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Cultivated Disinterest in Professional Sports :: Copyrighteous

Like many of my friends, I have treated professional sports withcultivated indifference. But a year and a half ago, I decided tobecome a football fan.

Several years ago, I was at a talk by Michael Albert at MIT wherehe chastised American intellectuals for what he claimed was cultivateddisdain of professional sports. Albert suggested that sports reflectthe go-to topic for small talk and building rapport across class andcontext. But he suggested that almost everybody who used the term”working class struggle” was incapable of making small talk withmembers of the working class because ??? unlike most working classpeople (and most people in general) ??? educated people systematicallycultivate ignorance in sports.

Professional sports are deeply popular. In the US, Sunday NightFootball is now the most popular television show among women inits time slot and the third most popular television in America among18-49 year old women. That it is also the most popular televisionshow in general is old news. There are very few things thatanywhere near half of Americans have in common. Interest in footballis one of them. An enormous proportion of the US population watchesthe Superbowl each year.

I recognized myself in Albert’s critique. So I decided to follow alocal team. I picked football because it is the most popular sport inAmerica and because their strong revenue sharing system means thateither team has a chance to win any given match. My local team is theNew England Patriots and I’ve watched many of the team’s games orhighlights over the last season and a half. I’ve also followed acouple football blogs.

A year and half in, I can call myself a football fan. And I’ve learneda few things in the process:

  1. With a little effort, getting into sports is easy. Althoughlearning the rules of a sport can be complicated, sports arepopular because people, in general, find them fun to watch. If youwatch a few games with someone who can explain the rules, and ifyou begin to cheer for a team, you will find yourself gettingemotionally invested and excited.
  2. Sports really do, as Albert implied, allow one to build rapport andsmall talk across society. I used to dread the local cabdriver who would try to make small talk by mentioning Tom Bradyor the Red Sox. No more! Some of these conversations turn intobroader conversations about life and politics.
  3. Interest in sports can expand or shrink to fill the time you’rewilling to give it. It can mean just glancing through the sportssections of the paper and watching some highlights here orthere. Or it can turn into a lifestyle.
  4. It’s not all great. Football, like most professional sports, isdeeply permeated with advertisements, commercialism, andmoney. Like other sports, it is also violent. I don’t think I couldever get behind a fight sport where the goal is to hurt someoneelse. The machoness and absence of women in the highest levels ofmost professional sports bothers me deeply.

I’ve also tried to think a lot about why I, like most of my friends,avoided sports in the past. Disinterest in sports among academics andthe highly educated is, in my experience, far from passive. I’ve heardpeople almost compete to explain the depth of their ignorance insports ??? one doesn’t even know the rules, one doesn’t own atelevision, one doesn’t know the first thing about the game. I didthe same thing myself.

Bethany Bryson, a sociologist at JMU has shown that increasededucation is associated with increased inclusiveness in musical taste(i.e., highly educated people like more types of music) but that thesepeople are most likely to reject music that is highly favored by theleast educated people. Her paper’s title sums up the attitude:“Anything But Heavy Metal”. For highly educated folks, it’s a signof cultivation to be eclectic in one’s tastes. But to signal to othersthat you belong in the intellectual elite, it can pay in culturalcapital to dislike things, like sports, that are enormously popularamong the least educated parts of society.

This ignorance among highly educated people limits our ability tocommunicate, bond, and build relationships across different segmentsof society. It limits our ability to engage in conversations and builda common culture that crosses our highly stratified and segmentedsocieties. Sports are not politically or culturally unproblematic. Butthey provide an easy ??? and enjoyable ??? way to build common ground withour neighbors and fellow citizens that transcend social boundaries.

“Bethany Bryson, a sociologist at JMU has shown that increased education is associated with increased inclusiveness in musical taste (i.e., highly educated people like more types of music) but that these people are most likely to reject music that is highly favored by the least educated people. Her paper’s title sums up the attitude: “Anything But Heavy Metal”. For highly educated folks, it’s a sign of cultivation to be eclectic in one’s tastes. But to signal to others that you belong in the intellectual elite, it can pay in cultural capital to dislike things, like sports, that are enormously popular among the least educated parts of society.”



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