Sunday, August 28, 2016

Stadiums and Other Sacred Cows

[ed. See also: 5 Amazing Things About the Minnesota Vikings' New Stadium.]

There’s a strange sort of reverence that surrounds our relationship with sports. Jay Coakley first noticed it as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana; he was studying sociology, so perhaps it was hard not to analyze the sport-centered culture that surrounded him. He observed the hype around football weekends, the mania of pep rallies, and the fundraising enthusiasm of booster clubs. He noticed that football players always seemed to have the nicest cars—and heard through his wife, who worked at the registrar at the time, that sometimes transcripts were changed to keep players on the field.

He was so intrigued that he proposed doing his thesis and dissertation on the topic.

“My faculty advisor in the sociology department said, ‘Are you crazy? You have to focus on something serious, not sports,’ ” Coakley recalls. “I said, ‘How can anything be more serious than something that evokes almost 100 percent of the interest of 100 percent of the people on this campus for five to six weekends of the year at least?’ ”

Coakley ended up doing his dissertation on the racial and religious identities of black Catholic priests, and his Master’s thesis on the race violence seen around the country in 1968. Yet sport, laden as it was with many of the societal tensions he saw in his graduate work, continued to draw him back in. He proposed courses on sports and leisure; he conducted independent studies discussing what sports meant to various individuals; he worked with PTAs and parks and recreation departments; and he began focusing on coaching education. As the years passed, Coakley became one of the most respected authorities in the growing field of sports sociology—a much more serious field than his academic advisor might have ever expected.

Along the way, Coakley developed a theory that finally explained the strange behavior he had first seen at Notre Dame, and which he continued to see throughout the athletic world. He called it “The Great Sports Myth”: the widespread assumption that sport is, inherently, a force of good—despite the fact that it can both empower and humiliate, build bonds and destroy them, blur boundaries and marginalize.

Nautilus sat down with Coakley to talk about the unassailable mythos around sport, and the widespread impacts it can have on our society.

How did you come up with the idea of the Great Sports Myth?

I developed the Great Sports Myth when I was working here in Fort Collins, with a group that was opposing Colorado State University building a $220 million on-campus football stadium, the final cost of which—with just interest—would be over $400 million, and there will be cost overruns in addition to that. All when they have a stadium two miles from campus that needs some renovation, but nevertheless has been a decent place to play. I was working with a group that was opposing this—and by the way, 80 percent of the faculty opposed it, 65 percent of the students opposed it. But there were people who were talking about what this new stadium was going to do, and no matter what kinds of data you came up with to ask them to raise questions about their assumptions, they rejected the data. They rejected all the arguments.

It seemed to me that their position was grounded in something very much like religious faith. I was trying to figure out what was going on, and that’s when I came up with this notion of the Great Sports Myth, which they were using as a basis for rejecting facts, good studies, good logical arguments, and stating that: This is going to be good despite what anybody was saying in opposition.

What’s the historical context of this attitude?

It appears that sports became integrated into American society as a spinoff of what was going on in England. There was this sense that the sons of the elites in society needed something to make them into men, and sport was identified as the mechanism through which that could be done.

That idea was transferred to the United States, but in the United States the importance of sports was tied to a host other factors as well: The need for productivity, the need to socialize and assimilate different immigrant groups, the need to create a military, the need to control young people running loose on the streets during the latter part of the 19th century. So what happened was that sports came to be identified as an important socializing mechanism for boys, a social control mechanism, and a developmental mechanism.

People became committed to sports because it was tied to their own interests as well. And it got put on a pedestal. We even revised Greek history to reify the purity and goodness of sports—talking about how sports were important for developmental purposes among the Greeks, and how they stopped wars to have the Olympic Games.

Sport then gets integrated into the schools in the United States, and all sorts of functions are attributed to it without our ever really examining whether those were valid or not. And so we’ve developed this sense that sport is beyond reproach. If there are any problems associated with sport, it has to be due to bad apples that are involved in it, who are somehow incorrigible enough that they can’t learn the lessons that sport teaches, so we have to get rid of them.

That fits into American culture as a whole, and our emphasis on individualism, personal choice and individual responsibility. (...)

How has this culture trickled down to other aspects of society?

Because sport is a source of excitement, pleasure, and joy, we are less likely to critique it. Sport has also served the interests of powerful people within our culture. It reifies competition and the whole notion of meritocracy, of distributing rewards to the winners, and that people who are successful deserve success. It becomes tied to all sorts of important factors within our culture.

There is this whole sense of the connection between sport and development, for example— both individual development and community development—that gets used by people who want to use sport to further their own interests. For example, by getting $500 million of public money for a stadium that they used to generate private profits.

by Brian J. Barth, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Gabriel Heusi / Wikipedia