playing fair (a big caveat in the age of performance enhancing drugs), the best person wins. Usain Bolt did not receive any special favours on his way to the top, he simply runs faster than everyone else. The story of Mike Piazza getting drafted because his dad was friends with Tommy Lasorda is so funny precisely because a) it’s so rare and b) would not have made a difference if Piazza couldn’t hit breaking balls. Yet it’s precisely this meritocracy, I think, which has driven the capitalist sports world to undermine the fan-based communities Brooks is celebrating, at the collegiate and professional levels.

In any case, thinking about all this made me appreciate the Green Bay Packers. I’m not a Packers fan, never cared much for Brett Favre when he was there, never really rooted for them except when they played the 49ers or the Cowboys. But I like the fact that the town of Green Bay owns the team. Sure the players come and go, but at least the town has a real corporate relationship to the team, can feel like they are rooting for something that they participate in, etc. Maybe I’m overdoing this, but it seems cool to me. Heck, in an era when entire teams will pack up and go (see my beloved Expos), it’s nice to have some real communal involvement around sports.

With that, I’ll share my thoughts on the Super Bowl (or as my mom calls it, “The Stupid Bowl”). I’m not a very big football fan, but I’m rooting for the Saints. I like them because they’re the underdogs, because they’ve got that player Scott Fujita who is outspokenly pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and because Reggie Bush is dating Kim Kardashian, and I hope the cameras cut to her frequently on the sidelines.


Written by David Weinfeld

February 5, 2010 at 15:46

Posted in culture, sports

One Response

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  1. Glad to see this post. I immediately thought of you when I read this column.

    I don’t think being a shareholder in a sports team is essential for participation. You can participate by buying a customer. For instance, the Red Sox wouldn’t have about the largest payroll after the NY markets if the fans weren’t willing to pay the highest prices in the nation for tickets and watch cash cow NESN in record numbers. The team just wouldn’t have that revenue without the participation of the fan base.

    I would argue that International Sports Competitions are much less popular in the US than other countries, because these local sports communities are so important. Sure, some people watch the Olympics, and there are some rabid fans of the US Soccer Team, but these are an afterthought to most American sports fans today, though Americans had a much stronger sense of common purpose during the Cold War and the Olympics were much more meaningful then.


    February 6, 2010 at 09:57

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