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Football: An American Social Construction

by ANDREW SMOLSKI

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.

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Weekend Edition
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