The “rather odd and haphazard set of rules” of the world’s most popular game

A paragraph in a story on soccer’s current place in the world serves as a reminder of the “serendipitous” aspect of the development of games and sports:

If you take a step back from it for a moment, our obsession with the World Cup is truly bizarre, even totally irrational. Soccer is, like all games, made up of a rather odd and haphazard set of rules. Nineteenth century English teachers and students developed them, and eventually the rules of what became known as Association Football were codified with the 1863 Cambridge Rules. (One theory for the origin of the word “soccer” is that it is a deformation of “Association.”) But three very different games — rugby, soccer, and that global oddity American football all came out of roughly the same original soup, which is a reminder of how random the process of rule-making can be.

To fans, the rules of a game seem almost natural, like they have always been that way. But, this paragraph highlights the historical contingency of some of our favorite pastimes: they were created by a particular set of humans in a particular historical and social context and continue to be altered by these changing contexts. While it’s hard to imagine a world without soccer or the World Cup, these are human inventions that might not have happened except for particular actions and conditions.

Another way to think about it is to imagine an alien creature visiting Earth. Without knowing the particulars of how a sport development, they might think the particular set of rules and norms are arbitrary. Why 11 players on a team and not 10 or 12? Why has the offside rule changed numerous times over the years? Why not have two balls in play? Why can’t players use their hands? Some of these questions might be easier to answer than others but they highlight the decision-making that had to happen regarding rules.

Using analytics and statistics in sports and society: a ways to go

Truehoop has been doing a fine job covering the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. One post from last Saturday highlighted five quotes “On how far people have delved into the potential of analytics“:

“We are nowhere yet.”
— Morey

“There is a human element in sports that is not quantifiable. These players bleed for you, give you everything they have, and there’s a bond there.”
— Bill Polian, ESPN NFL analyst

“When visualizing data, it’s not about how much can I put in but how much can I take out.”
— Joe Ward, The New York Times sports graphics editor

“If you are not becoming a digital CMO (Chief Marketing Officer), you are becoming extinct.”
— Tim McDermott, Philadelphia Eagles CMO

“Even if God came down and said this model is correct … there is still randomness, and you can be wrong.”
— Phil Birnbaum, By The Numbers editor

In other words, there is a lot of potential in these statistics and models but we have a long way to go in deploying them correctly. I think this is a good reminder when thinking about big data as well: simply having the numbers and recognizing they might mean something is a long way from making sense of the numbers and improving lives because of our new knowledge.

Equating religion and being a sports fan

A communication professor makes a Durkheimian argument that equates being a sports fan and religion:

Almost precisely a century ago, Emile Durkheim pondered along similar lines. Durkheim, a pioneering sociologist, began digging through accounts of “primitive” cultures like the Arunta tribe of Australia, hoping to excavate the ancient source of ties that bind. His conclusion—as revealed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life—remains as profound and relevant today as it is elegantly simple: Whenever a society (or, here, sports subculture) worships a divine form, it is, in fact, also simultaneously worshipping itself.

For Durkheim, this all hinged on what he called “the totem.” As he wrote, “On the one hand, [the totem] is the external and tangible form of what we have called the… god. But on the other, it is the symbol of that particular society we call the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from others, the visible mark of its personality.”…

What totems, therefore, still survive in this culture of ours? The Red Sox. The Packers. The Lakers. And so on. The notion that sports remain our civic religion is truer than we often let on: In fandom, as in religious worship, our social connections are brought to life, in the stands as in the pews. It serves as a reminder of our interconnectedness and dependency; it materially indexes belonging. Like others, I indulge the royal “we” when speaking of my team, though there is little evidence they need me much beyond ticket sales, merchandise, and advertising impressions. Nonetheless, as Durkheim long ago noticed, “Members of each clan try to give themselves the external appearance of their totem … When the totem is a bird, the individuals wear feathers on their heads.” Ravens fans surely understand this.

In short, if you look hard at sports, you can’t help but see contours of religion.

