Fans of the legendary English soccer team Liverpool FC display their support
Fans of professional sports are a derided bunch. Usually associated with belonging to the lowest common denominator intellectually and culturally, others have gone as far as to claim that they represent the most prevalent form of social conditioning present in our modern society.
An observer in first century Rome coined the phrase bread and circuses to describe how Romans of that era chose food and fun over freedom, thus giving up their civic duty in favour of decadence. To people like Noam Chomsky, little has changed. In Manufacturing Consent Chomsky explains the role of sports in social conditioning:
Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.
Is being a fan of professional sports all that bad? New research by economists and psychologists suggests that sports fandom actually has some benefits.