Commentariat, here’s a chance to help out. I want to look at football as a cultural phenomenon in American society, all the way from high school to college to professional ball, and I realize that after decades of avoiding the subject, I am never going to know enough to say anything close to accurate. So please help me out with information and insights.
I suspect there are parallels with the role of football (“footie”) in the UK and Ireland, but there also some differences, so we will deal with that separate and related subject some other time.
I call football a church because of the function it has in society. It’s like a religion for people – they are emotionally deeply invested in it, they wear its symbols as marks of identity and it gives meaning to their lives – specifically an experience and expression of masculinity. What would men rather do on a Sunday – go to church or watch the game? Well both, if the timing works out, but missing which one occasions the most heartache? That tells you what is feeding their spiritual needs. That qualifies it as a church by my lights.
Here are some topics I would like to explore:
1. I suspect that football and sports like it are the male equivalent of the fashion industry in that in both cases the structure of the activity is young people being sacrificed – injured, broken, starved, strung out and juiced up for the sake of performance – for the sake of entertainment for older people. Think of who buys up all those expensive box seats at football stadiums and drives up admission prices generally – middle-aged guys entertaining corporate guests. And who is behind all the money pouring into college football programs? Rich alumni wallowing in the vicarious youthful vigor that money buys. And who do you see sitting in the audience when those fashion models put on that sullen pout and go slouching up and down the catwalk? Emaciated glamor queens – maybe not up in the front row with all fashion writers, but certainly in the rows right behind them – enjoying a jolt of vicarious youthful grace and glitter.
I’d like to look into this dynamic in more detail, and with an eye to finding the parallels between fashion and these team sports.
2. Football and other professional sports’ primary audiences seem to be blue collar – originally urban but now more diffused – and in some areas the football team seems to be a tribal icon. Even college teams can be the focus of non-college audience loyalties. Why should football assume such a central role in blue collar culture?
My guess is that the drama of football and other team sports are a subsitute for risk-taking behaviors available to men higher up the socio-economic food chain such as high-risk investment, yachting around the world, explorations to the North Pole or to find the source of the Nile, and in modern times adrenaline sports like parasailing and so on; and that is why football emerged as such a cultural phenomenon in blue-collar settings after arising originally as a rich-boy sport in universities. That’s my guess – what began as substitutes for combat for warriors in between cattle raids so many centuries ago has evoleved into basically the same thing for blue-collar guys.
3. Football and team sports are dramas of masculinity. To me this explains several things. One is why so many men these days have little interest in the kinds of drama we trasdiionally call drama – novels, plays, that kind of thing. Another is the way that male sports are such commercial successes while female sports struggle along to get much of an audience at all. (And here by the way is where hypoagency rears its head – to the extent this is ever discussed, it is usually framed as audiences (> men) failing to support these female sports, rather than as female sports failing to attract and hold the interest of viewers.) And finally, this also accounts for female viewers being such huge fans – women like dramas of masculinity – or plain old displays of masculinity in general – and always have.
So those are the topics I’d like to explore and that I hope you all will contribute your insights on. I am especially looking for corrections to my guesses and/or expansions on them.
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