It looks like this researcher recently published a piece in Communication & Sport that involved analyzing some of the Durkheimian features of the behavior of Philadelphia Phillies fans during their 2008 World Series run. However, this is not a new argument. Indeed, from a Durkheimian perspective, lots of social phenomena could take on the functional role of religion in providing people an energy-giving experience, common totems or rituals to rally around, and a sense of cohesion and purpose beyond their individual roles in society. Going back to sports, take, for example, the upcoming spectacle of the Super Bowl. Few other annual events in the United States draw such attention for a short period of time. My undergraduate sociology adviser discussed this back in the 1980s:

The answer, brothers and sisters, appears to be a resounding yes, by the reckoning of James A. Mathisen, a sociologist at Wheaton (Ill.) College. Mathisen, in a scholarly paper presented in Washington at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, argued that the Super Bowl has become “the American spectacle of folk religion . . .the festival of the folk, (celebrating] their faith, their practice and their history.”…

That shift has been accomplished in great measure by the miracle-working power of television and technology, sustaining and spreading the words and deeds of sports figures, Mathisen added. Televised extravaganzas such as the Super Bowl and World Series take on the characteristics of “collective cultic observances,” he said…

“As an American, I simply am expected to be a ‘generic’ sports fan and possibly also have a favorite team or alma mater which becomes a community with which I identify and a clan whose symbols and totems bind me to it,” Mathisen observed. “Being a sports fan is comparable to being religious – it’s a taken-for-granted, American thing to do.”

The attachment or loyalty to a particular team is similar to choosing allegiance to a religious denomination, he continued. Sports also take on the qualities and characteristics of religion in the evocation of tradition and history, Mathisen said.

The halls of fame, for example, “preserve the sacred symbols and memorabilia which encourage us to rehearse the contributions of the saints who have moved on.” Moreover, Mathisen continued, the copiously kept records of sports function in the same manner as the “sacred writings and the historical accounts of any religious group, providing a timeless, normative guide by which later disciples’ accomplishments are judged.”

Also see this piece from the Los Angeles Times from January 2, 1987.

Shopping the real favorite sport of Americans?

At the bottom of yet another article about Black Friday, I found this interesting quote from a Sears executive about how Americans view shopping:

Sears, like many retailers, will make many Black Friday deals available online. At Sears, they’re available to the store’s Shop Your Way members (there’s no fee to join, and it can be done online).

“Shopping is a sport to many people, and this is the Super Bowl,” Hanover added.

Americans tend to like their sports so could shopping really supplant football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and other activities? Here are some reasons this could happen:

1. The average American probably gets a lot more opportunities to shop than to play sports. It is different to observe a sport versus participating in shopping.

2. Shopping can now take place in many different places. As brick and mortar retailers have noticed, online shopping makes it possible to look at, think through, and make purchases from virtually anywhere.

3. Shopping is a fairly frequent activity. Even if someone spends very little disposable income, that person still has to shop for groceries and essentials.

4. Shopping incorporates some of the same features as watching sports or cheering for sports teams. Shoppers are fans of particular brands. Shopping can be done with other people, building and cementing group bonds. Shopping can be ritualistic. In other words, the same sort of social benefits of group activity suggested by Durkheim that could apply to sports could also apply to shopping.

5. Shopping is a critical part of our economy. While people do need to purchase certain goods regularly, new products like the latest smartphones, cars, video games, and other things are important for corporations, the stock market, and thus, stockholders which includes a wide range of Americans.

6. Shopping in America is often tied to holidays like Christmas, Thankgiving, and Halloween. Spending can be easier to justify because it is for the holidays plus it is related to social interactions that take place those days.

7. Compared to most of human history, more people now have the time and income to devote to shopping beyond subsistence.

Shopping itself deserves more attention from sociologists. While plenty of sociologists in recent decades have looked at consumption patterns (often focused on the products or objects acquired through consumption), this isn’t quite the same as looking at the process of shopping. I have enjoyed reading Sharon Zukin’s work on shopping; for example, see Chapter 6 “While the City Shops” in The Cultures of Cities.

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.

Collective effervesence: from Man U. vs. Man City to voting

An editorial in The Guardian suggests we seek out more moments of collective effervescence:

As every Mancunian football fan will tell you, tomorrow evening sees the most hotly awaited derby in Premier League history when Manchester City and Manchester United square up for the last time this season. Whatever the outcome, what we will witness in abundance – at least while the ball is in play – is what the father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, called “collective effervescence”, a ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds.

