Super-Bowl and the Drama of the Holy in a Secular Society

Since the 31st Super bowl will be played later the day, I thought I would summarize an article on the Sociology of Sports I wrote in 1984...the original article is in Arena; it also appears in my 1991 book, The Drama of Social Life, Transaction Books.

In every class organized society,
Sport serves a political function.
Capitalism supports a division of
sports into 'us' and 'them.
Progressive societies must use
sports to bring people back from
their lonely, tortured and shattered
worlds to their rightful human dignity.

...adapted from Arbeitsports
by Fritz Wildung

A.  Five Ways to do a Sociology of Sports:

  1. Most people who write/think/work in professional sports today adopt a structural functional point of view. In this approach, one charts the various structures in professional and amateur sports, records attendence, salaries, win/lose patterns, auxilliary support institutions, financing, publishing, advertizing costs as well as trends and social problems of athletes in their careers from little league to major league play.

    For structural functionalists, sports helps build character, produce solidarity, generate profits, provide jobs, expand the economy, entertain the public and supplement the family as a source of self and social identity.

    Social solidarity, especially, is of interest, especially to those who follow the ways of Emile Durkheim. In brief, both amateur and professional sports offer a mechanical solidarity to supplement the thin and depersonalized organic solidarity of divisions of labor...

    ...more than that, sports offers a solidarity with which to transcend the social differentiations which produce conflict and is a matter of pride that sports has lead the way in dismantling the legacies of racism which we inherited from slavery. It is a source of uncertain pride that Title IX has begun to dismantle the ancient structures of patriarchy in public games and sports. In Boston and in Green Bay, rich and poor alike will cheer, chant, despair and rejoice as the ball takes its unlikely bounces.

    Many primary groups will spend the better part of the day in those situated dramas of the Holy which reunite and repair the harm done to friendships by time and distance. Solidarity supplies will re-sanctify the social bonds; along with the drama of violence played out on the television screen, alchohol, special fatty foods, chants, dances and gaming will generate those extra-ordinary states which Durkheim noted as proof demonstrative of the Super-Organic; of the reality of society assembled.

    There is much merit to such work and it is done by sociologists of much merit. But there are other paradigms not well explored by structural functionalism.

  2. There is also a freudian approach to the analysis of sports. In a freudian approach football, basketball, base ball, golf and soccer are re-enactments of the primal scene in which father and son struggle for sexual access to earth mother.

    In this analysis, the goal line is the hymen of urmother, the bat is a phallic substitute, the ball is the receptacle of sperm and the home run is the symbolic murder of urfather. The golf club drive a smaller ball into a smaller hole.

    In football, the scrimage line is the symbolic hymen and the fullback drives deep into the sacred territory of the father figure. Basketball slam-dunk are seen, in the freudian drama, as a triumph of the adolescent son over the unaccessible mother figure.

    In baseball, the catcher's mitt is genital organ of earth mother while the pitcher is the incestuous son trying to get pass the swinging bat of the guardian father.

    In this analytic schema, sports is seen as alienated sexuality...and a freudian would suggest that players grow up, find a suitable sexual partner and leave behind the incestuous dreams of a child.

    ...for some freudians, sports is a harmless outlet for endemic anxiety, hostility toward father/society/super-ego which, in Freud, are necessary constraints on the primitive urges of the psyche.

  3. Many analysts see sports, cinema, television, play, poetry and other forms of culture are 'divertissment' from the problems, disappointments, failures, frustration and obstacles to success which is the common fate of all.

    Adults stay in social harness; they work, plan and adjust to the adversities of life...they do not run away into the world of make-believe and just-pretent...they work hard all the days of their life nor do they laugh, play and ignore the problems of the morrow.

  4. Marxism. There is a growing literature in cultural marxism which studies the ways in which human consciousness is colonized by the capitalist class and by which theoretically informed rebellion and resistence are deflected. Marcuse, Adorno, C.P. Thompson, Lukacs, Gramsci and a hundred other cultural marxists make the case that the grace, elegance, beauty and skill of athletes, musicians, dancers, poets, singers of song and writers of prose are bought by corporations and are used to solve endemic problems of capitalism.

  5. A Postmodern Theological Analysis also helps the sociology student to understand the interest in, resources devoted, and attention given to such sports events as the Super-Bowl.

    In this analysis, sports events are myths which help answer the central problematics of social life. A myth grasps the basic concerns of a complex society and offers simple solutions to them.

    Every society needs use generate the awe, wonder, mystery, and magic of just-pretend and make-believe as carrier and legitimator of those simple answers. In sacred societies, the god concept and the dream world from which we came and to which we go offers basic plans for life as well as guides on how to deal with the four questions of life:

    As with pre-modern myths, games and sports events give answer:

CONCLUSION: Sports events are powerful stories about how we should live. They are transcendent myths which give us inspriration in a impersonal massified and de-sanctified society. They tell a story to the hundreds of millions who no longer go to church...who no longer have a religious solidarity to which to turn and from which to draw courage and faith for the morrow.

Sports, play, make-believe and just-pretend are too important to the human project to leave to commodity capitalism. As Fritz Wildung said in the opening of this mini-lecture, a good and decent society must possession of these most wondrous human products and keep them oriented to the human condition.

TR Young

Red Feather
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