Soccer and the World Cup as the upcoming functional religion

Soccer may be just a game but some academics see it having the properties of a global religion:

A growing body of scholars see football playing an under-appreciated role as keeper of society’s well-being – providing a sense of identity with an almost religious role…”It provides you with an opportunity to side with your country without being violent to another. So in that way it does replace war,” said David Ranc, a French sociologist who specialises in group identity in football.

“It is a non-violent way of resolving conflict … and taking sides where there is not that much at stake.”…

“Identification with a sports team can provide people with an important identity prop, … a sense of belonging in what would otherwise be an isolated existence,” according to Eric Dunning, a sports sociologist with the University of Leicester…

“The fans of a football team form a community of believers that is characterised by distinctively religious forms of behaviour,” sports sociologist Gunter Gebauer of the Free University of Berlin told AFP…

Football allows people from different social and economic spheres to meet and bond around a common passion, experts said.



Paging all sociologists of sport – the World Cup is nearly underway. This is a classic “functional religion” argument (a la Durkheim). If you set aside the supernatural aspect of religion, it has several components: rituals (pomp of the World Cup every four years, going to or watching a game), building solidarity (based on a club or national team, gathering with other fans), what is sacred versus profane (the importance of the games versus other aspects of life, elevating certain players). Given the number of people who will be paying attention to the World Cup, this argument makes sense: even religions would have a hard time rallying this many people with such fervor for 32 days.

Lack of black offensive playcallers in the NFL

The NFL has only one black offensive coordinator:

“We are very, very conscious of this issue, and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization charged with promoting equality of job opportunity in NFL coaching and front office staffs. “We have alluded to it and spoken to it directly, and we feel our only course of action is to push more people up the pipeline.”

Complicating matters for Wooten and the legions of aspiring minority offensive coordinators is that the pipeline is also disproportionately dry…

Right now, the NFL’s sole African-American offensive coordinator is the Buffalo Bills’ Curtis Modkins, who doubles as the team’s running backs coach. However, Bills coach Chan Gailey is the team’s de facto offensive coordinator and primary play-caller. Only two African-Americans, the Houston Texans’ Karl Dorrell and the Minnesota Vikings’ Craig Johnson, are quarterbacks coaches, the position-coach job which most frequently leads to offensive-coordinator opportunities.

“This is the biggest travesty that’s taking place in this league, and every black coach is well aware of it,” said one anonymous African-American assistant for an AFC team. “They don’t promote you from running backs coach or receivers coach to offensive coordinator. When guys do get coordinator titles, they have to be position coaches at the same time, and they don’t get paid as much as other coordinators, because they’re not the play-callers. And in a lot of cases, guys believe they’re really there for locker-room reasons, to ‘take care of’ the minority players.”

A classic example in the sociology of sport of how race plays out in sports is to look at the expectations for and portrayal of black and white quarterbacks: black quarterbacks are expected to be more mobile and use their natural ability while white quarterbacks tend to be viewed as tacticians. I wonder if the same thing is going on here. Defense is said to require more reaction ability and athletic skills while offense is about strategy and throwing off the defense. Offensive playcalling is more of a sacred art that requires an intelligent guru to make things happen. Also, it sounds like this is a social network problem: black playcallers need to be able to have access to lower offensive positions, be able to prove themselves there, and then have the opportunity to move up when jobs become available. Without this chain in place, it could be a very similar issue to what might be behind the unemployment gap between whites and blacks.

The article doesn’t say much about this but the NFL has put policies in place for helping to ensure minority candidates are interviewed for head coaching positions so will something similar happen here?

Cam Newton as sociologist?

A commentator in the Wall Street Journal suggests Cam Newton is a sociologist:

All very true, all very interesting, but this was not the part of Fleming’s article—the cover story for ESPN the Magazine’s annual Next issue—that got the most attention on Thursday. That part would be Newton’s refusal to blame the weirdly harsh pre-draft assessments—ESPN’s own Mel Kiper Jr. compared him to former Bengals bust Akili Smith—on any latent prejudices against black quarterbacks. “I can’t sit up here and look at it like, oh man, my critics are racist,” Newton told Fleming. “I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up?” Which, admittedly, is an attention-grabbing thing to say.