Given the current Europe-wide epidemic of melancholia induced by various crises, financial and political, and not helped in the UK by an April deluge, predicted to last through May, the good news is that we are all about to experience opportunities for a veritable season of effervescence. We report on these pages how three giant puppets walking the streets of Liverpool as part of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic have attracted 250,000 people on to the streets and raised the spirits of the city hugely. Over coming months, even arch cynics – those allergic to red, white and blue, republicans and lifelong couch potatoes – may find themselves succumbing, just a little, to communal and classless pleasures as, for instance, the celebrations connected to the Queen’s diamond jubilee gather traction. The Olympics become ever more imminent and the prospect of a gold medal or two potentially binds stranger to stranger regardless of income, ethnicity and background, in the alchemic way that victory in sport can…

Any festivity, inevitably in this day and age, comes saturated in commercialism. It will be difficult over the next several months to find a china cup and tea towel that isn’t festooned with crowns, coronets or concentric rings. Nevertheless, there will be events and occasions – many of them free –which will proof themselves again commodification and remain beyond the reach of the marketplace simply because they require only our time and interest….

This week sees London mayoral and local elections in addition to a referendum on elected mayors in 10 English cities. Inertia, rather than effervescence, is likely to mark the experience. But while dancing in the streets strengthens our collective sense of solidarity, we improve its health still further by exercising our hard-won right to vote. As Professor Michael Sandel pointed out in his Reith lectures on BBC’s Radio 4 in 2009: “The virtues in democratic life – community, solidarity, trust, civic friendship – these virtues are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are, rather, like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.”

Translation: while the world may look like it is in bad shape, there are still moments in which we can come together, advance the common good, strengthen relationships, and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It is interesting, however, to note that some of these examples require choosing one side or another. For example, will fans of Manchester United or Manchester City be celebrating the game of football together or hoping the other side loses disastrously? In voting, is everyone pursuing the common good or hoping their side gets enough political power to force the other side to kowtow to its interests? Perhaps there are still moments where people can come together in larger settings, such as at the Olympics (national pride? celebrating humanity?) or at large rock concerts or a few other places.

Also, I’m having a hard time imagining an American newspaper editorial invoking Emile Durkheim. Would many newspaper editors in the United States know who this is?

Sociological roundup for Super Bowl XLVI

Here are a few stories that highlight sociological takes on the Super Bowl:

1. The Super Bowl as unofficial holiday:

Because it has evolved into so much more than a game, the Super Bowl and all of the pomp and circumstance has become a star-spangled spectacle that may not live up to two weeks of hype or warrant six hours of pre-game coverage, but continues to be must-see TV for the masses…

Dr. Tim Delaney, chairman of the Department of Sociology at SUNY Oswego, said the Super Bowl has become much more than just the NFL’s championship game.

“It’s not only a social event, it’s really an unofficial holiday,” said Delaney, who co-authored “The Sociology of Sports: An Introduction and Sports: Why People Love Them!”

“People are going to watch the Super Bowl, no matter what. It’s part of American culture. It’s tradition. It’s a social phenomenon.”

2. Headline: “Super Bowl non-fans will replace the big game with shopping, sewing, sex.”

Wachs said that football has become so popular that it is like a “secular religion” in America. “It fulfills many of the exact same functions as religion,” said Wachs, an associate professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University. “It separates the sacred and profane — the rest of the week is profane and on Sunday it is the special time. There are rituals associated with it. There is special clothing and special food associated with it. It really has all the elements of a religious ritual.”

But this fanatical attention to a single game has created another subculture in American society — people who are united against the Super Bowl, the rebels who refuse to watch because they don’t like football or don’t like the hype or don’t like to be told they have to watch something just to fit in.

Wachs said these people “feel resentful, feel put upon and, I would argue, feel persecuted by the importance of something that they just don’t get.”

3. The urban myth of “sewer sociology”:

Maybe you’ve heard the urban legend: An overwhelming number of Super Bowl fans take a potty break during halftime, straining the local sewage system and causing a spike in flows to treatment plants…

While sewage treatment workers do notice a change in “activity” during holidays and the Super Bowl, it doesn’t impact waste treatment facilities, said Kevin Enfinger, a senior project engineer with ADS Environmental Services in Huntsville, Ala…

Enfinger refers to the change in bathroom behavior as “sewer sociology.”

4. UCLA has experts on call ready to help you understand the “sociological and cultural phenomenon.”

Plenty of sociological material to talk about in regard to the Super Bowl and that is before even getting to what the commercials have to say about our society.

I do think I’ve heard more and more public discussion about the Super Bowl being a public holiday. It makes me wonder why sociologists don’t spend more time studying holidays, official and otherwise. The idea of “secular holidays” is particularly interesting – although once you get beyond the Super Bowl and Black Friday (still closely related to Thanksgiving), it might be more difficult to identify such days.