We have a national obsession in the United States with sports. Sports and sports talk are on 24/7. According to Marketwatch, Americans spent $100 billion on sports last year, half of it on attending games. You can watch sports every night and all day on weekends. You can tune in to sports talk shows on NESN and listen to sports talk radio. We spend on average about an hour a day consuming sports. You can also bet on sports. How much we bet is hard to track because a lot of it is illegal, but it is certainly in the billions. This obsession with sports applies to women as well as men, but it is males who are most obsessed and not surprisingly that means that men know a lot about sports. In fact, as sociologist Deborah Tanner found, men love to report information about sports to each other. This reporting may or may not be competitive and involve one-upmanship, but in any case, men have virtual libraries of information about sports that they’ve compiled. If there were SAT exams in sports, men would ace them.
Unfortunately, this sports knowledge often appears to take the place of knowledge of the world beyond sports. So American men might be more likely to be able to list the starting lineup of a local team than they are to be able to list the nine members of the Supreme Court or who their state representatives are. They can tell you how many men are on the roster of their favorite team, but they don’t know how many people live in the United States, never mind how many whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and undocumented immigrants live in the country.
In addition, professional sports have embraced the military which is kind of an odd marriage that allows both sports teams and fans to express their patriotism. The whole notion of thanking the military developed as a backlash to the shameful treatment of our returning soldiers during the Vietnam War when we publicly criticized and blamed soldiers for the sins of our politicians. Since then, Americans have become more openly supportive of the military yet at the same time, we are not really engaged in our foreign policy and few of us know what the military is doing in Afghanistan or Iraq or Pakistan or Syria.
Trump exploited the patriotic nature of sports when he claimed black athletes were disrespecting the flag by kneeling in protest of police violence against African-Americans. Although kneeling is certainly not a sign of disrespect, failing to show one’s deference to the Star-Spangled Banner and to our military is simply not acceptable in America. We must all stand. We’d better take off our hats. We’d better cheer for our soldiers. Yet these actions are easy and let us off the hook from considering what is best for our country and our soldiers.
It’s no surprise that most of these sports fans are white men. No surprise that Robert Kraft and many NFL ownersare Trump supporters who contributed to his campaign. So, sports become a means of supporting what Trump refers to as nationalism. Sports enable men to develop a common identity and a tribalism based on the support of local teams which supplants a knowledge of and engagement with politics. It allows men to dismiss controversial issues and avoid difficult questions about subjects like climate change and poverty and racism. Hence the comments that football is not the right arena for protesting racism. The NFL weaseled out of the black lives matter protests by colluding with the television networks. They simply don’t show the Star- Spangled Banner before games.
Sports then serve as a means of distracting the populace from other issues as a well as reinforcing a version of feel good patriotism. It is a way of avoiding the difficult questions about racism and our involvement in proxy wars overseas. At the same time, sports reinforce our tribalism with fans identifying with teams. It’s fun to be a part of Red Sox Nation and it is an escape from the relentless corruption of our corporations and politicians. But sports and sports fans are not necessarily good for democracy.
Sports fans are as divided as the rest of the country politically but the support of the military by sports fans is troubling since it crosses party lines. Consequently, both parties support the military in Congress. There is no anti-war movement though we need one both for the sake of our country and our soldiers.