G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Michael Serazio has a nice piece on the similarities between sports fandom and religion in which he discusses Emile Durkheim and the concept of “totems”:
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.
Perhaps as with all dogmas, some believers take things a little too far. Nevertheless, sports fandom should be recognized for its deeper motivations. The desire to belong and to connect and to foster community or kinship. Team allegiance and a more dogmatic fanaticism is a sort of outlet of collective energy – for a desire to belong to something bigger than the individual. If religion doesn’t provide the same outlet, that energy will gravitate elsewhere.
It’s also interesting, given the commercialization of the Super Bowl, how advertisers take advantage of this instinct and our human attachment to totems. A book titled The Religious Dimensions of Advertising by Tricia Sheffield discusses that:
This groundbreaking work explores media scholar Sut Jhally’s thesis that advertising functions as a religion in late capitalism and relates this to critical theological studies. Sheffield argues that advertising is not itself a religion, but that it contains religious dimensions – analogous to Durkheim’s description of objects as totems.
The sports totem therefore gives me reason to strike up a conversation with a stranger; better still, it offers phone fodder for calls to Grandpa. We routinely speak of being “born” into a particular fandom and treat those who change allegiances to rival teams with the same alienation familiar to heretics and apostates.
The Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys were always a touchpoint for my grandmother and I. It’s hard for two people with 60 years between them to have much to talk about just as it’s difficult for members of increasingly deracinated communities to find common ground. Sports is an easy filler. Maybe the weather is too.
After Bill Maher’s recent attack on men, sports, and male sports fans, I promised to revisit Christopher Lasch’s chapter “The Degradation of Sport“. Lasch’s chapter was a response to people (I won’t say “like Maher” because Maher is a clown) who offered unbridled criticism of professional sports and the relationship between athlete and spectator:
In glorifying amateurism, equating spectatorship with passivity, and deploring competition, recent criticism of sport echoes the fake radicalism of the counterculture, from which so much of it derives. It shows its contempt for excellence by proposing to break down the “elitist” distinction between players and spectators.
It is that passivity, that perception of athletic cuckoldry that Lasch’s interlopers were attacking, much as Maher is today. Lasch continued:
Take the common complaint that modern sports are “spectator-oriented rather than participant-oriented.” Spectators, on this view, are irrelevant to the success of the game. What a naïve theory of human motivation this implies! The attainment of certain skills unavoidably gives rise to an urge to show them off. At a higher level of mastery, the performer no longer wishes merely to display his virtuosity—for the true connoisseur can easily distinguish between the performer who plays to the crowd and the superior artist who matches himself against the full rigor of his art itself—but to ratify a supremely difficult accomplishment; to give pleasure; to forge a bond between himself and his audience, a shared appreciation of a ritual executed not only flawlessly but with much feeling and with a sense of style and proportion.
The public for sports still consists largely of men who took part in sports during boyhood and thus acquired a sense of the game and a capacity to make discriminating judgments.
The same can hardly be said for the audience of an artistic performance, even though amateur musicians, dancers, actors, and painters may still comprise a small nucleus of the audience. Constant experimentation in the arts, in any case, has created so much confusion about standards that the only surviving measure of excellence, for many, is novelty and shock-value, which in a jaded time often resides in a work’s sheer ugliness or banality. In sport, on the other hand, novelty and rapid shifts of fashion play only a small part in its appeal to a discriminating audience.
The chapter provides many more interesting insights including Lasch’s response to the argument that sports foster militarism and are used for purposes of indoctrination. Also, he acknowledges that sports are a release for men in our pressure-cooker society.
The connection between Durkheim and Lasch is that they recognize that participation and spectatorship have deeper causes than mere superficial fandom for fandom’s sake. A larger, if not higher, purpose is served. It coheres, glues, provides common ground. For all those who take it too far and get their leg tattooed or seem like they’re submitting their entire being to one athlete or one team, sports fandom is still an invisible wire that connects us in a meaningful way.