Football: An American Social Construction


It was a Monday night. In America, during the right time of year, football is on the television. I sit on a couch next to a few friends. The game hasn’t started yet, but ESPN has rolling commentary until it does. Five men sit on an immaculate set, each with a crisp suit and an idiosyncratic tie. They begin discussing who will win, how the teams operate, and which players they see as really “showing out” this season. My friends respond in kind to the commentators, to each other, and typically I have no clue what is being said. The jargon is complex. The amount of information necessary to even be “in” the conversation is overwhelming. But, I realize this is what a historically constructed social institution and subsequent organization is.

Football begins in 1869 as an adaptation of rugby. From there a whole social system is built around human created rules to a human created game. A whole culture operates around it; fans form collectives to support teams, they have rituals and traditions, myths are built up, and even heroes are chosen. A political economy operates as well; tax laws and leases for stadiums, a professional football players union, funding to universities, and tourism dollars from grand tournaments. Football has become a part of society, operating as an inextricable sub-part of our American social system. This historical social construction is amazing for how far it reaches into the American psyche.

I sit on that couch thinking of all this, of how football became an institution with a powerful organization, and I think about politics. Politics is a word seldom heard from those people who know the outcome of the World Table Tennis Championship. For these people an intellectual is one of those men who sit on the immaculate set, with the crisp suit and idiosyncratic tie, who talk all day and all night about sports.  They set the contours of the debate, oddly manufacturing consent for their opinions and what the debate can even be, as if reminiscent of Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. They dictate what information about sports the viewers have or will have. And politics is quite out of the question.

Football is removed from the rest of the world. It sits on a shelf above society. It’s only a game. Entertainment others would say. The game’s intellectuals treat it as such, except for the occasional break in the ranks to make a point; singular, of course. So, a whole system of knowledge exists as if outside of our society, a place unto itself. My friends discuss it as if it is absent a context. Football for them creates its own context. So, would it be wrong to say it is a social system unto itself? I think not. Football for many is society. It peppers every conversation, each day devoted to it, and family and friends gather to enjoy it.

So, I sit on the couch and do not know what to do. Should I break protocol and offer these insights about football’s social construction? Highly unlikely they would care. Do I state that the commentators create boundaries to their conversations? They would never see this as nefarious, stating that of course the commentators focus only on the game. “That is what they are paid for, Andy.” As if they are no longer a part of society, as if they can abdicate ethical duty, because that is what they are paid for by Disney. Yet, maybe that is how people want it. A sport disconnected from society, but playing a crucial in society, is all the people ever wanted. An escape, a way to be “smart” without doing science and be on par with your intellectuals who concur with your sentiments on player such and such and team A, B, or C.

And this all shows at bottom how little social scientific knowledge has penetrated into the public mind. For most, this is all a matter of opinion. Sport, as a societal question, is considered to be just a question of whether or not you can enjoy it as entertainment; not a serious intellectual question. But, is it an opinion to say football is a social construction? This seems clearly to be a fact, at least a social fact. I personally blame the social scientists. They ceded their glory to the new intellectuals, the sports commentator. Or maybe they just lost out, because we want to be entertained. No matter, we must find a way to reconnect sports to society, to break down sport’s pedestal. Otherwise, I fear, their intellectuals will beat out ours for deciding the debate. Schaub or Keenum anyone? What dreary questions we have to look forward to. At least there is Dave Zirin.

Andrew Smolski is building his own micro-politics of desire little by little and brick by brick doing his part to rebuild the dreams of the oppressed, such as himself, for multiple better worlds. He can be reached at andrew.smolski@gmail.com

Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Uri Avnery
There is No Such Thing as International Terrorism
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Patrick Cockburn
Nasty Surprises: the Problem With Bombing ISIS
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Bill Blunden
Glenn Greenwald Stands by the Official Narrative
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Karen Lee Wald
Inside the Colombia Peace Deal
Geoff Dutton
War in Our Time
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai Park: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability