Cultivated Disinterest in Professional Sports

Like many of my friends, I have treated professional sports with cultivated indifference. But a year and a half ago, I decided to become a football fan.

Several years ago, I was at a talk by Michael Albert at MIT where he chastised American intellectuals for what he claimed was cultivated disdain of professional sports. Albert suggested that sports reflect the go-to topic for small talk and building rapport across class and context. But he suggested that almost everybody who used the term "working class struggle" was incapable of making small talk with members of the working class because — unlike most working class people (and most people in general) — educated people systematically cultivate ignorance in sports.

Professional sports are deeply popular. In the US, Sunday Night Football is now the most popular television show among women in its time slot and the third most popular television in America among 18-49 year old women. That it is also the most popular television show in general is old news. There are very few things that anywhere near half of Americans have in common. Interest in football is one of them. An enormous proportion of the US population watches the Superbowl each year.

I recognized myself in Albert’s critique. So I decided to follow a local team. I picked football because it is the most popular sport in America and because their strong revenue sharing system means that either team has a chance to win any given match. My local team is the New England Patriots and I’ve watched many of the team’s games or highlights over the last season and a half. I’ve also followed a couple football blogs.

A year and half in, I can call myself a football fan. And I’ve learned a few things in the process:

  1. With a little effort, getting into sports is easy. Although learning the rules of a sport can be complicated, sports are popular because people, in general, find them fun to watch. If you watch a few games with someone who can explain the rules, and if you begin to cheer for a team, you will find yourself getting emotionally invested and excited.
  2. Sports really do, as Albert implied, allow one to build rapport and small talk across society. I used to dread the local cab driver who would try to make small talk by mentioning Tom Brady or the Red Sox. No more! Some of these conversations turn into broader conversations about life and politics.
  3. Interest in sports can expand or shrink to fill the time you’re willing to give it. It can mean just glancing through the sports sections of the paper and watching some highlights here or there. Or it can turn into a lifestyle.
  4. It’s not all great. Football, like most professional sports, is deeply permeated with advertisements, commercialism, and money. Like other sports, it is also violent. I don’t think I could ever get behind a fight sport where the goal is to hurt someone else. The machoness and absence of women in the highest levels of most professional sports bothers me deeply.

I’ve also tried to think a lot about why I, like most of my friends, avoided sports in the past. Disinterest in sports among academics and the highly educated is, in my experience, far from passive. I’ve heard people almost compete to explain the depth of their ignorance in sports — one doesn’t even know the rules, one doesn’t own a television, one doesn’t know the first thing about the game. I did the same thing myself.

Bethany Bryson, a sociologist at JMU has shown that increased education is associated with increased inclusiveness in musical taste (i.e., highly educated people like more types of music) but that these people are most likely to reject music that is highly favored by the least educated people. Her paper’s title sums up the attitude: "Anything But Heavy Metal". For highly educated folks, it’s a sign of cultivation to be eclectic in one’s tastes. But to signal to others that you belong in the intellectual elite, it can pay in cultural capital to dislike things, like sports, that are enormously popular among the least educated parts of society.

This ignorance among highly educated people limits our ability to communicate, bond, and build relationships across different segments of society. It limits our ability to engage in conversations and build a common culture that crosses our highly stratified and segmented societies. Sports are not politically or culturally unproblematic. But they provide an easy — and enjoyable — way to build common ground with our neighbors and fellow citizens that transcend social boundaries.

21 thoughts on “Cultivated Disinterest in Professional Sports”

  1. It’s been pretty frustrating for me, as someone who was raised playing and watching a number of different sports, to have next to no friends who share my enthusiasm.  The best part of sports fandom is the social aspect, and my own interest has flagged in isolation.

    (Last month, though, a whole bunch of people humored me by going to a sports bar to watch game 5 of the American League Division Series.  They were mostly in it for the beer.)

    Also, if you’re going to root for an NFL team, it should be the Green Bay Packers.

  2. It’s not just class that cultivates disinterest. I’m just a working class oaf that pretends to be educated (and most people can see through my reaching). I follow FA football, support Newcastle United and feel their painful loosing streak; I cheer for England, in football, cricket and rugby.

    But I live here in Boston and I avoid American football and baseball. Related probably to my resistance to American cultural in general. Or maybe it’s that I didn’t grow up with the games and already have a full set of spots to follow that I know how to play.

