“We won!” New England Patriots’ fans cheered on Sunday night. “You cheated!” angry Indianapolis Colts’ fans replied. #DeflateGate matters because sports are more than entertainment. (More)

Sports and Culture, Part I: “We Won!”

This week Morning Feature looks at sports and culture. Today we consider sports as tribal bonding rituals. Tomorrow we’ll see sports as settings for heroic epics. Saturday we’ll conclude with sports as venues for social activism.

Once upon a cave….

The history of sports is probably almost as hold as the history of our species. Cave paintings in France dated to 15,000 BCE seem to show races and wrestling matches, Mongolian cave paintings dated to 7000 BCE show wrestling with an audience, and an early form of sumo is seen on the walls of caves in Japan. Sumerian artifacts record wrestling and boxing, and ancient Egyptians competed in weightlifting, long jump, javelin throwing, archery, fishing, swimming, and rowing.

No one knows when the ball emerged, but human infants and many other animals are fascinated with rolling objects and the first balls were probably rounded stones. The Egyptians had a tabletop ball game similar to snooker, and Greek records describe games of toss-and-catch including episkyros, a team sport similar to soccer or football. The Romans added trigon, a three-player game where players juggled an inflated ball between them with their right forearms, and a team sport named harpastum where something like a softball was thrown and caught.

Faster, Stronger, Better Storytelling

Long before the Olympics, Minoan art depicts festivals that included bull leaping, where the contestant grabbed the horns of a charging bull – or dove over the horns and launched off the bull’s shoulders – to perform a backward somersault …

… much like the vault event in modern gymnastics:

As schoolchildren learn, the Olympics began in Greece in 776 BCE with many sports we still have today: footraces of various lengths, discus and javelin throwing, boxing and wrestling, as well as chariot races. Olympia hosted games every four years, but other cities quickly joined in. The Panhellenic Games cycle eventually included the Ithsmian Games in Corinth, the Nemean Games, and the Pythian Games in Delphi. These featured the Olympic sports but also added others. The Ithsmian Games included music and epic poetry contests and at least one woman competed, two-time epic poetry winner Aristomache.

“Sports are to war as porn is to sex”

So declared psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his 2008 TED talk, but his impression seemed to have changed in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind:

Every Saturday in the fall, at colleges across the United States, millions of people pack themselves into stadiums to participate in a ritual that can only be described as tribal. At the University of Virginia, the ritual begins in the morning as students dress in special costumes. Men wear dress shirts with UVA neckties, and if the weather is warm, shorts. Women typically wear skirts or dresses, sometimes with pearl necklaces. Some students paint the logo of our sports teams, the Cavaliers (a V crossed by two swords), on their faces or other body parts.
By the time the game starts, many of the 50,000 fans are drunk, which makes it easier for them to overcome self-consciousness and participate fully in the synchronous chants, cheers, jeers, and songs that will fill the next three hours.

I saw the remnants of similar behavior at a train station in Germany, where several young men were celebrating their soccer team’s victory. While they waited to ride back home, clad in hats and scarves of their team colors, they linked arms and sang the team’s song.

“Sie sind glücklich,” I said to my German friend. (“They’re happy.”)

The men overheard and raised their beer bottles, index fingers extended. “Wir haben gewonnen!”

Those men hadn’t actually played in the game. They weren’t even on the team. Like the UVA students Dr. Haidt describes, the men were fans. Yet like fans around the world, the German men included themselves in their team’s victory: “We won!”

“The people love you because you are a part of the people”

British historian Bernard Lewis argues that team sports are a unique invention of Western Europe and, specifically, the British Empire. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and its offshoot of rugby evolved into American football. The British take credit for soccer and rugby, although both probably have roots in the Greek and Roman sports described above. The British also invented cricket, from which baseball and softball were derived.

Yet Mesoamerican records depict the team sport Ōllamaliztli being played as far back as 1500 BCE across Central America. And while some Ōllamaliztli players were likely executed for cheating, the notion that all losing teams were beheaded is a myth. And while some Ōllamaliztli matches may have been played to resolve inter-city disputes, more often the game was played for sport, including by women and children.

Even so, sports sometimes do serve as a proxy for war or at least as cherished source of community pride. Consider the fans of Spanish soccer team Athletic Bilbao:

Their chants are ear-piercing. They draw out their battle cries, snapping the last syllable of each word like a whip: “Athle-tic. Athle-tic. E-up.” The drum roll follows, and then 40,000 fans in the San Mamés Stadium respond in unison: “Athletic, red and white. The people love you because you are a part of the people.”

Bilbao fans chant that because the team recruits exclusively from the Basque region. No other European soccer club imposes such parochial limits. But national teams do, and nationalism has a deep and sometimes ugly history in sports. Still, it’s a mistake to dismiss the entire cultural phenomenon based on its worst excesses, as psychologist Joshua Searle-White explained for The Atlantic last year:

I would argue that we human beings have a constant need to improve our sense of ourselves. The easiest way to do that is to compare ourselves to others – and see ‘us’ as better than ‘them.’[…]

There’s nothing quite so psychologically satisfying as the feeling of belonging to a group. Nationalism can be remarkably unifying, and unlike class or some versions of religious identity, it can do it across gender, class, and political lines.

Fans of a national, college, high school, or club team may have almost nothing else in common. But whatever else divides them, for at least a few hours they can don the team colors, sing the team songs, and stand as one.

Indianapolis Colts fans – and New England Patriots’ haters – had a shared sense of identity at stake in Sunday’s game, and that’s why #DeflateGate is a big deal. “Losing feels worse than winning feels good” is not just a cliché, and losing feels even worse if you think the other team cheated. That’s why those Ōllamaliztli players were executed, why the ‘Black Sox’ players were banned from baseball, and why Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles.

As a lifelong Patriots’ fan, I hope #DeflateGate doesn’t get that far. I would feel embarrassed, even though I had nothing to do with it. And on Super Sunday, I’d like to be able to say … “We won!”


Happy Thursday!