A force for emancipation and discrimination
The development of modern sport is inextricably linked to parliamentarism, industrialisation and the advancement of the principle of competition in business and society. Losers always get a second chance, an opportunity to recover and make a comeback. While the logic of winning is by definition undemocratic, and indeed inherently elitist, the long process of becoming a winner has the effect of encouraging and fostering democracy.
By Andrei S. Markovits
The word ‘sport’ comes from the Middle English ‘disport’ or ‘desport’, which can best be defined as ‘to amuse oneself ’, ‘frolic’ and also ‘divert oneself’. So sport involves amusement, diversion and games. Here the English language with its words ‘game’ and ‘play’, along with ‘match’, with its four meanings of ignite/light, harmonise/correspond, contest/compete but also deceive/defraud, is much more nuanced than the German 'Spiel' and the French 'jeu'.
And indeed modern sport is a gift to the world from the two English-speaking democracies – chiefly Britain, but also the USA. Of course just about every culture has always played 'games', an essential constitutive element of modern sport. As the great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga wrote long ago in his classic book 'Homo Ludens', it seems to be in people’s genes, or at least in their social DNA, to play – somehow and somewhere.
Play is a ubiquitous human activity. And like play, physical activity, another key constituent of sport, is also ubiquitous in the world. The Romans played harpastum, an ancient kind of football; the Chinese also enjoyed ball games, as did the Egyptians, Incas and of course many Native American peoples. In Europe, France was a particular hotbed of ball games, and the mediaeval football games of Italy and England live on in 'calcio fiorentino', which is played all summer long in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, to the delight of locals and tourists alike, and in the Royal Shrovetide football match that takes place every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne, the most famous of the many folk football games that are still played in Britain.
It is no coincidence that folk football is also known as mob football, as these matches are contested by large and above all unknown numbers of players in two ‘teams’. Rules are few and at times there is a touch of violence, or at least rowdiness. The vague rules have changed over time and never been institutionalised in the modern sense, so these games remain incomprehensible to outsiders. This means they have never lost their provincial, local character, which is part of their often well-marketed charm in our highly mobile and globalised world.
In Shrovetide football, the Up’Ards, people who live north of the river, face the Down’Ards from south of the river in a game that lasts for hours and roams around the whole town and its surrounding area. Its key legacy lies in the word ‘derby’, a football match between traditional local rivals, which is referred to as a classico in Romance languages and as rivalry games in North American English.
It seems that all cultures have always recognised and played these kinds of games. A few years ago a Romanian colleague assured me that baseball is a Romanian invention, because in Romania and elsewhere there are a great many games of the bat-and-ball variety. These are the predecessors to modern variants such as tennis, cricket, baseball and other sports involving hitting a ball with a bat or racket.
Development of modern sport
But what is particularly interesting is the fundamental change from occasional and of course local pastimes to the development of modern sport. This required the setting of some not strictly adequate, but absolutely necessary conditions, which were welcomed primarily by Britain and then by the USA.
I would like to briefly outline the work of Berlin historian Christiane Eisenberg (and particularly her book 'English Sports und Deutsche Bürger') and the work of the legendary Harvard scholar Barrington Moore Jr. ('Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy') in this area in order to highlight the key factors that led to the development of modern sport in England and how this contrasts with its absence in Germany, Austria, France and other countries of continental Europe.
1. The permeability of the aristocracy and middle classes. The German aristocracy was much more exclusive than the British, and paradoxically it was also more numerous and impoverished. While the British nobility was thoroughly commercialised, their German counterparts remained largely untouched by this development. The main reason for this was the principle of primogeniture in the British aristocracy. The oldest son automatically inherited the title while the rest of the family had to earn their living outside the household. This led to the British aristocracy entering professional and commercial life, so in a way they became middle-class.
2. The powers of the British monarchy were curtailed early on.
3. The emergence of parliamentarism.
4. The early onset of the commercialisation of business and society, even before the Industrial Revolution.
5. The promotion of the principle of competition in business and society.
6. By the late 18th century, the idea of gambling – that unequal lottery that is based on pure luck and organised by the state – had led to the development of information science, expertise, training and regulated ways of thinking and acting in boxing, horseracing, golf and cricket, and this was crucial to their success.
