Why is violating a sports ritual such a big deal?
Rather than focus on either the nobility, courage, arrogance or ungratefulness of Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand up for the national anthem, I think it is more revealing to consider why it seems so important to sports fans that he stand up for the national anthem. It has been pointed out that when Donald Trump claims he wants’ to “make America great again” the “Trumpettes” cheer wildly. The implication, of course is that American is not so hot now. But when a sports athlete also says America isn’t so hot, refuses to stand up and place his hand over his heart, it means something very different. Analysts have pointed out that the contrast between Trump and Kaepernick is an example of white privilege. But does this mean that if the football player who did this was white, the reaction of the fans and the sports media would be very different? I don’t think so.
What is the emotional reaction of sports fanatics? My guess is something like the following: shock, surprise, betrayal, anger, anxiety, and hopelessness. In cognitive psychology, we explain the emotions of individuals by the interpretations and explanations people give to them. In the case of being a fan of professional baseball or football, there are collective emotions and collective explanations. My claim will be that collective emotions, their interpretations and explanations are rooted in the propagandistic nature of what sports means to sports fans at this point in history in the United States.
The continuum between religion and nationalism
There is a clear parallel between religion and nationalism. Historian of nationalism, Anthony Smith, has pointed out in many books that it is impossible to understand nationalism without understanding religion. He argues against Enlightenment notions that nationalism has in any way replaced religion. Rather, beginning with the French Revolution, nationalism has created its own mythology, gods, rituals, sacred places, pilgrimages and martyrdom alongside of religion.
In his book From Nation to State Wilbur Zelinsky identifies a four-stage process by which nationalism was formed in the United States, spanning from colonial times to the end of the 19th century. The drive for nationalism in the United States was paramount after the Civil War in a desperate attempt by elites to paper over the regional animosities, which continued to fester long after the Civil War. There was a massive, systematic state propaganda campaign that lasted from 1865 to World War I, which included the following: the creation or amplification of a mythology which includes Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and the American dream. There were mythological characters like Brother Jonathon, Yankee Doodle, and Uncle Sam sketched out in newspapers. Then there were culture heroic groups like the pioneers, the frontiersman (Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett) and the cowboys (Wild Bill Hickok and Billie the Kid). The most important characters in the mythology were the patron saints – Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Lincoln.
Myths and characters might be internalized, but their power is amplified by talking about them. Noel Webster worked for a long time to create a distinctively “American language”. This included speaking English only as well as using American mottos (“I regret that I have only have one life to give to my country” to name one) at particularly sensitive national moments.
These myths and characters were deepened and amplified through the arts in literature – including the dime store novel as well as novels about the West. The myths were visually strengthened by the landscape paintings of the “Great American West” by Remington, Thomas Moran and Frederick Church. Artists were recruited to work on maps, paper money, coins, stamps, the American flag and the “Great Seal of the American Eagle”.
Long before capitalism, state elites in Egypt and Mesopotamia understood the impact of monumental architecture to create a feeling of their power – and at the same time, to create a mass feeling of insignificance in the lower classes. In the United States, in addition to monuments like Bunker Hill, the Statue of Liberty and Plymouth Rock, there was a flurry of state building projects after the Civil War, from statues of military heroes and presidents to the rock carvings of Mount Rushmore. So too, it is no accident that virtually every city I know has the names of presidents in their downtown area.
Lastly, for the state propaganda of nationalism to work, performances are necessary. These included military parades, military drills (the Blue Angels), presidential inaugurations, pilgrimages to Washington D.C., colonial reenactments, pledge of alliance, and the naturalization initiation into citizenry. Many of these performances needed to be coordinated by nationalistic voluntary organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the American Legion. DAR volunteers sewed flags and were instrumental in making sure there was a flagpole outside of every school. In short, the American public has been deeply victimized by state propaganda of nationalism long before, as well as during and after baseball or football games today.
