Americans everywhere are now preparing for the festivities of the Super Bowl. Even tepid sports fans will probably watch the game, or at least the commercials. More so than the commemorations of the victims of the shootings in Tucson, let alone any religious observance, this is the most shared experience Americans will have all year.
In the history of cultures, sports have probably never played as large a role in any society as they do now. Outside of the United States and Canada, soccer is almost universally the passion—excepting those few places where cricket holds pride of place. Football, baseball and basketball are the big ones here—with hockey and soccer surging in some areas. Organized leagues take on children at increasingly early ages and other leagues are reserved for remarkably fit seniors. From nonage to dotage, sports are everywhere.
Of course, there are always a few holdouts who will refuse to participate. You can find someone who will cite as outrageous the sums individuals are paid either to play or coach. (I am always taken with the statistic that the highest paid public employee in a state is often the football or basketball coach at the flagship university.) And the general barbarity that is now common after major events unmasks the ideal of the sporting gentleman.
Responses to such heretics come quickly: Sports teach the virtues of discipline, teamwork, and determination. While these are neither cardinal nor theological virtues, they are worth having. And sooner or later you will be reminded of Wellington’s claim: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton.”
Whatever the individual value of sports for the player, I am struck by the social value to the country. In the very years of forced egalitarianism—when we believe that every child must go to college, every person own his home, and every traditional institution topple—the most brutal elitism is permitted and praised if only it is committed in the context of a physical challenge. Yes, in elementary school every player gets a trophy, but soon the superiority of the best athletes is not hidden but celebrated.
And this is right, because as Tocqueville warned, the passion for equality can produce the most desperate inequality. The passion for equality and the passion of envy are remarkably similar, and in our zeal to obtain equality we’ll blindly give up other goods. In the extreme, we will give up freedom, preferring to be equally subject to one power and safe from being proved inferior to another than free to exercise our unequal abilities.
The widespread attraction to sports at every social level provides a uniquely egalitarian way of resisting what Tocqueville warned would become a soft despotism. There is nothing else in the country today that can act as a common language between the boardroom and the bingo hall, the classroom and the union hall. Sports, and most importantly talking about sports, is the only activity just about all Americans share regardless of age, education, or wealth. When the electrician shows up at the doctor's house they can always talk about one of the local teams. This is not as often the case in other countries where interest in sports is closely associated with class.
Could we achieve the same sort of social cohesion through some other, less brutal, means? Yes and no. In theory we could have a nation devoted to literature and the debates of public intellectuals. Many Americans think this is what France is like or, indeed, all of Europe. There was a time when America approached such a common passion. Reader's Digest responded to and encouraged an attempt by a generation of Americans to acquire the education that time and circumstance would otherwise make impossible.
The intellectuals have always disdained these efforts of the striving middle classes . (This disdain, incidentally, is much more the reality in Europe than is often admitted.) More recently, Oprah's book club tried to make some movements in this direction, but it was also derided as a little déclassé. This is always the problem when people try to pull themselves up and improve. Egalitarianism is always easier to achieve through reaching down than reaching up.
Sports achieve just such an egalitarianism of interest by reaching down. The achievement of the sports culture in America is that it permits a clear recognition that some people are better than others—elitism—without producing a cultural divide between those who can truly appreciate it and those who cannot. Everyone, rich and poor, intellectual and uneducated, can appreciate the achievement of elite athletes: Everyone is equal compared with Aaron Rodgers and Troy Polomalu. Even more, everyone is equal in front of the TV.
Snobbery among sports fans does not break down along social lines as so many other cultural efforts do. Reading Oprah’s latest middlebrow selection marks you as an embarrassing striver after a culture you can’t reach. Watching the Super Bowl marks you as a normal American.
Will the courts, the gridirons, and diamonds of America win for us the battles of the future? I cannot say, and there are undoubtedly many cultural perversions wrought by the hegemony of sports. But the shared experience of this most egalitarian of elitism is no small achievement, and is even one in keeping with the Spirit of ’76. So enjoy the Super Bowl, but be sure to talk about it with people.
Geoffrey M. Vaughan is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Fortin and Gonthier Foundations of Western Civilization Program at Assumption College, Worcester MA.