In his ground-breaking studies on the connection between skill and luck, particularly in the areas of investment, inventions in various fields, and sport, Scott Page of the University of Michigan demonstrates how the culture of gambling and socially constructed actions – such as sport – promote the components of skill, so expertise, knowledge and data gathering, in contrast to ‘pure’ games of luck in which few cognitive abilities are invested, practised and learned.
The English sports economist Stefan Szymanski compares early developments in sport in the UK and USA with those of France and Germany, and shows that the main difference between them was the strength of the middle classes in the former and the strength of state authority in the latter. In the 17th century the people of the British Isles (particularly England and Scotland) were developing what Szymanski calls ‘associativity’ with others, so a tendency towards creating social groups in voluntary organisations that were not subject to any kind of state intervention. Clubs were perhaps the most important of these.
Such clubs were created for the strangest of reasons, often quite at random or because of personal preferences for pastimes that brought together its founders and members. They included totally frivolous games that were quite pointless in and of themselves. Szymanski pithily describes this as ‘flagrant pointlessness’.
There is certainly no real point or problem-solving purpose to hitting a small ball towards a little hole 100 yards away using strange-looking clubs, but in Scotland this came to be known as ‘golf ’. At first, strange games such as golf and cricket had little sense in and of themselves. But over time they developed into complex and modern networks of competing clubs, which soon created a set of rules. In this way they constructed and promoted the languages of golf and cricket with all their grammar, rules and exceptions.
To begin with, these ball games were quite pointless. They had no military purpose and did not train the body in ways that might be of service to the state, as was very often the case in Germany and France. It was only later, in the post-Napoleonic and particularly the Victorian era in Britain, that these games were used for purposes such as ‘muscular Christianity’ and other ideological purposes in terms of upbringing, education and physical training – of course for young men only – and legitimised and justified in this way. In contrast to Britain, this way of dressing sport in ideological garments in order to legitimise the system and serve the state (particularly in team sports) only occurred later in the USA.
There is no doubt that baseball successfully ousted cricket in US sports culture in the 19th century because it was seen a way of asserting American identity over British identity. In the 18th century we see how this new domain that would come to be known as sport began to promote the idea of performance as the most important element.
In the end it was the Sephardic Jew Daniel Mendoza (1764–1836), who was not only the first true sports star in Britain – and hence the world – but who is still referred to and recognised as the ‘father of scientific boxing’, the first person to successfully integrate and apply modern methods in this sport.
Gentlemen and players
Incidentally, it is said that Mendoza was the first Jew to speak to King George III. En route to the team sport of cricket that was codified in 1787, the meritocracy of the sport also meant that at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), where Thomas Lord opened a playing field in 1786 that came to be known as Lord’s, the North London mecca of cricket, ‘gentlemen’ could join ‘players’ on the same pitch and play with and against each other in total equality, although the changing rooms of gentlemen and players remained segregated until the 1960s, and team captains had to come from the ranks of the gentlemen.
It is important to note that – in contrast to the etatist developments in German states and France at that time – the prominence of the MCC as the ultimate decision-maker on all things relating to cricket did not emerge through state intervention or through the club’s own efforts, but through a process of a gradual levelling of all institutions that were relevant to the game and embedded in England’s middle class society, a result of the ‘associativity’ as defined by Szymanski.
Even then we observed the parallel action of the two dimensions that are inherent to sport and still exist and define it today: the meritocratic performance and results-related dimension on the field, in the arena and on the part of the players themselves, which works in a binding and integrative way; and the offfield dimension that is group-affirming and emphasises differences, which in contrast leads to division and separation.
Nowhere are these two competing characteristics of modern sport that prima facie exclude each other while still being symbiotic better described than in what I believe is the best book on sport ever written: 'Beyond A Boundary' by C.L.R. James. This book provides an excellent overview of the colonially oppressive yet at the same time meritocratically freeing power of cricket.
Norbert Elias was right when he linked the development of modern sport in Britain and particularly England – above all as the origin of many team sports using a ball-shaped object – to a particular phase in the development of civilisation and middle class society. In terms of timing and structure, these coincided with the founding of the Bank of England, the abolition of state censorship and the beginnings of an executive branch run by a cabinet, which Jürgen Habermas believes were central to Britain’s democratic development and the emergence of its middle class.