The continuum between nationalism and sports
In the case of baseball, spectator sports has in its turn, created its own mythology from the rural farm to the big city (think of The Natural or Field of Dreams) and in its characters (baseball greats Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb). Baseball has its sacred places – its stadiums. Instead of pilgrimages to Washington DC, baseball sports fanatics go to Cooperstown. Baseball and football fans have their flags, gear, and songs just as religious fanatics and nationalists do. If nationalists have their holy documents – The Declaration of Independence – baseball has it books of statistics, which sports fanatics have memorized more thoroughly than any religious or political documents. There are many more compelling comparisons I could make, but I think you get the picture. Sports fans, whether at the game or watching at home, have been deeply propagandized and this affects their reaction to any violations of its taboos.
Sports and nationalism as the hearts of a heartless world
What is important to understand is that both the rise of nationalism in the United States and the rise of national baseball teams were either completed (the case of nationalism) or started (in the case of baseball) at the end of the 19th century. It was precisely at this time that the industrialization process broke up farming communities in the United States. They also broke up what was left of city communities through the building of factories and the creation of boulevards, which broke up working class neighborhoods. The industrialization process forces geographical migration to new cities. What both nationalism and sports give to rural and city folks stricken by the loss of a real community are a reified, superimposed community of strangers who have neither roles nor obligations, who commune with each other through the spectacle on the field. Loyalty to a sports team papers over alienated economic conditions where capitalists are loyal to no one. As Marx might have put it, sports teams are the heart of a heartless world.
Like it or not, a professional football game easily outdraws a religious service, conventional political activity or nationalist rally, whether live or televised. Colin Kaepernick has violated the taboos that make not only the sports football season so important, but also the nationalistic and religious rituals that stand behind them.
Contradictions between life under capitalism and the pageantry of sports
In his book Social Structure and Testosterone, Theodore Kemper presents a series of contradictions between life for lower and middle class people under corporate capitalism and life compared to the life of these same social classes while rooting for a professional sports team.
In order make my case I would like you to consider the contradictions between the following four categories:
- Conditions of capitalism in general
- Conditions of sports as a capitalist business
- Condition of the performance of athletes
- Mythology of sports fans
What I will try to do is to point out are the contradictions between the conditions of capitalism, the conditions of sports as a capitalist businesses on the one hand, and the conditions of athletes and the mythology of sports fans on the other. There will be six comparisons.
- Success based on inheritance vs. success based on competition and skill
Despite the tall stories capitalists today spin to the public of having gone from rags to riches, most capitalists live off the investments their parents or grandparents made, who actually may have become a capitalists through hard work. Capitalism today is not based on fair competition between evenly matched entrepreneurs where the best product wins. All this is part of Adam Smith’s Origin of Capitalism myth. Today most capitalists inherit their wealth, and this wealth accumulates over generations. When we examine sports as a capitalist business, are the owners evenly matched competitors? No, they are not. While an owner cannot buy a Super bowl or a World Series by outspending other owners, a very wealthy owner can buy quality players, which will increase the probability the team stays competitive throughout the year.
But now we come to our first contradiction. Can the players buy their way into the Major Leagues or the National Football League? No, they cannot. In the process of fielding a professional team, athletes must compete with each other and being a superior athlete requires a great deal of skill, talent and perseverance. Sports fanatics love this, because it confirms the capitalist mythology that sports fanatics want to believe about capitalism. That myth is that, like the players, capitalists are evenly matched, and the capitalist who is successful has become so because they too had skill, were ingenious, shrewd and through hard work and sacrifice produced a superior product.
2. Can success be accumulated over time or is does everyone get another chance?
Can wealth be infinitely accumulated? As we all know, under capitalism there is no limit to the wealth that can be accumulated. You can inherit your wealth, add to it and pass it on across generations. At the other end of the spectrum, can poverty be accumulated? Most sociologists would say yes. Being poor creates a sinkhole that children and grandchildren cannot so easily climb out of. In professional sports, the story is different.
In professional sports the equivalent of “wealth” is the number of won games over a season, and a “generation” is roughly a season. So in the case of sports, can the accumulation of wealth (in baseball winning 100 games in a season or in football winning 11 to 12 games) be accumulated across generations or seasons? No, it cannot. No matter how many games teams win or lose in one year, those wins or losses are in the record books. Every team starts the new season 0-0. This arrangement corresponds beautifully to the mythology of sports fans: teams must earn their status anew every year. This is powerfully captured in the sayings of the fans whose team did badly, “wait until next year.” What the working class in real life cannot easily do – rise in the class hierarchy – he/she can do vicariously through a team which can rise from last to first place. If you will never become a millionaire, at least your team might make the playoffs.