It was also deemed a mistake by the sport-pundits whose job it is to deem statements like this mistakes. But as Bomani Jones notes in a terrific column for SB Nation, both Newton and his critics seem to miss the point. “The real danger is in the foolishness of the quote and its underlying sadness,” Jones writes. “It’s stupid because the knocks on Cam were based in the same madness that sent his mentor, [Warren] Moon, to Canada seven years before Russell was born. And it’s heartbreaking because, in spite of the progress the world claims it has made with regards to race, the young man who could be the NFL’s future blamed his own unfair treatment on two men who had to fight the same battles.”

Of course, as long as Newton continues to break records and be brilliant, he can—and will—be able to write his own narrative, in his own words. At the very least, it’s refreshing to have a new star who’s as interesting to talk about—and listen to—as he is to watch.

As far as I can tell, the only reason Newton gets dubbed a sociologist is because he brings up the issue of race. Interestingly, he downplays the racial explanation and goes to more individualistic explanations (i.e., two earlier quarterbacks failed). But it is interesting to note that discussing topics of race gets equated with the field of sociology.

While there is no doubt that Newton could have made a bold statement about how black quarterbacks are treated, I wonder if his statement says more about whether athletes can talk about race or feel like they should than about Newton. At this point in his career, what would Newton gain by taking on people like Mel Kiper Jr.? As a rookie, Newton may not want to be outspoken about a controversial social issue. Would his endorsement opportunities go down if he talked about race? Would sportswriters keep hammering on this? I’m not saying Newton is right by downplaying the larger structural forces that make success possible. However, certain athletes don’t address larger issues like some do. For example, Michael Jordan was criticized by some who thought he could have used his celebrity and standing to push for certain things. Jordan, a savvy businessman, chose not to. Newton may be following a similar path.

In the end, I would guess most sports fans and commentators don’t really want to address racial issues even though it clearly matters. On the whole, they would typically suggest sports transcends racial barriers and on-the-field performance is the only thing that matters. Also, the last time I can remember this being a big debate in the NFL with Rush Limbaugh on ESPN, it didn’t work out well.

The sociology of baseball fandom

In the beginning of a series about the Baltimore Orioles at Southern Maryland Online (, two sociologists contrast what die-hard and casual fans expect to get out of watching a baseball game.

First, the perspective on diehard fans:

George Wilson, associate professor of sociology at the University of Miami, said that when sports teams in Miami are losing, people just shrug and go to the beach. But it’s different in Baltimore.

“Baltimore is a working-class town and they identify with the sports teams through thick or thin,” Wilson said. “I think there’s some identification with the team that’s pretty strong and I think when the Orioles don’t do well, it does have an impact on the city. I think the city does feel that sense of disappointment.”

This is an argument you would find in many cities: the diehard fans (and much of the city) base their mood on the wins and loses of the local sports teams.

In contrast, the view of the casual fan:

But Merrill Melnick, a SUNY-Brockport professor who specializes in sports sociology, said that’s OK. He said the peripheral entertainment at the stadium — postgame fireworks, singles nights, fans running on the field for longer than should be humanly possible — are often more important to the casual fan than whether the team wins or loses.

One outcome of these differing perspectives is that the diehards can get angry with the casual fans for taking things too lightly. It is common on sports radio to hear diehard fans complain about the bandwagon fans and those who haven’t cared as long as they do. These arguments from the diehard fans seem to be made to show that they should be respected or admired for being the real fans, the ones who stubbornly follow their teams through thick and thin.

Sometimes, I wonder if sports fandom becomes like something of a job for many who feel obligated to watch or follow their team. If they don’t, they are being irresponsible and showing they don’t care. Being a fan then becomes sometime to compete about rather than just a diversion or a hobby.