As betrayed by the terms ‘fair play’ and ‘amateur’, or the wonderful English expression ‘to be a good sport’, these structures harbour a certain tolerance of losing. Only the political systems of parliamentary organisations, liberal democracies even – where a certain tolerance of even the harshest opposition and antinomy is the norm that preserves their existence – could systematise competitions in which there are always winners and losers, but whose attraction lies precisely in this dichotomy. Losers always get a second chance, an opportunity to recover and make a comeback. While the logic of winning is by definition undemocratic, indeed inherently elitist because there can only be one winner, the long process of becoming a winner has the effect of encouraging and fostering democracy.
It was not such a long journey from the amateur games in public schools and the Oxbridge cosmos to the dictum of Vince Lombardi, the almost mythical ex-coach of the Green Bay Packers, whose name today adorns the championship trophies of American football and who summed up the essence of modern sport when he said: ‘Winning is not everything, it’s the only thing’. And the words of Bill Shankly, the no less legendary former manager of Liverpool FC, when he suggested that football is not a matter of life and death, but much, much more than that.
If we substitute football with North America’s Big Four (baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey); with cricket in Pakistan, India, Australia and New Zealand; and with certain other team-based ball games in other countries, then we have the essence of this structure, which I call ‘hegemonic sports cultures’.
It is not by chance that modern sport reflects the essence of its creator, that is to say the liberal democracies. To begin with, at least nominally, everyone has the same access and starting conditions, all take part under equal terms and follow rules that are understood and approved by everyone involved, but in the end there can only be relatively few winners.
The uncertainty of every result, perhaps the key difference between sport and all other areas of entertainment and the arts, also represents a democratising moment – because for every undertaking that on paper seems hopeless, there is always the chance of an upset, the implicit possibility that David could beat Goliath. But paper is one thing, the playing field is another. Without this uncertainty, sport just turns into a show like ‘entertainment wrestling’ where the roles of winner and loser are staged.
I will now take a brief look at the emancipatory and cosmopolitan dimensions of sport. More specifically, I would like to do this via the three axes of class, race and gender – the holy trinity of social sciences in today’s America.
Let’s begin with class. Broadly speaking, the predecessors of sport until the post-Napoleonic era were spontaneous, non-organised, often crazy, violent and almost exclusively local folk events for the lowest social classes. This then changed drastically with the wideranging reforms and reconceptualisation of sport as part of the mens sana in corpore sana ideology at the public schools and universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
Sport became the domain of gentlemen, a pastime for the elite, for whom taking part is much more important than winning, which is frowned upon. And, for God’s sake, sport is no longer allowed to have anything to do with money – sportspeople can never be paid! Amateurism and ambitious dilettantism were declared as the ideal that everyone had to follow. The background to this is clear: amateurism, which was deliberately falsely and misleadingly linked to the Ancient Greeks in order to legitimise class exclusivity and give it a cultural gloss, was invented and propagated by the elite of Oxbridge and the public schools in order to make it difficult, if not impossible, for people of lower social classes to take part.
Upholding the idea of amateurism
Let’s just think about why tennis and cricket players always have to wear white. It means that dirt quickly shows up, so that clothing has to be constantly washed, something that presented a real obstacle to poorer people at that time. And why were cricket matches always played during the week and over several days? Until the late 20th century, the ethics and metrics of upholding the idea of amateurism quite simply gave legitimacy to such important sporting entities as the Rugby Union and, above all, the Olympic Games.
The elite culture of Oxbridge students in the 1860s and 1870s still remains the allencompassing ideology of American college sport, which is run by so-called student athletes. For most participants this flies in the face of reality (almost all the over 430,000 current student athletes receive no payment, go on to pursue other careers and practice their sport during the four years of their university undergraduate courses simply for enjoyment), but in the culturally significant sports of college basketball and college football it leads to significant contradictions, conflicts and transgressions.
