Why the Super Bowl Matters, Especially to Sociologists

I think I’ve mentioned before, but I really don’t understand the lure of watching sports on TV. Or in person. Or from a skybox in a stadium with 50,000 other people. Generally, I don’t understand watching sports. So when I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, home of the Kansas State Wildcats with a Big 12 football team, I didn’t quite understand what I was getting myself into. When I rented an apartment directly across the street from the university’s football stadium, my friends couldn’t believe my good fortune. I couldn’t understand why that would be exciting; I was happy just to get housing close to my classes.

If you’ve never been to a Midwestern United States college football game, you don’t know American football. People in places like Manhattan, and Norman Oklahoma, and Lincoln Nebraska put the “fan” in fanatic.

The first Saturday of the new football season came as a shock to me.

It began on Thursday, with a few dozen people parking their recreational vehicles in the stadium’s parking lot, getting ready for the big game. They tailgated for two full days.

On the morning of the first game, the street outside my apartment became a parking lot, and driving anywhere from my apartment became impossible. I know, I tried. The wave of purple (Bleed Purple!) clad, ordinary looking people walking toward the stadium just before the game overwhelmed my car, and I feared I would be lost in a never-ending sea of purple.

I shook my head at all of those fanatics, and couldn’t figure out why they were making such a big deal about a football game.

But a few months later, as I walked through the student union toward a late night-dollar movie, I began to understand what the fuss was about. There, across the foyer of the union, stood a young woman clad in what people from my adopted home town of Chico, California, substitute for football fanaticism: a Sierra Nevada Brewery t-shirt. I had never seen the young woman before, but as my feet sped toward her, I didn’t care: the shirt, and the young woman, were a welcome reminder of home.

I nearly accosted the young woman in the Sierra Nevada t-shirt, and asked her how she came across the shirt. To my surprise, she was a native of Chico, and, more amazingly, the daughter of one of my old Sociology professors at Chico State. I nearly fainted with joy. We spent 5 or 10 minutes talking about Chico, then I let her go, although somewhat reluctantly.

I never saw the young woman again, but the connection I wanted to make with her because she wore that Sierra Nevada shirt made me start thinking about the reason I needed that connection. I never approached people in my home town when they wore the same shirt, but when I was 1800 miles from home, I couldn’t stop myself from approaching her.

As humans, we seek out connections with people, since we are social creatures. We crave bonding, thrive with positive reinforcement from others, and actually heal ourselves in times of stress when we seek out others for comfort. In traditional societies, connections with people are easier to make and maintain, since few people move great distances.

In modern societies, social ties are more difficult to make and maintain.

When I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada in the early 2000s, it was the fastest growing city in the nation, with 6,000 people moving to the city, and 2,000 people moving out every month. It was a city in flux, and a city where no one made lasting connections. It was especially hard hit after 9/11 happened. It was a tough city to make friends in. It was also the city with the highest rate of teen suicide in the nation.

Emile Durkheim argued that it was the connection to others, the strength of a community’s ties, that is related most significantly to long term suicide rates in a culture. When I think of Las Vegas, I don’t doubt his theory. When I lived there, I thought the break down in social ties was an anomaly, but in the dozen years or since I’ve left Las Vegas, I’ve felt the social ties in the U.S. break down at a faster rate. As a result of these weakening community ties, we are seeking other ways to recreate these ties more and more.

Have you ever asked yourself why Facebook is so popular? It’s because we have largely lost the social ties we had in traditional communities, and Facebook allows us to recreate those ties.

Today, the average person will move more than 11 times throughout his or her lifetime. Most of those moves will be before they reach 45 years old. Most children live in households where both parents work, and we are raising our children to not be home and connected to their neighborhood as much as in previous generations. Children and adults today spend more time working or in school, participating in sporting events, and traveling than they do in their homes and neighborhoods, and with extended family. In essence, we have broken the traditional social ties that Durkheim found to be a fundamental necessity in stable societies. We used to come together around our families, our neighborhoods, and our churches, but in modern society, today, those ties are broken over and over again throughout our lifetimes.

But there is one constant that many people, Americans especially, can cling to and identify with wherever their lives take them: national sports teams.

In a time when we feel the least connected with others, even our closest family members, sharing a connection with millions of other fans of football or baseball or basketball, and especially sharing a connection with other people who support your team, is invaluable.

Sports team affiliation transcends religion, gender, age, time, place, race, and socioeconomic status. Sure, it can create rivalries, but taken in a positive light, team pride can, and does, create closer social bonds and community ties. Hanging out with people on Super Bowl Sunday creates and recreates community, and from a sociological perspective, makes a more stable and predictable society, and that is good for all, even if you only watch for the commercials, and show up for the food.

So if anyone complains or asks you today about why you watch the game, don’t feel guilty. Tell them you are contributing to social cohesion and saving lives by recreating community ties.

In the meantime, I’ll be on a plane, headed for Kansas, maybe wearing a Sierra Nevada t-shirt. If you see me, give a shout out for Chico, but don’t ask me the score of the game; I don’t even know who’s playing.

2 thoughts on “Why the Super Bowl Matters, Especially to Sociologists

  1. Tony

    Durkheim also wrote about the nature of “secular religion” and its rituals. The Super Bowl and the rituals surrounding it are an expression of America’s civic religion, as are sports spectacles in other countries as well.

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