Sports, Language, and Culture

As part of my ongoing research into the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and the specific issue of racism with regards to the name of the Washington Redskins, I’ve decided to read up in more detail about sport culture and how it develops. I touched briefly on the topic of sports culture in a previous post, but that was only a brief summary. Today, I’m going to dig a bit deeper and try to understand some of the psychology at work in the perspectives of sports fans, their culture and traditions, and their beliefs with regards to the importance of sports.

I’m addressing this issue from the perspectives of two communication theories. One is Standpoint Theory, which explains that an individual’s perspectives and views are based on and shaped by their social location. Based on Standpoint Theory, one could argue that a rich politician in Washington doesn’t really understand poverty because they haven’t lived it, and they don’t know the perspective of the people who struggle with poverty everyday. I understand that my standpoint is going to affect how I view things, even sports. In particular, my standpoint is that I’m an outsider; I don’t watch sports, I don’t know the rules (beyond “get the ball into the goal”), and I have never been involved in the culture or community that forms around sports. Therefore I think it’s important that I note my “outsider” status since people reading my thoughts and opinions might take my viewpoint in a different way than they would the opinion of someone involved in sports.

Another perspective that is key in my approach is that of Symbolic Interactionism. The general concept behind this theory is that “people act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them; and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation.” I think this theory offers a good interpretation of sports culture, because many people have different reactions towards sports based on what sports mean to them. It’s especially important to consider how “meanings are derived from social interaction,” since my initial research into this area has shown me that the social aspects of watching sports have a lot to do with how people view sports in their lives.

In their article “Sport, Language, and Culture: Issues and Intersections” (Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 2010), authors Lindsey Mean and Kelby Halone call sports “a major cultural and socializing force and a cultural industry” (p. 253). Despite this, however, they state that “the wider psychological, social, and cultural significance of sport continues to be underestimated” (p. 254). I definitely agree that the role of sports can be underestimated, particularly by people like me. I went to Twitter to ask some people how they feel about sports in general, and quite a few people seemed to have no interest in it:

Eve_Jacob_SportsKaren_Junker_SportsMs_Manet_SportsPeople with no interest in sports seem to view them as a distraction at best, or a waste of time at worst. This view even extends into the academic sphere; Mean & Halone refer to scholars dismissing sports as nothing more than mere stereotypes and entertainment (p. 254). Yet this dismissive view seems to stem from the way certain individuals were raised. As I mentioned earlier, Symbolic Interactionism says that “meanings are derived from social interaction.” The tweets above show three individuals who seem to view sports as meaningless. The first two tweets offer hints as to why: sports can be viewed as either “background noise” one tunes out while engaged in other social interaction, or as something external that keeps sports fans busy while non-sports fans go about their lives. In each of these cases, we can see social interaction at work, but the individuals seem to feel excluded or find the interaction to be unwelcome. Yet others view the same type of interaction differently:

Shannon_SportsAlex_Alvarado_SportsHere we see two individuals who seem to have no personal investment in sports, but who value them for their place in socialization. Talking about sports can be used as an “icebreaker” or a way to “keep communication lines open.” Part of the Twitter discussion I was involved in referred to sports as being similar in this way to celebrity gossip, current events, and other media. They give people something to talk about that, for the most part, everyone can relate to. In this way, sports can become an important (if simplified) form of social bonding.

This first step, however, doesn’t really explain the obsession and excitement that true fans experience. This goes beyond simply “having fun,” and into a realm of self-identification. Sports play a part in our cultural perception of gender, particularly masculinity, playing a role that Mean & Halone refer to as “a major impact on understandings, definitions, and demarcations of gender and sexuality that reach beyond the boundaries of sport and into wider culture” (p. 255). Sports can lead to changes in confidence, attitude, and self-awareness, and overcoming the challenges that come with sports can lead to a strong sense of accomplishment and personal value.

S_E_Lehenbauer_Sports_3This shift in attitude doesn’t just come from someone playing the sport themselves; people can vicariously participate in their teams’ success or failure and feel like they are “part of the team.” Yet this builds up to another level, when this experience is shared with others. This, I think, is where the real strength of a sports fandom comes into play. Members are part of a community, whether it be a family, a college, or a regional/cultural group:

Camilla_L_Sports_3_001 Camilla_L_Sports_3Esher_Hogan_Sports_2 Esher_Hogan_SportsKristine_Wyllys_SportsLea_Dickson_Sports_3Michelle_Hauck_Sports_4 Michelle_Hauck_Sports_2_TribeThese perspectives tell me a lot about what sports mean to people. They’re more than just something to do on a Sunday afternoon. Because they are part of a shared experience, they become a part of the culture and identity of the people involved. The language being used in these tweets is especially telling; people are “conditioned,” they “obsess,” they view sports like a “religion” or a “tribe.” And Symbolic Interactionism tells us that the way people communicate about something changes their understanding of it. It seems clear that when people are taught to communicate about sports in this way from childhood, it changes how they view sports in their lives. That communication seems to be what makes obsessive sports fans so different from the earlier examples of people who viewed sports as mere distractions.

Because sports can be such an integral part of people’s family life, community, and culture, any apparent threat to this is likely to provoke a strong defensive reaction. Anything that interferes with or threatens to change the culture of sports will be see, by fans, as a threat to their cultural identity. To me, this seems to explain a lot about why some fans are so adamant against changing the Washington Redskins’ name. To someone who isn’t a fan, the reaction would simply be, “What’s the big deal? Just change the name.” But to someone who is a fan, their team is associated with how they interact with others, how they make new friends, how they manage stress, and how they relate to their family and their community. That connection between fan and team makes them take any change to their team as a very personal event.


2 thoughts on “Sports, Language, and Culture”

  1. I hate sports… I wouldn’t watch a game if my life depended on it… but I understand why people love it because of how much I love my books… they are my world… they’re where I escape… and when I can find someone to talk to about them it just makes my day… it isn’t hard to understand because we all have something in our life that we just love like that… the problem is that when people don’t love that particular thing they don’t want to take the time to understand or think it’s okay to look down on those that do…

    1. That’s an interesting parallel. I’ve never heard sports related to books before, but I can see the connection from a psychological point of view. Though it seems like more people connect over sports than connect over books (at least, among the people I know).

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