Class exclusivity begins to change
his class exclusivity began to change around 1869, when the Cincinnati Redstockings baseball team turned into the world’s first fully professional sports team, meaning that for the first time 25 individuals received a set salary for playing a children’s game in front of an audience. And it should be noted that most of the Redstockings players came from humble backgrounds, and there was only one player who came from Cincinnati. So from then on the logic of winning turned into the logic of the best player, regardless of geographical origin, particularistic obstacles and characteristics considered to be restrictive. At heart, this is the logic behind globalisation, a social driver that is inclusive and hence cosmopolitan because of its absolute focus on winning.
This democratisation of baseball continued with the founding of the first professional sports league in the world, the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, in 1876. In the 1870s and 1880s, similar developments were playing out in parallel on the other side of the Atlantic, where association football was becoming increasingly commercialised, and therefore more professional and socially inclusive.
The English professional football league was founded in 1888, turning the game into the country’s most democratic sport.
While rugby explicitly turned away from these democratic and commercial developments and swore quasi-eternal loyalty to its elite amateur status, the clubs in the Rugby Football Association that were mainly based in the working-class areas of the Midlands split away and set up the Rugby League, a separate institution based on professional players. It also developed its own code, which was different from the classic Union game, and therefore a new sports language.
In contrast, the Union game only turned professional in summer 1995, so exactly 100 years after it had frowned upon the workingclass Rugby League with professional players. The tension and divisions around professionalisation, class origins and the milieu of association football and rugby union is best described in the following words, attributed to either Oscar Wilde or Rudyard Kipling (the origin of this saying is still not quite clear): ‘Rugby is a game for barbarians played by gentlemen; football is a game for gentlemen played by barbarians.’
Let us now turn to race, and I would like to include religion in this category, as I find it makes little sense to worry about whether being a Jew is a religious or ethnic category. In ethnically pluralist countries, all types of sport are affected by ethnic codes and concerns.
For example, in South Africa rugby is still largely the preserve of whites – despite the film 'Invictus' and the World Cup victory in 1995 – or more precisely the preserve of Afrikaaners; while association football continues to be almost exclusively the sports culture of the country’s black citizens.
In the USA, in the first half of the 20th century the urban sports of boxing and basketball were disproportionately popular with Jews, and this urban character led to their growing popularity with Afro-Americans in the second half of the century.
Racial integration of baseball
Racial integration, particularly in baseball with Jackie Robinson in 1947, marked the start of a series of key years for racial equality in the USA: 1954 (Brown vs. Board of Education); 1964 (Civil Rights Act); 1965 (Voting Rights Act); 1967 (Loving vs.Virginia) and 1972 (Title IX of the Education Amendments of the Civil Rights Act); a trend that was continued with the election of black mayors, members of Congress, senators, university presidents and, finally, the country’s president. Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron in baseball; Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton and Doug Williams (the first black quarterback to win the Superbowl) in football; Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and Michael Jordan in basketball were and remain key figures in the long and ongoing emancipation of Afro-Americans in the USA; their outstanding sporting achievements have made them important agents of this social change.
As my co-author and University of Michigan colleague Lars Rensmann points out about his hometown of Dortmund and his favourite club Borussia, black Brazilian players Dedê and Julio Cesar have exercised an enlightening and extremely cosmopolitan influence on the town’s culture and its people thanks to their excellent performances on the pitch.
Of course there have been and remain diehard racists and counter-cosmopolitan fans and citizens who will always remain immune to such developments, indeed who are even spurred on by the resentment they arouse. Yet there is no doubt that the performances on the field of representatives of ethnic minorities (who are almost always discriminated against and often even hated and spurned) have an emancipatory character, for two reasons.
Firstly, even the biggest racist learns to respect and appreciate an outstanding performance in a game that he loves for the team that he adores; indeed, he is almost obliged to accept this milieu. And secondly, the top performances of representatives of such ethnic minorities embody an incredibly important moment of affirmation, giving them confidence and advancing their participation in society as a whole and improving their potential for acceptance.
Zinedine Zidane symbolised a key moment of integration for many French citizens with Maghreb origins; Joe Louis was a key figure in the growing self-assurance of America’s black citizens; and it is impossible to fully understand the integration of American Jews into the country’s cultural mainstream without ‘Hammerin’ Hank’ Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Racism still exists in the stadiums of the English Premier League, but it has declined in direct proportion to the growing numbers of black players on the pitch.