3. Chaotic, undifferentiated social conditions vs. conditions of clear constraint, drama and creativity
How structured is social life under capitalism? Most people would say there is a structure, but it is too complicated to understand. The actual workings of the political system or the stock market are incomprehensible to the overwhelming majority of people. In addition, success and failure on the job can be extremely vague and the opportunities to know whether you are “winning” or “losing” on projects are usually not easily spelled out by those in charge. Sport as a capitalist business is also complicated for the owners. The owners must manage not only players, but also the coaches and managers. They cannot know ahead of time how many people will come to the games or whether the fans while respond to new gear or gimmicks.
However, when fans come to appraise of the game of baseball or football, the chaotic skies clear. The games have clear beginnings and endings, winners and losers. In addition, sports provide an excellent mix of constraints – roles, rules, strategies and opportunities to be creative. The mythology of sports fans for social life is there should be structure, continuity, drama, and the opportunity to express skill within those constraints. What poor and working class people cannot experience under capitalism, they experience through the drama of game and climaxes and anti-climaxes of their favorite team throughout the season.
4. Is being working class a stigma or are members of the working classes heroes?
How is the working class treated under capitalism? Kemper, Richard Sennett and Harry Braverman all point out that the decline of skills in manual labor, as a result of the operations of complex machinery, has resulted in a loss of “character” in most working class jobs. Character refers to a pride in a skill one has crafted over many years. In addition to this loss, the American working class works longer hours, have jobs that no longer pay union wages and which provides less security. If you ask working class people what social class they are, they will say “middle class”. Last time I checked, sociologists say about four-fifths of working class people do not know what social class they are. Partially this is because there are ashamed of “working with your hands”.
However, among the capitalist owners there is far more respect for the physical skill of the working class. Sports athletes are paid very well to train and develop their skills. Once working class fans enter the theater of sports, fans get to witness the acrobatics of their heroes (the players) who have worked hard and sacrificed – and are paid very well. Through sports the working class is redeemed. Athletes are heroes for the working class because they make a lot of money and they do it with physical skill.
Perhaps you might feel skeptical or even cynical that I’m calling professional athletes working class because, after all, many are millionaires. But sociologists have argued that social class by income or wealth is a relatively superficial categorization. A better way to think about social class is a) in what proportion do you use your body and mind, and b) what is the relationship between giving and receiving orders? Because athletes make their living primarily with their bodies and because they take rather than give orders, they are working class regardless of their salary. Perhaps you are not convinced. Fair enough for now. My point is that working class Americans love baseball and football players because they represent the redemption of the bodies of the working class, bodies that have been punished over decades of hard, often punishing work, bodies that die five to seven years younger than those in the middle or the upper middle class.
5. Hyper-mobility vs. loyalty to the home team
If we ask the football fans why they are so loyal to the San Francisco 49ers, they would probably say that they are from San Francisco or some other place close to the Bay Area. So according to these fans, loyalty comes from living in the same location as your team. If you say to another fan that you’ve lived in San Francisco all your life and you are for the Chicago Bears, sports fanatics will think you are crazy. They will become increasingly impatient with you, especially if the Bears are playing in the playoffs against the 49ers. Now here is where the social schizophrenia comes in.
Are capitalists loyal to their nation-states? Of course not! If they were loyal, their profits might be largely constrained by a militant labor force. Capitalists could care less about its native working class or any other social class for that matter. Are the owners loyal to San Francisco or to any other city where they have bought a team? No. Would the owners leave if they could make more money elsewhere? They have and they will. As many of you know, New York State once had three teams: the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees. The fans were fiercely loyal to their teams. That did not stop the owners from moving to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Are the players born and raised in San Francisco? No. Would the players leave if the money is right for another team? Yes. The SF 49ers moved out of San Francisco to Santa Clara a few years ago and the Golden State (read Oakland) Warriors will soon be moving the much wealthier city of San Francisco.
