“Tom Brady, sociologist of religion”

A new documentary series looks at how sports fosters belonging and Tom Brady is one of the people behind it:

The theory, as you might guess from the title, is that sports, broadly constructed, are a kind of religion. As Chopra intones during the introduction, with images of stadiums and religious pilgrimages rolling by, sports “have believers, priests, and gods. They have rituals, miracles, and sacrifices. Sports unite us. They are a calling.”…

In parsing “the religion of sports,” Chopra and his star-powered co-producers are trying to understand a resilient form of meaning making and community formation in the United States. It seems a little silly to group Chopra and co. with social theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville and contemporary scholars who worry that America’s community structures are fraying. But, incredibly, that’s the project they’ve created: a sort of jock’s guide to civil society. While the series can, at times, come across as a rosy-eyed passion project, its central insight—that sports can be understood as a way that people find belonging—reveals a rich theme for artists who seek to grapple with the strong sense of cultural division and isolation experienced today by Americans of different ethnic, class, and political backgrounds…

Chopra takes this literally: “Sports is an actual faith. It’s not even metaphor. It’s real. You practice these things,” he said. This is debatable—Chopra is looking at religion purely as a matter of practice, while discounting the importance  of belief. Sports are not about the metaphysical nature of the universe; they provide no guidebook for the self or community in navigating life.

But, to embrace Chopra’s interpretation of “religion” for a moment, it’s curious to consider the ways in which sports participation has not followed the same trend line as other communal activities. According to organizations like Pew, traditional religious affiliation is steadily declining in the United States; participation in civil-society groups like bowling clubs or parent-teacher organizations has gone down significantly as well. As Americans have pulled away from these kinds of community institutions, their love of sports has stayed relatively constant: According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who call themselves “sports fans” has hovered around 60 percent for at least the last 15 years.

This sounds like a Durkheimian exploration of a functional religion, another area of social life that has some similar characteristics to religion. Sports involve rituals, collective effervescence, totems, and beliefs. This could range from sports (earlier posts involving the World Cup and the belief of some American sports fans that supernatural forces are involved) to following Apple (earlier post here).

I hope, however, this documentary series doesn’t fall into two common traps with this comparison:

  1. Sports are the magic elixir that can bring everyone together. (In contrast, many argue today that religion divides people.) Being a fan alongside another fan may bring individuals together for a moment but does it really make the world a better place? Does racism really disappear? Are cities healed? My answer: no and see these earlier posts on the effect of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ability of soccer teams to bring about urban revival, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. .
  2. Putting sports fandom and religion side by side suggests that it doesn’t matter ultimately what people believe; it is simply that common beliefs bring people together. Not all beliefs at the same level. Do sports really dictate how most people make major decisions in their life? Do sports provide ultimate meaning? (They may serve this role for a small number of people but religion is still going pretty strong throughout the world.)

The documentary series will reveal how much it gets right about the sociology of sport and religion…

 

The similarities between opera and sports fans

People can be fans of a lot of things including sports and opera:

The sociologist Claudio Benzecry spent years studying opera fans in Buenos Aires and observed that their love of opera happened just the way other forms of love do — through an experience that made them want to keep going back for more. Not through reading up on it or going to lectures about it. I discuss Benzecry’s book along with a well-meaning tome called “Opera” that’s designed to deepen opera-lovers’ love, and conclude that Benzecry is right. Opera fans are like sports fans; you get into it, and you start to learn about it, and pretty soon you’re reeling off stats with the rest of them.

More from the review of Benzecry’s book on opera fans:

Benzecry’s book doesn’t try to communicate a love of opera: It simply depicts how that love happens. His subjects, none of them wealthy, attend the opera several times a week (often in standing room or the upper balconies, where tickets are not prohibitively expensive). They are not intellectuals; they are certainly not elitist; and they were not drawn to opera by any sense of social obligation. Secretaries and sports writers and blue-collar retirees, they argue passionately about singers, productions and composers, drawing on their own experience and on a wealth of information passed on orally by older and more experienced devotees.

And how did they fall in love with opera? Certainly not through academic introductions, or books, though many of them, Benzecry shows, do attend music appreciation lectures to augment their knowledge. But the initial spark is more likely to have been a powerful “aha” moment at the opera, when first taken by a parent, or a friend: an experience of falling in love that awakens in them a thirst to go back, and back, and back.

Benzecry’s book depicts a world that’s familiar to any frequent opera-goer. Such fandom is a long-standing part of opera tradition. Nineteenth-century opera was a populist art; most audiences experienced it viscerally, singing Verdi’s tunes on the street or swooning in titillated delight after hearing Wagner. You can still get dizzy listening to Wagner — I remember experiencing the “Tannhäuser” overture, at an early encounter, as a kind of psychedelic drug trip — and you can still get passionate about the opera singers who bring these works to life.