In short, the sporting performances and successes of the representatives of discriminated ethnic minorities smooth the way to their acceptance and integration into society. The more of such ethnic outsiders who emerge as successful figures in hegemonic sports cultures, the more accepted their ethnic groups will be by society. As ever, in this case quantity also possesses qualitative characteristics. For a long time, being accepted and noticed has not meant being respected, let alone loved. As we know from pertinent studies from the USA, people draw a distinction between black stars in sport, films, TV and music and ‘normal’ black people. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey (far and away the richest woman in the USA) are not really seen by the public as being black; their fame has transformed them into transcendent stars whose ethnic background is irrelevant and not consciously perceived.
And now we come to the third factor, that of gender. With the exception of a few religions, in today’s liberal democratic industrialised countries I am not aware of any public institutions or structures that exercise such an impenetrable, consistent, strict and a priori totally self-evident and fully legitimised gender segregation as sport – not in politics, business, academia, education or the arts. ‘Sexual apartheid’, as it was so appositely described by Paul Hoch a few years ago, although I prefer to call it ‘gender apartheid’, in order to highlight the social concept of gender rather than the physical determination, solely and exclusively defines the essence of sport.
Of course in all the other social spheres mentioned above men still dominate. Patriarchy is still thriving – it’s still a man’s world. But at least over the last 30 or 40 years women have clearly challenged the Victorian middleclass hegemony and gained a strong foothold in some institutions that were formerly totally dominated by men.
But with very few exceptions this is not the case in sport. Of course there are some sports that are fully integrated right up to Olympic level and where women and men compete against each other, such as dressage and the Finn, 49 and Tornado sailing classes. And of course there have always been women who have managed to break through the iron cage of men’s sport and directly challenge the opposite sex.
In 1973 Billie Jean King beat her male counterpart Bobby Riggs in the ultimate, very symbolic Battle of the Sexes tennis match. Swedish golfer Annika Sörenstam and her American colleague Michelle Wie have at times tried their luck on the men’s tour; and the US racing driver Danica Patrick has now been successful for some time in the male domain of motorsport, and in 2008 she was even the first woman ever to win a race in the popular IndyCar series.
However, it is clear that such phenomena are very much one-offs and clear exceptions to the rule. But there is one immanent question: why, particularly in team sports, does it seem exotic and absurd to even occasionally consider the possibility of wide-ranging gender integration?
Why couldn’t football teams play with five women and six men or vice versa? Apart from the Dutch sport of korfball, there are no mixed teams at the highest level in any sport, with the two sexes playing side-by-side in the same team. Why is this? Why do women only play against women and men only against men? Of course men can usually run faster, jump higher and are stronger than women. But isn’t it possible to interpret citius, altius, fortius in a way that integrates gender? Why do we totally accept and more or less approve this gender apartheid, this clear discrimination in the area of physical activity, when we reject it totally in intellectual areas?
Despite the gender apartheid that exists in sport, over the last four decades women have broken into and conquered new worlds that were previously quite unthinkable, as I demonstrate with Lars Rensmann in our book 'Gaming The World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics And Culture'. We only have to think of the incredible progress of women’s sport in male-dominated team sports that have ruled the hegemonic sports cultures of Western countries for more than a century.
Until the 1970s in Germany, female football players played with smaller, lighter balls. They had no studs on their boots, played only for 60 minutes, were subjected to regular gynaecological examinations and had to submit to other similarly discriminatory and humiliating conditions. In the USA, up to the 1970s women’s basketball teams were made up of 6 to 9 players (instead of the normal 5 in men’s teams) and were only allowed to dribble once – later twice and in the 1970s even three times – before they had to pass the ball to another player.
It was 1982 before the National Collegiate Athletic Association opened its doors to the first women’s basketball team. Since then, players at top teams such as Connecticut, Tennessee, Maryland, Stamford, Texas and Notre Dame have become real stars, with their matches regularly attracting up to 20,000 spectators and respectable TV viewing figures among the US sporting public. Among sportsmen, there is no equivalent of former tennis player Anna Kournikova: someone who becomes a global star based on their sex appeal rather than on the basis of consistent sporting success.