  3. Growing up in american society, from the playground to the school room, there has always been cliques: burnouts, jocks, geek and nerds, chess club, glee club, etc. Popularity did not come from being academic, a chess player or similar. Being athletic lead to popularity and bullying of those who were not. This lead to a certain resentment for these people and their culture that lead to an avoidance of much of the following and playing of sports. I assume this followed the geek, nerds and academics as they ascended life’s stations. With the notable exception of the Super Bowl, world series and a noting of your hometown teams, most didn’t follow much of sports. If you find enjoyment with people who don’t involve themselves with sports, then it would take a concerted effort to do so that most wouldn’t see as typically useful. That it might facilitate communication with non-academic folks seems a useful skill to do ‘field work’ among non-academics :) I learned the basics of US and UK  football and baseball and I enjoy watching them with people on occasion but never was able to follow much of the year-long play and stats that are crucial to be a fan. I have relative who found enjoyment in the gambling associated with sport and that was also a turn-off during my youth. It can be fun to play sports among friend vs watching a tv broadcast. And going to a venue is more enjoyable them a tv broadcast. Not being a sport fan can also be a vehicle for a sports fan to provide a means of cultural exchange.

  4. hmm American Football is a war / hunting game. Many people are war-oriented, and it might not be too much of a stretch to say that most meat eaters must have bloodlust in there somewhere. A pigskin is fought over.. Good for you to have a good time with an admittedly well-produced experience, but, lets not gloss over what is really going on..

    To make war less of a word and more of a feeling, agony, permanent loss and permanent injury are the fodder for the war experience.. I can think of many excellent reasons to evolve away from war, and its placeholders

  5. Brian: I’m not sure what to tell. I don’t think football is a war game. There are many professional sports where the point is, actually, to hurt each other or to beat the others one in submission. Football is not one of them. But you’re welcome to you opinion.

  6. I remain unconvinced.

    For me the revulsion of large organized events, even ones as insanely popular as professional sports, has nothing to do with its actual popularity or refined tastes or even the crass commercialism.  Instead, it is the more tribal, even religious, tenor involved at all levels.  Do note, though, that I am from Texas, where both fans and critics alike will describe the sport of football as the most popular religion of the state.  Expressions of the popularity may differ around the world depending on location and which sport, but so far my observations are that they are merely variations on a theme and not significantly different.

    Which team is supported is usually more closely associated with ones geography.  The inculcation is done so early and so completely that sense of self can be strongly tied to team performance such that loss or victory can elicit very strong emotional reactions affecting others surrounding the fan.  As you mention, most of the ore popular sports are highly sexist in attitude with men as the players and stars whereas women, if existant in the sport at all, are relegated to side-line and booster roles.  One fan speaking ill of another fan’s favorite team is taken as a serious personal affront.

    My distaste for the attitudes around it says nothing about the actual sport; I actually really enjoy participating in almost any sport, and recognize and admire the physical and mental characteristics required for one to excel at them.  It really is just the tribal aspects of the sport as demonstrated in popular culture.  Creating such a strong us versus them attitude seems to be more of a fan behavior than something actually pushed by the teams themselves who do seem to exhibit respectful attitudes towards the other team when the game is complete.

    Those us versus them attitudes also bleed over into other areas as kevinx was mentioning. I see those as particularly damaging in how academics are given such a low priority compared with the sports for a large subset of many populations (particularly here in Texas).  In the local interactions, it would be great if the differences in experience were truly an opportunity at cultural exchange, but a more common situation appears to be shaming at rooting for the wrong team (or no team at all).

    Back to your post: I’m actually truly glad to hear you’ve found something you enjoy!  None of my comments necessarily speak to anything about you personally since I have not interacted with you regarding sports or other topics.  These are comments and observations about tendencies of large groups in particular, but can be observed in the smaller groups as well.  The taste in music that you mention is one such way where there is an apparent attempt to shame those that would deem themselves peers and I also have the same complaints about that form of out-group shaming.

    My query to you is that I wonder exactly how common the ground really is.  I see you have definitely assimilated into some of your local popular culture.  To this online crowd you admit to some caveats in the areas of commercialism, violence, and sexism among others.  Are you free to discuss all those same complaints among the fans you now share a past-time with without recourse?  Is the sharing of the popular activity truly building common ground or merely making you more accepted in their community?

  7. Philip: Thanks for very long and thoughtful comment! You’ve said a lot and I respond to your post in a few pieces.

    My broad response is to suggest that I think it’s important to not judge sports — or anything else — by the behavior of its most rabid enthusiasts. I think my level of interest is similar to most fans: if there’s time and I’m not doing anything else, I might watch the local team’s game. I’ll probably glance through the sports pages to see roughly what’s going on. But it’s never personal and it’s not a huge part of my life. Maybe if I were from Texas, I would feel differently. I can’t speak to that.

