Friday, June 15, 2012

We Love the...Musings on Sport, Identity, and Community

I happened to catch an interview between PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and long time sportswriter and author of books on sports and, interestingly, Miss America, Frank Deford this afternoon on PBS World. One of the things Deford said to Tavis which I found interesting and which has long intrigued me was Deford's claim that sport helps create community even in a place like the United States which historically has had a somewhat difficult time creating a sense of national identity and national community. Sport, in other words, can and often times does play an important role in the civil religions and civic national cultures of nations, modern or traditional.

I agree wholeheartedly with Deford's general point. Sport can and often does play an important role in national identities and it can and often does play an important role in the civil religion of modern nation-states. All one has to do is look at how important football is to Brasil's national identity and civic culture, how important rugby is to New Zealand's national identity, an observation made even clear, if further proof were needed, during the 2011 Rugby World Cup held throughout New Zealand, and how important cricket is to the national identities and civic cultures of India and Pakistan, two nations with a long history of conflict and tensions with one other who faced off against each other in the quarter final of the Cricket World Cup in 2011 leading to spikes in nationalism in both nations.

Where I disagree with Deford is with respect to the role sport plays in American identity and community. When it comes to sport in the United States the US is rather parochial or exceptional. The sports that have and continue to dominate the US sport landscape and which appear in regular rotations on ESPN and Fox television and sports radio, are football, basketball, and baseball. Historically speaking all three of these sports have been played largely only by Americans, at first White Americans something that tells you about American racial history, and played largely only in the United States despite claims that baseball's championship series is a World Series and that the NFL's championship series is the Super Bowl.

I do, of course, realise, that American basketball and baseball have become more international both in competition and in participation since the 1960s but compared to football, real football, the game Americans call soccer, rugby, and cricket international basketball and baseball competitions, there is now a baseball world cup, remain relatively minor sports compared to the world's international sports, and of relatively limited interest to Americans. This American disinterest, by the way, may change if the US football team gets into the final rounds and final games of the football World Cup given the relationship between sport and nationalism, however.

What is so interesting about America's dominant sports of football, basketball, and baseball is that the US really doesn't have a national team or a national team that really matters to most Americans despite the Olympics and the baseball World Cup. American football teams, basketball teams, and baseball teams are city based and draw their support from their cities, their states, or their regions, despite claims that the Dallas Cowboys are America's team or despite the existence of Red Sox or Yankee nation (we shouldn't forget that some places in the US have no major league sports teams or that some jump on the sports team bandwagon for a variety of reasons including winning records and we must not forget migration). They thus are grounded in city, state, or regional identities and communities. They are also often ethnocentric. Fans of the Red Sox, as the photograph above suggests, are not necessarily favourably disposed to other baseball teams or their fans particularly if the team is the New York Yankees and the fans are New York Yankees fans. So in the end, America's dominant sports actually create tribal identities rather than regional identities.

In this American sport teams mirror or reflect, on the microsociological level, what has long been a fact of life in the US on the macrosociological level. The United States, since its inception, has been a country divided regionally between North and South and, as a result, has had significant regional identities, particularly in the South. Expressions of this Southern regional identity can be found in Southern religion and Southern sports, particularly football, the major sport in the South, a sport that is part of the Southern civil religion as the Southern mania for the SEC, the South Eastern Conference, the major Southern collegiate football conference, shows. What impact all of this has had or continues to have on a common American identity and sense of community is an interesting question that deserves further analysis.

What also deserves further study is the role sport plays in vanity identity. How was the great Jewish baseball player Sandy Koufax perceived in the American Jewish community particularly after he refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series between his team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and their opponent, the Minnesota Twins because it landed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish ritual year? What role does Black success in a variety of sports play in Black identity in the US? How does Usain Bolt's and the success of other Jamaicans in track and field impact the Jamaican sense of self and Jamaican nationalism?

Some Concluding Thoughts on Rugby and Nationalism
One of the things, by the way, I have become increasingly interested in, partially because I have an interest in contemporary settler societies like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and partially because I have developed an interest in rugby to go along with my interest in real football, soccer, is the role the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team, plays in the New Zealand civil religion. I offer the following as a dossier in how sport and nationalism intersect and intermix in the civil religion or civic culture of a nation, a modern settler society nation.

Exhibit number one: Neil Finn and Friends, "Can You Hear Us". “Can you Hear Us” was written and performed by Neil Finn of Split Enz, Crowded House, and Finn Brothers fame. It was written in 1999 to celebrate the appearance of the All Blacks in the upcoming World Cup. The video is full of images of the All Blacks including their famous haka, and All Black fans, including the gathering of friends and family to watch the All Blacks in the World Cup imaging themselves, one presumes, doing all they can to help their beloved team win it, thinking about past Kiwi rugby heroes (they come to the door and cary in the sofa), about NZ heroes in general (Xena, Lucy Lawless, who appears in the video is a Kiwi), and dreaming that they one day might actually be an All Black themselves. Not surprisingly the tune hit Number One in NZ where Finn himself is regarded as something of a national treasure.



Exhibit number two: Not surprisingly New Zealand and Australia are rather competitive with each other including on the sports pitch. Sometimes this competitiveness plays itself out on the rugby pitch. Rugby may be New Zealand's national sport but it is not Australia's. That honour belongs to Australian rules football. Anyway, the following promo on Network 7 for the Australian-New Zealand rugby match reveals a lot about stereotypes and caricatures Australians have about Kiwis not to mention about the role national pride plays in rugby matches between the Wallabys and the Kiwis.



Exhibit number three: Here is the TV1 news report on the All Black loss to the French during the 2007 World Cup in Cardiff, Wales. Note the sense of almost religious like devotion and the very emotional response to loss among All Black fans interviewed in Wales.



Finally, here is one of my favourite hakas. This one takes place before the All Blacks-Tonga game and reveals something about nationalism, nationalism and sports, and the role the haka and the Tongan sipi tau play in revving up excitement, much of it nationalist, just before a rugby match.




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