With the help of in-depth interviews, I have been working with PhD student Jennifer California from the University of California in Berkeley to examine how the constructs and debates on sexuality and gender are different for sportswomen than for their male colleagues. We have shown how the rare violent acts committed by women in the heat of battle – such as in college basketball and college football – are immediately sensationalised and evaluated by the public according to quite different criteria than similar events politein men’s sport, which are more or less everyday occurrences.
When women demonstrate expertise, knowledge and enthusiasm for sport, men tend to tolerate them rather than viewing them as equal partners.
It is interesting that this fear of intruding into a new milieu where they are not welcome only manifests itself in young female college students when it comes to sport. It is not prevalent in the discourse on politics, economy, culture and society, nor in study subjects, even in areas that still have a male connotation, such as physics and mathematics.
There are no examples of this in the world of sports language and sports cultures, which are still so male dominated. To some extent, acceptance has to come from the participants themselves, and we know that such informal legitimisation and ‘naturalisations’ are often more difficult than those that come from above or from outside.
All's fair in love and war
It is clear that from the moment that winning and victory became the be-all- and-endall of sport – and not only simply taking part, as the media would still lead us to believe at the Olympic Games and many other tournaments – sporting activity has been accompanied by hostile, intimidating and discriminatory moments and activities between the players themselves, and particularly between their fans. In any competition, winning is linked to passion, so every time and in every constellation it will produce modes that at least tolerate behaviour that potentially breaks the rules, and may even promote such behaviour in order to gain victory.
When I hear the English phrase ‘all’s fair in love and war’, I always add ‘and in sport’. The boundary between fair fan behaviour and excited, but acceptable, support for your team on the one hand and unfair behaviour on the other is extremely fluid. It changes diachronically and synchronically and varies from sport to sport. In golf it is totally unacceptable to even cough, let alone shout, fidget or disturb the players’ concentration in any way, whereas in basketball it is de rigueur during a free throw.
Changes in fan behavior
The democratisation of tennis has also led to a change in the fans’ behaviour. Over the last 20 years is has become normal to loudly cheer on one’s favourite player until just before the serve, in this way spoiling their opponent’s concentration. Interestingly, in tennis and golf acceptable forms of fan support have changed massively in team events such as the Davis Cup, Ryder Cup and President’s Cup. Now cheering on the home team and taunting and opposing the visiting team is not only deemed totally acceptable, but even encouraged and required.
When these tournaments were played almost exclusively by American, Australian and British gentlemen, it was normal to politely applaud the opponents and be respectful when they were playing. People were among ‘their own’, part of an almost hermetically sealed group of insiders in terms of gender, class and race.
But when the sport became increasingly open to everyone, and when that most poisonous of all passions – nationalism – became involved, it became normal to deride, taunt, and spit at opposing teams and players, and even to throw beer, batteries and coins at them – actions that would give the home team a home advantage using every possible means and ignoring all social rules and conventions.
In this way, the boundaries between devoted fans and hooligans have become increasingly amorphous and unclear, because it is part of the competition to upset and unsettle the opponent, to shake their confidence so that they lose the game. What is allowed and not allowed? Should it be allowed to derive enjoyment from wading knee-high in the blood of dead Catholics, as the supporters of Glasgow Rangers do at least three times a year when they play against local rivals Celtic in the notorious Old Firm derby? ('Up to our knees in Fenian blood' is a line from the loyalist song 'The Billy Boys'.)
Should it be allowed to mention Auschwitz, Hitler, killing Jews and plays on words about Hamas and gas, as the away fans of Ferencváros, Feyenoord and Chelsea do regularly in different variations when their teams play the ‘Jewish teams’ MTK, Ajax Amsterdam or Tottenham Hotspur? Does it go beyond the acceptable when, in the decisive seventh game of the NBA final, the visiting team, the Los Angeles Lakers, have to endure a changing room in Boston Garden on a scorching hot day where there is no air-conditioning but the heating is blasting out – and surprise, surprise! – there’s not a plumber in sight who can fix this ‘problem’. Or if the fire alarm suddenly goes off at four in the morning in the visiting team’s hotel and mysteriously it can’t be switched off for an hour?