Yet few opera guides touch on these aspects of opera. This is partly because even the hardest-core opera fans tend to put opera on a pedestal, subscribing to the notion of it as something better, something higher, something that gives color and meaning to life. This worshipful attitude toward opera, through which even the drollest opera buffa is seen through a more rarefied lens than much more serious but populist contemporary art, is part of what makes the form so off-putting to first-timers, who see it as something that involves unfamiliar rituals, special clothes, expense and jargon, and that is probably boring.

Two things I like here:

1. Sports fans are sometimes used as examples of people who have irrational emotions about something that is just a game. How could they get so worked up over something so trivial? But, lots of people have deep interests and emotions wrapped up in all sorts of activities and hobbies. Indeed, I’ve thought over the last few years that one true sign of being part of the American middle upper class or above is that a person has to have some “irrational” interest to show that they not only enjoy something but they are wholeheartedly devoted to it and are willing to spend a lot of time and money on it. Perhaps it is physical activity, perhaps it is woodworking, perhaps it is sports, perhaps it is indie music, perhaps it is snowboarding. Perhaps this is all driven by the need to feel like an individual?

2. I bet there is some fascinating sociological material here. When people start talking about “falling in love” with opera, there have to be some underlying processes behind this. This reminds me of sociological research in certain areas like fashion or stock trading where employees talk about having “intuition” but there is actually a long process by which someone acquires this “intuition.”  I bet there is something similar going on here: opera fans have developed ways of talking about their interest but there are some common themes across them as they moved from an initial exposure to a full-fledged fandom.

Racism the reason for the lack of black soccer managers

Two English academics examined an issue that is reminiscent of similar issues in the United States: what explains the relatively low proportion of black soccer managers in England?

More than half the respondents to an online poll of 1,000 soccer fans including current and former players believe racism is the reason for the lack of black managers in English soccer…

“The number of black and minority ethnic managers in English professional soccer has been stable for nearly 10 years,” Cashmore and Cleland wrote.

“There are usually between two and four (out of a possible 92). Yet black players regularly make up more than a quarter of professional club squad.

“The findings indicate 56 percent of respondents believe racism operates at the executive levels of football, i.e. the boardroom.

“While some accuse club owners of directors of deliberate discrimination, most suspect a form of unwitting or institutional racism in which assumptions about black people’s capacities are not analysed and challenged and continue to circulate.”

Soccer has tried to combat racism throughout the game for years – see the ever-present slogan “Say No to Racism” in the new FIFA commercials playing during the Women’s World Cup and my FIFA 2010 video game. But negative stories pop up from games time to time and I imagine that this study doesn’t please those in charge. Even if racism is not present at matches, the perception is that it is still in the sport.

I was intrigued to see that these conclusions are drawn from a web survey. Here is some of the methodology for the study:

This method did not suffer from the kind of sampling error that can bias more traditional sampling: participation was completely voluntary and confidential. It was self-selecting. The only possible bias would be a skew toward those with access to the internet. We believed this was an acceptable bias in the circumstances. To elicit the necessary data, both authors engaged in club fans’ forums across the United Kingdom (from the Premier League down to non-league). A large number of forum editors were formally contacted by email and in those forums where permission was granted (over fifty), a paragraph about the research and a link directing fans to complete the survey was included. As the research was anonymous, at the end of the survey the participants were reminded that by clicking submit they were consenting for their views to be used in the research.

This study doesn’t have the “kind of sample error that can bias more traditional sampling”? Self-selection is an issue with web surveys. This may not matter as much here if the authors were most interested in obtaining the opinion of ardent fans. But it might even be more powerful if the average citizen held these opinions.

Sociologist ties rooting for the Kansas City Royals to Midwestern values

The Kansas City Royals have a rich history including a 1985 World Series victory. However, the last two decades have been difficult: the team has had three winning seasons since 1990, no playoff visits during that time, and seven straight losing seasons. So why do fans keep rooting for the team? A sociologist suggests that rooting for the Royals is tied to Midwestern values:

Yet the Royals likely will sell out Kauffman Stadium on opening day, draw more than 2 million fans and continue to have a loyal following on the blogosphere.

“Loyalty in the face of hard times is a long-held Midwestern value, and dealing with hard times is a regular challenge for anyone whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and related businesses,” said Jay Coakley, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “However, we must go deeper than this value to explain the loyalty of Royals fans over the past decade.”…

“The fans’ connection with a team becomes a part of their identity,” said Coakley, the author of the textbook “Sports in Society.”

“Fans everywhere reaffirm those identities for each other so that they feel special — and they often make a special point of doing this when teams are unsuccessful and they need extra reaffirmation to justify their support in the face of regular losses. Over time, this pattern of identity reaffirmation becomes regularized, and the fan identity serves as an important basis for their sense of self as well as their social lives and everyday conversations with fans and nonfans alike.

“Losses and losing seasons become topics of conversations much like the last hailstorm or dry season that ruined crops. Of course, some people eventually become weary of predictable bad times and leave their farms or fan identities behind.

“But many stick it out year after year because it is who they are, and giving up on yourself is a hard thing to do.”