    One of my more memorable interactions was in NYC in a store where two people stocking the shelves were talking about New York football. They ribbed me a little bit for being from Boston but the fact that I knew a few things created space for rapport and a friendly exchange that otherwise would have just been awkward.

    And I really do think there is an element of classism to this. NASCAR has less in the way of tribalism, less in the way of violence, and (possibly?) less in the way of sexism. But it is strongly associated with poor America and is rejected and disdained by the highly educated Americans I know more than any other sport. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

    The fact that there are real problems at the heart of sports makes unpacking the different reasons why one might be critical of a practice hard. But I think my preference is to err on the side of more common ground among neighbors and citizens.

  8. Football is lame because of insane number of time outs. It is like watching the game in the middle of an advertisement show. Try soccer or better rugby

  9. I’m not convinced

    While it might have something to find something you can talk about with everybody and their taxi driver, there are other options, such as the weather, pets, or the latest advancement in theoretical particle physics.

    Professional sports is not worth one second of the only life one has. Nothing against physical activities one does for fun or health, but sports is the opposite. Most team sports are sexist, having either men or women in their teams, but never men and women together. And, as George Orwell put it:

    “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

    (Worth a read: “The Sporting Spirit”, 1945)

  10. Chess is a sport, it is non-violent, however you can “beat” your opponent in it. It might some day be included in the Olympic games.

    And there is also card game – bridge.

  11. Years ago my friends in high school pointed out that sports is a great way for us to stay in touch for this very reason.  It’s something that we can hold somewhat in common no matter where our lives take us.

    I’ve found that often I don’t watch the games fully through, at least not actively, but I stay in close enough touch every week to know the overall narratives.  (Yahoo’s Pickem offers a pretty simple way to accomplish this; it is a very watered down version of fantasy football.  You just pick which teams will win, which means you have some minor stake in every game without having to do any research.)

    Anyway, thanks for writing this.  I buy into the argument.  Now lets just try to get e-sport universally popular!

  12. I belong in the “not interested in sport” class of people. I grew up in Tallahassee where college football is huge.
    For me it is mostly cultural. I don’t really dislike football. I dislike football culture, and the culture behind most popular professional sports. People just take it too seriously, and all of the ridiculousness that stems from how people take it is a big turn off for me.
    The deal people make over their team, and against another team is completely alien to me. I cannot relate and am unable to participate in it.
    I number of years ago I was getting into Frisbie, which has the a culture of the right kind of attitude. Competing teams are respectful to each other in the highest order. Players go out of their way to make sure the right calls are made (admitting that they did in fact step out of bounds) and great care is taken to ensure the safety of each other.
    The culture also encourages participation of being a spectator, and everyone encourages new players and gives them advice across team borders.
    This is how sports should be, in my opinion, and the fact that the football, basketball, etc. culture finds these attitude offensive is why I stay disengaged.

  13. Thanks for writing this.

    I grew up playing sports (recreationally, not especially well). I enjoy watching them. It’s not something I bring up often. It’s not something I have in common with most of my peers.

    It seems that it needs to be said that enjoying professional sports does not make me a worse geek or an unsophisticated person.

    Consider how geeks react if the same vicious, reflexive, snobby snark is applied to Doctor Who, or Trekkie fandom, or any of the other common geekdoms with about the same redeeming value as NFL football. Why is the same attitude not only okay, but a signifier of sophistication, when applied to sports?

  14. I definitely agree with Karen that there’s often a double standard when it comes up in geek circles.

    I’ve also found more problems with being ridiculed for liking sports with American geeks compared to when hanging out with some of my European geek friends, although the sports are often different. I know Ubuntu UK even had a meet-up where they went to a pub to watch a rugby match either earlier this year or last year. I actually talk American football more with an English friend than I do with more local friends. I became a fan of rugby through some of my European geek friends a few years ago. I also know plenty of European geeks who are fairly open and loud about who they support in football. Some of the anti-sport attitude in American geeks may have to do with some of the extremes of American sports fan, but there are plenty of sports fans in Europe or other places outside the US that are as extreme or more than American fans. I do think the rejection that many geeks (including myself) faced in school from student athletes probably plays a larger role. Yes, there are many issues with inequality, pay, racism, homophobia, etc. in most professional sports everywhere, but I’ve seen things get better within my lifetime and I find that I’m happier being in there trying to support an encourage the change rather than assuming that it won’t change. I also have found some of the same issues in geek circles (and sometimes with less obvious improvement) so I don’t think it’s a reason for geeks to reject all sports.