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 from the playoffs for the fans? How about the fans that faithfully rooted for the 49ers every week in front of the TV? Will their celebration of victory in the streets produce any financial payback? Why don’t fans see what is going on and say to themselves, “if owners and players are not loyal, why should I be?’” Because fans believe in being loyal to a place and this loyalty provides comfort, and belonging. Most of the population before the industrial revolution felt this way and most people still feel this way. In order to live in this mythological world they must block out the disloyalty to the place that surrounds them.
6. Cynicism about scandals vs. outrage about scandals
When the American public was told the DNC campaign had been tampered with to favor Hillary Clinton, the Sandernistas were outraged. But many Americans accept political corruption as the norm and this is demonstrated by how many American claim to “hate politics”. Their contempt of Congress shows in its approval ratings, which are about 10%, and in election polls in which close to half the population does not even vote. In regards to economics, people generally hate the financial traders on Wall Street, but if they were informed of the insider trading that goes on, they might be angry for a while, then shrug their shoulders and go on with their day. In other words, people have built up a tolerance for scandals in the world of industrial capitalism. But scandals in sports are an entirely different matter.
A few years ago there was a big scandal about the use of steroids in baseball as suddenly long standing homerun records were being broken by Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa. Sports writers and some fans complained bitterly about the purity of sports being ruined, and that the record books would be a mess. People would hotly argue about whether these players really were home run kings.
A couple of years ago I had a very special opportunity. A lecture on sports as propaganda I gave in a college class I was teaching was timed for discussion two days after the Super Bowl game between Seattle and New England. As many of you remember, Seattle had the ball with about ½ yard to go for a touchdown that could have won the game. Instead of running the ball with Marshawn Lynch, the quarterback attempted to throw for a touchdown and it was intercepted. The next day I went into my class and set out to prove the same cognitive compartmentalization was going on that I am claiming in this article. I told my students that the Super Bowl was fixed. What I faced was an uproar I don’t think I have ever experienced in teaching. While in many ways students are not a good sample of the American population, in this case they seemed to be. The idea that the Super bowl was fixed was a scandal they would not put up with. Political and economic scandals are one thing. But not my team, not my sport!
The sports fanatics I’m describing may be using a psychological mechanism called “cognitive compartmentalization”. This means a person allows contradictory-thinking processes to exist in the mind separately, and actively prevents them from becoming integrated. As you know, cognitive compartmentalization is a much more common process that occurs in more than just sporting events. Individuals refuse to face contradictory information, whether it is about their family, romantic partners or at work. We simply allow the contradictions to exist in a state of suspended animation making sure that their paths never cross. This compartmentalization 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”?
Sports fanatics are living out a vicarious version of the American Dream
So what is Kemper’s theory suggesting? If you can’t live the American Dream under monopoly finance capital, you can participate vicariously in the quest for the American Dream through your favorite team and through the players. This is based on a subconscious bet fans make with themselves. That bet is that in sports there is a better chance of upward mobility for my team going from last place to higher up in the division than there is of me as a working class person rising up in my social class under capitalism. This explains why so many working class people in the United States love professional sports.
Kemper’s theory does not explain at least these three circumstances:
- Upper middle class people who have the American dream and are sports fanatics
- Middle class people who have the American dream and are sports fanatics
- Working class people who do not care about sports at all
Paying the price of cognitive integration: The case of Colin Kaepernick revisited
My prediction is that the kinds of fans most likely to be upset with Kaepernick’s actions were similar to the people who cheered Trump when he said that he wanted to make America great again. Working class people are starting to accept the decline of their nation when it is stated in a political setting. However, they will not tolerate it when it invades their collective dream landscapes, which vicariously fulfill the American Dream. Kaepernick made these fans anxious that the unsettling condition of race and the police in America might start oozing into a world they thought was sealed. Fans might feel hopeless to stop that leakage so it doesn’t spread. There may be nowhere to go for relief.
Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem was ruining the collective revelry of the enactment of the American Dream at a time when the actual American Dream is a distant memory for most working class people. What he did was to cross the border between cognitive compartments. He also crossed the border between the political economy and cultural diversion. What he was doing was polluting the mythologized scene of a football game by trying to integrate into this dreamscape the actual existing state of race in capitalist America. Kaepernick has provided sports fans with some anti-psychotic medication. Whether or not sports fanatics will take their medicine depends on whether other players join Kaepernick and how much sports fanatics are willing to face reality.