Coakley is suggesting that an rooting interest in a sports team becomes internalized and the basis for a kind of community. Fans identify with the team and the city (see this recent post on the differences between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants). I wonder if we could look at the times that fans use the term “we” to refer both to themselves and the team to get an idea of how much these identities have merged.

But it is particularly interesting that Coakley ties fan’s devotion to the Royals to Midwestern values derived from farming and agriculture. Would a sociologist in Boston come up with a different cultural explanation for why Red Sox fans are so devoted? This seems like a fairly convenient explanation that might not hold up in other places.

Study about drunk fans has a limited sample

A recently released study suggests that 8 percent of fans leave sporting events drunk. This may be an interesting finding – but the newspaper description of the sample suggests there may be issues:

University of Minnesota researchers tested the blood alcohol content of 362 people to see how much folks drink when they go to professional baseball and football games. In their study, released Tuesday, they determined that 40 percent of the participants had some alcohol in their system and 8 percent were drunk, meaning their blood alcohol content was .08 or higher.

“Given the number of attendees at these sporting events, we can be talking about thousands of people leaving a professional sporting event who are legally intoxicated,” lead author Darin Erickson said. The study did not address what percentage, if any, of those fans intended to drive.

To collect the data, research staff waited outside 13 Major League Baseball and three National Football League games and randomly approached fans as they left. Those who consented took a breath test and answered questions about when, where and how much they drank on game day.

So the researchers waited outside 16 sporting events. Across these 16 events, the researchers performed voluntary tests on 362 people. This averages out to 22.625 fans per event.

Let’s say the events average at least 30,000 fans – not an unreasonable expectation for MLB and NFL games. If they tested about 23 fans at each event, that is less than 1 percent of each fans at each game. How could these findings be considered generalizable? First, you would need to test more fans. Second, could there be something different about the fans who were willing to volunteer for this test after a game?

Another report on this study bumps the sample number up a bit to 382 people. This doesn’t change the averages too much. Also, this may be the first study to examine the particular phenomenon of drinking at sporting events. However, the sample still seems to be too small even as the research study is going to be published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Thinking about the sociology of cricket

If you thought that cricket was a pleasant and quaint sport with matches that last days, a British commentator suggests otherwise. Like other sports, cricket has become dominated by money (“lucre”) and this threatens to overwhelm the commentator’s interest in watching the interactions between players:

Cricket has had a real battering in the last few months. This was not just because of the match-fixing scandal at the end of the last English season; it was also because of the rather gutless way in which certain parts of the cricket establishment, here and internationally, responded to it. Cricket is a game now obsessed with money. Even those who do not engage in match-fixing, and who condemn (quite rightly) those who do, share the same devotion to filthy lucre. The only difference is that they prostitute the game in different, and entirely legal, ways.

I have never been an especially partisan follower of cricket. It is not just that, on one level, it’s only a game (I shall deal later with the charmingly old-fashioned notion that it is, by contrast, more than a game), and therefore which side wins or loses is in the end irrelevant. It is that the main interest to me, as a follower of the game, has been its aesthetics and, almost as much, its sociology. It has the capacity to be a visually beautiful game, and because games of cricket can go on for up to five days, there is plenty of time for the spectator to examine the interaction of the players with each other – with those on their own side as much as with those on the opposing team.

The solution for this writer is to watch cricket at a lower level, such as watching is son play with other 14-year olds. You will hear this argument from some Americans as well: the professional sports are tainted and if you want to enjoy an authentic version of the game where players play because they love the same, you have to go to the college level or lower. I tend to think this argument leaves out an important aspect of why people watch sports – they want to see the best athletes in the world perform amazing plays. High school athletes may love what they are doing but it is hard not to think about how a college or pro athlete could athletically do so much more.

I have also always enjoyed watching the interactions between players. Additionally, I enjoy going to sporting events to watch interactions between fans and the players and amongst fans. In short, if you gather so many passionate people together in a relatively small location with much on the line, there is bound to be some interesting interactions.

Of course, cricket on the international level also has the potential to open up discussion about colonialism and class – how exactly did an English sport find its way to the streets of Australia, the West Indies, Pakistan, and India?

What the Beatles on iTunes might mean for their popularity

Apple and iTunes have apparently reached an agreement with the Beatles to sell their songs in digital form. This puts an end to a long-running stand-off between the Beatles and Apple.

But what does this mean for the Beatles popularity? A few thoughts:

1. Does this mean the Beatles become more known for their singles or single songs rather than albums? Since buyers on iTunes can pick and choose, might they not just pick the Beatles songs they know versus some of the hidden gems (or the worse songs)?

2. This may mean that a whole new generation of young music fans will now have the opportunity to browse the Beatles catalog and find that they enjoy it. But in the long run, will these digital sales help boost the popularity of the Beatles or will their popularity just slowly die out as their generation of music fans slowly disappears?

3. How many fans will be angry that the Beatles have “sold out” to video games and digital music? Are more commercials next?

(UPDATE 10:04 PM 11/16/10: EW.com has a list of other big acts that have not released their music to iTunes. This list  includes AC/DC, Garth Brooks, the Smiths, and Kid Rock.)