Can you separate sports from sports culture?
When you watched the Women's World Cup final on Sunday night, were you watching the game? Or were you taking part in a cultural event? Can you watch football on Sundays without tacitly promoting the culture of sex, booze and concussions that the NFL and its cooperate partners support? Can you watch the NCAA tournament without tacitly endorsing the hypocritical underground economy of big-time college sports?
Can you love sports while hating sports culture?
On a recent episode of the excellent Reconcilable Differences podcast, hosts Merlin Mann and John Siracusa spent an hour in a fascinating discussion about sports and sports culture. (They also spend an hour talking about the movie Fight Club. The entire podcast is worth a listen).
Merlin and John talk about sports fandom and sports culture in a really fascinating way. Merlin - who wrote an eloquent post about growing up a Reds fan - takes a critical eye to sports culture and its hegemony in the U.S. John looks at sports culture from the perspective that being a sports fan is a natural, socially acceptable outlet for the natural xenophobic feelings humans have. (I really hope I'm not misinterpreting their points of view. I don't think I am, but if so, I apologize).
I disagree with John. All the research into sports fandom I'm familiar with suggests that sports fandom has more to do with positive feelings, of the desire for tribalism and social connection. The horribly named ideas of Basking in Reflecting Glory (BIRG), where you feel good when your team wins, or Cutting Off Reflected Failure (CORF), where you disassociate yourself from the Bills because they stink every single year ... er ... from your favorite team when they lose. This is why sports fans refer to their favorite teams as "we." Sports fandom is rooted more about connection than the catharsis of negative emotions.
Merlin's point of view is fascinating to listen to. He acknowledged that sports are often intimately tied to family or childhood memories. When you hear me say I hate sports, he said, what you hear me saying is I hate your dead dad. Certainly, there's a lot of truth to that. I became a much bigger Buffalo Bills fan after I moved to Binghamton in 2004. In part, that's because I covered Bills games when I worked in Olean and wanted to maintain some kind of journalistic distance. But in reality, rooting for the Bills was my connection to home at a time when I had moved to a new city several hours away and didn't know a soul there.
But Merlin also discussed the corporatization of sports. The teams we cheer for are actually multi-billiion dollar corporations, the players are often multi-millionaire mercenaries, and for all the civic pride sports brings, at the end of the day, Jerry Seinfeld's right - we're rooting for laundry. Merlin talked about his daughter's school, where kids were asked to wear San Francisco Giants gear during the World Series, and how weird he found that. Growing up in Buffalo during the Super Bowl era, I vividly remember wearing Bills' stuff on Fridays during the season. Coming from a family of sports fans, it felt very natural and fine. But now living in a house with two women who are far more into music and theater (we watch a shockingly small amount of sports at Sports Media Guy headquarters), I can see how it'd be weird if my kid had to wear Bills stuff or feel ostracized at her school.
Far more fascinating was Merlin's discussion of the hegemony of sports in our culture. If you're a guy and aren't into sports, you're seen as a freak, an outsider, a nerd. Following sports is such an ingrained part of our culture, particularly for men, that those who are outside it feel very outside. And the culture of sports tend to be very insidery - we don't welcome newcomers well. There is a right way to be a sports fan, if you don't root for sports in the right way, you're very outside.
When you tell me that your really into the 49ers you're really into the Giants, well that's great. Enjoy that. But can you appreciate the fact that that's not something that I enjoy and not try to make me feel like a tool because I haven't bought that particular stock? ... I don't hate sports, I hate the pressure that the culture puts on me ... If I get in a cab, somebody's gonna talk to me about a sports team. They're gonna say 'Oh you know they're talking bout moving the Golden State Warriors over to San Francisco?' And I'm like 'That's the basketball one, right?" It's like, why are you telling me that? Why does this have to be conversation that is the opener for every man.
It's interesting to hear a discussion of sports culture from someone who identifies as being outside of it. When you're a part of a culture, it's easy to become such a part of it that it's hard to see life outside of it. It's hard to see the whole board when you're so focused on the individual pieces. Forests and trees and all that. It's also easy and natural to see you and your culture as being "right" and anyone outside of it as being "wrong," or "ignorant" or just needing to see things from your perspective. It's true of music. It's true of comic books. It's true of computers. And it's definitely true of sports.
Truth be told, we're all nerds of one kind or another. I have no patience for sports writers who make fun of comic book fans, or mock people watching the Emmys or the Grammys, because discussions about Star Wars and discussions about fantasy football are basically the same thing.
There's a lot about sports culture that I think is good. It does bring people together. There is a real civic pride involved. Yes, the Pegula family is capitalist and trying to make as much money as possible, but their ownership of the Bills and Sabres and their sports bar downtown, has tangibly improved the feelings in Buffalo. That stuff is real. It does connect people, even if its making a kid in a new city feel less lonely for a few hours on a Sunday. There's seeing Abby Wambach kiss her wife after winning the World Cup a week after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, further normalizing something that had been ostracized for far too long.
There's a lot about sports culture that's bad. It's capitalism wrapped in civic pride and muscular Christianity. There's far too much "bro-culture" in sports, and with the narrowing of the media landscape, there's far too much money media outlets can make in catering to that demographic. There's the undercurrent of misogyny and the tacit support of rape culture that is far too present.
It's important to see the bad along with the good. It's important to have these conversations, to recognize the hegemony of sports in our culture. It won't go away. By thinking and talking about it, maybe we can being to separate the good from the bad. We can invite people to be a part of sports but not force them into a culturally-prescribed box.
We can start to better appreciate sports by recognizing the good, and bad, of sports culture.