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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.