As many of you know, last week there was a big National Football league playoff game in Arizona between the Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers. In the stands was a young kid wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey who may or may not have had other Seattle fans with him. For those of you who have not been initiated into the mystery of professional football fan-life, wearing a jersey of another team is a very dangerous thing to do. The Seahawks are in the same division as the Cardinals, they were eliminated from the playoffs, and it is safe to assume this kid came to the game to root for Green Bay against the Cardinals. The stadium is filled with thousands of fans all rooting for the Cardinals. If you haven’t gotten the picture, this scene would be similar to watching God and the devil battling it out in a Christian fundamentalist church and then, suddenly they noticed some of the people in this house of God starting to root for the Devil.
This religious metaphor is apt because, like it or not, a professional football game easily outdraws a religious service or any political activity, whether live or televised. Rooting for a professional team is a religion complete with mythology, gods, drama, climaxes or anti-climaxes.
What kind of psychological state are these Cardinals fans in to beat up a stranger for rooting for the other team? If we ask the fans why they are so loyal to the Cardinals team, they would probably say that they are from Phoenix or some other part of Arizona. So according to these fans, loyalty comes from living in same location as your team. Now here is where the schizophrenia comes in. Are the players born and raised in Arizona? No. Would the players leave for another team if the money was right? Yes. Are the owners loyal to Arizona? No. Would the owners leave if they could make more money elsewhere? You know the answer.
When the team wins a championship, do the owners send a check to the people who showed up for the games, in some cases under adverse weather conditions? Do the players kick in some of the extra money they made from the playoffs for the fans? How about the fans that faithfully rooted for the Cardinals, every week on T.V.? Will their celebration of victory produce any financial payback? Why don’t they see what is going on and say to themselves, if owners and players are not loyal, why should I be loyal?
These fans may be using a psychological mechanism called “compartmentalization”. This means that you allow contradictory thinking processes to exist in the mind separately while preventing them from becoming integrated. As you know, this is a much more common process than just in the case of sporting events. Individuals refuse to face contradictory information, whether it is about their family, romantic partners or conditions at work. We simply allow the contradictions to exist in a state of suspended animation. What’s important is that this compartmentalization process goes on at a mass level. Whenever masses of people, people who are strangers, exhibit the same dissociation process, we can be assured that some kind of political or economic propaganda is at work. But what can the propaganda be? After all, isn’t sports just harmless “entertainment”? Isn’t it just “amusement”?
In his book Social Structure and Testosterone, 1990, Theodore Kemper presents a series of contradictions between life for lower and middle class people under corporate capitalism compared to the theatrics of rooting for a professional sports team.
In real life under capitalism, people are confronted with an upper class, many of whom have inherited their wealth, and this wealth has accumulated over many years. In other words, upward mobility for the middle and lower classes is limited because people in these classes do not have an inheritance of substance to help move them up the class ladder. Secondly, once you are at the top of the class hierarchy, most of the time you pretty much stay there. At the other end of the spectrum, sociologists tell us that most working class people live and die in the same social class. Sometimes they ascend, but with rare exceptions do they ascend one social class. But in becoming the fan of a sports team, the results of “your” team achieving high status is limited to a single year. The team that finishes first in a division still has to prove itself next year. On the other hand, if “your” team does badly, these fans tell themselves “wait ‘til next year”. In sports there is a better prospect of upward mobility – of a team going from last place to high up in the division – than there is in the social class structure of this same fan’s working class personal life.
Let’s face it, most people in the United States do not understand how capitalism really works. They don’t read the Financial Times or the Wall Street journal. They don’t understand the stock market and they really do not understand why some people have a better life than others. But in sports unlike in life under capitalism, guidelines for success are transparent. The rules are clear, time and space are well structured, there are creative strategies of how to win, and at the end there are clear winners and losers.
Despite the tall stories capitalists today tell the public of having gone from rags to riches, most capitalists lived off the investments of their parents or grandparents made who actually did become capitalists through hard work. Most working class people understand that financial capitalists have not earned their money according to the American Dream. However, in entering the theater of sports , the fans get to witness the acrobatics of their gods, the players, who have worked hard and sacrificed and are paid very well.
Lastly, if you ask working class people what social class they are, they will say “middle class”. The last time I checked sociological studies, about four-fifths of working class people do not know what social class they are. Partially this is because there is shame around “working with your hands”. But through sports, the working class is redeemed. According to Marx’s definition of social class, being working class means making you are working primarily with your body and taking orders from others, but not giving orders. By this definition, even though many professional athletics are millionaires, they are still highly skilled working class. Athletes are heroes for the working class because they make a lot of money and they do it with their physical skills.
So what is the Kemper theory suggesting? It suggests that if you can’t have the American Dream under monopoly finance capital, you have to participate vicariously in the quest for the American Dream through your favorite sports’ team. Kemper’s theory does not explain why some working class people don’t care about football, nor does it explain why some middle class and upper middle class people are sports fanatics. However, it does explain why so many working class people in the United States love professional sports. So in Arizona last week some of those fans beat up the fan from Seattle because he was ruining their collective revelry, their hope that the Cardinals would go on to the Super Bowl, and sadly, make their lives happier – at least for a little while.