Clearly, it is considered to be a totally legitimate element of every sport to get into the opponents’ heads and play with their minds. As part of my research into this topic in collaboration with a social psychologist and biologist, I would like to show that the main element of the huge home advantage is not the strange place, the unfamiliar playing location, the hotel, the different food or the long journey.
The home advantage
It is not specifically about logistics and organisational issues, but actually about the twelfth man in football, the seventh in ice hockey, the sixth in basketball, and so on – in short, it is the crowd, the fans and the atmosphere that they create that helps the home team and makes it difficult for the visiting team. We know that refereeing decisions in the North American Big Four demonstrate a clear bias towards the home team, and this has also been examined in similar studies on the German Bundesliga and other European football leagues. There is a statistically significant variance that favours the home team. At the same time, studies from Italy show that the home advantage totally disappears if a team is forced to play their home games in an empty stadium.
The referees also lose at least a shred of their professionally imposed impartiality in the heat of battle and favour the home team, certainly for reasons of self-preservation and probably also because it is much more pleasant for people to be met with praise and love rather than threats, humiliation and hatred.
In this respect it is interesting to note that in the USA, a society that most statistics and indicators clearly show is more violent than Europe, violence, hatred, discrimination and exclusion are less prevalent in popular sports, and particularly in the dominant team sports of baseball, football, basketball and hockey than is the case in European football, which is the equivalent of the US Big Four in every respect. This applies to both quantity and quality. A few brief reasons for this are as follows:
1. The much higher numbers of women and families who attend Big Four games in the USA compared to football in Europe.
2. The Big Four teams have fewer political, religious, ethnic and other ties that create identity and hence fanaticism than is the case in European football.
3. Distances are much greater, meaning that it is much less usual for away fans to travel with their team than is the case in European football.
4. It is unusual for there to be two or more rival teams in the same area. In Europe this is still the case in most cities, and it was even more prevalent until relatively recently. Apart from Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, no cities in North America have more than one team in a league and sport; and where there are two teams they play in leagues that rarely meet, such as the American and the National League in baseball, so there is not such a strong history of bitter defeats and the associated need for revenge as is the case in European football.
5. Finally, and most importantly, in the USA there was an active and substantial civil rights movement that of course has not achieved all its aims, but it has outlawed explicit and publicly expressed racism, as unfortunately is still the case in the stadiums and arenas of Europe.
Without wishing to delve too deeply into theoretical issues at this point, I would like to refer to the American social scientist Robert D. Putnam. More than most other structures, sport has a high degree of ‘bridging capital’ and ‘bonding capital’ as Putnam describes them so aptly in his classic book 'Bowling Alone'. And if the ‘bonding’ capital hugely and consistently overwhelms the ‘bridging’ capital, the danger of a counter-cosmopolitan attitude, its mobilisation and finally manifestation in the form of unruly behaviour or even violence is very high.
Do you speak sport?
A final point: for me, sport is the structural equivalent of language. You ‘speak’ football, baseball, basketball and cricket. Just like real languages, you learn these sporting languages better and more easily if you learn them at a young age. As with all languages, the meta level is crucial and leads to the decisive mechanisms of inclusion or exclusion. Of course this does not mean that it is not possible to learn languages – including sporting languages – perfectly at a later stage in life, but it is very likely that you will still speak this language with an accent if you have not learned it before the age of around 12 to 14. This has been clearly shown by linguistic experts such as James Flege. Of course having an accent has nothing to do with one’s ability in the language, both spoken and written. Joseph Conrad, who was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, only learned to speak fluent English when he was in his twenties, and he spoke with a very strong Polish accent throughout his life. Despite this, he became one of the English-speaking world’s most significant authors of all time.
For me, learning the language of sports and real languages is clear and axiomatic proof of having an international, cosmopolitan mindset. This is why I am always so happy when some of my American students turn out to be experts or at least have an interest in football; and when my European students in turn have a corresponding interest in the North American sports languages of the Big Four, baseball, basketball, football and ice-hockey, and are motivated to learn more about them. Because in both cases they are actively appropriating a new culture. They are showing interest and involvement in something strange that they then appropriate through active intellectual and emotional engagement. Just as learning languages broadens people’s horizons and gives them the means to access cultures that were previously foreign, the same applies to the polyglot world of sport. Surely there can be no better reason for being a true sports fan, expert and enthusiast?