    I was never particularly athletic due to my physical impairments, although there are some sports I’ve enjoyed playing. I was never the “jock” and didn’t hang out with the athletic kids, but I do actually love watching sports. In some ways the sports I watched ended up being more of a distancer even with the athletic kids when I was growing up because I grew up in an area where football (soccer) and basketball were popular and those are two sports I’ve never been able to get into.

    I think one thing I’ve seen in my family is how it’s bridged gaps of distance. My father grew up near San Francisco and while the entire family is now on the east coast, he and his brothers are 49ers fans for American football and SF Giants for baseball. I grew up a 49ers fan for American football, although I ended up being a bigger Red Sox fan for baseball just due to growing up in New England.

    Like you, I’ve seen a lot more positive things come out of being a sports fan than I have negative. I’ve met interesting people. The last professional baseball game I went to I ended up sitting next to some firefighters from the other side of the country. They have been slowly working their way around trying to visit all the baseball parks in the US. They didn’t care about who won or lost the game, they just were there to enjoy it and have fun. Also, as someone who has limited mobility and huge problems with fatigue it’s wonderful to be able to just stick on a sports game to watch when I have no energy to think or concentrate. While I have the teams I follow, I’ll watch most American football and baseball games and I’m watching more of other sports these days as well. When I recently spent 3 weeks in hospitals, I wouldn’t have been able to think enough for any intellectual conversations or real thought, but I was able to just stick on ESPN as something to occupy what little bit of brain power I had. Even sports I don’t necessarily enjoy can be interesting at times and, again, checking them out exposes me to more different people and I really don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    I actually find the blanket anti-sports feelings to be more alienating that welcoming. I don’t think anyone has to be a sports fan, but I don’t think there’s any inherent reason why sports fans should be rejected just for being sports fans. If the behaviour is inappropriate, that’s another story, but that’s definitely not limited to sports fans.

  15. You don’t think your avoidance of sports in the past had a little more to do with family dynamics? Of course, not entirely but, I think we all (at least the brother side of the family) dialectically enabled our own niches through friction and love. “You chose books, Nate chose looks,” as Roald Dahl famously wrote in Matilda. :)

    But I can’t believe you would ever allow a New Yorker to ‘rib you’ for ‘being from Boston.’ Have you forgotten your NW roots brother?! Even though I may be living in a country where I’m morely likely to be talking about Swedish chefs than American footballers I still know which ‘local’ football team I tune into if I have the opportunity – the Seahawks!

  16. Brother Kit!

    I think those dynamics played a role. But I still there was maybe some classism on my side of those dynamics.

    Although I also check up on the Seahawks… And how do I put this… Being a Seattle sports fan can be a little bit depressing.

    Direct your ire at Sister Lisa. She is a huge Patriots fan, despite never living in New England! She flew out to Boston to see a playoff game last year! I’m not just jealous!

  17. You don’t think your avoidance of sports in the past had a little more to do with family dynamics? Of course, not entirely but, I think we all (at least the brother side of the family) dialectically enabled our own niches through friction and love. “You chose books, Nate chose looks,” as Roald Dahl famously wrote in Matilda. :)

    But I can’t believe you would ever allow a New Yorker to ‘rib you’ for ‘being from Boston.’ Have you forgotten your NW roots brother?! Even though I may be living in a country where I’m morely likely to be talking about Swedish chefs than American footballers I still know which ‘local’ football team I tune into if I have the opportunity – the Seahawks!

  18. Oh I felt that classism brotha’, that’s why I trained so hard. To protect myself from your ferocious older-brother privilege, “The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased.” (C.L. R.James, The Black Jacobins, 89)

    I thought the red socks were a bigger deal than the Patriots? (and of all sports to choose to learn, other than rugby, American football is not the easiest sport to have picked! It took me a season of playing inside linebacker to realized what the hell was going on. I played because I knew I’d be type-cast in theater rolls as a ‘jock’ but I would not recommend this sort of ‘getting into character’ experience to anybody. Two minor concussions later I went back to musical theater)

  19. Hmm, I’m not into sports, but I do like very much (and perform, for that matter) a lot of music, many different kinds. Thus I’m to be an educated person. But then, my favorites include a lot of heavy metal. What now? ;-)

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