The football World Cup in South Africa ended yesterday, with early exits for the last Cup’s finalists France and Italy, quite a surprise and a shock to many. The Wimbledon tennis championships have signalled the start of summer. And the London 2012 Olympics will soon be upon us with all the excitement such a varied competition brings. The calendar of national and international sporting events helps to shape much of our leisure time with many people organize their entire lives around the football fixtures and other sporting competitions. Of course many millions of people are not just sports spectators, but are also actively involved in playing sport themselves and will continue to do so throughout their lives. Sport involves and even centres around the expression of emotions, which can be found in the mutual hostility of rival football fans, continuing reference to tired old national stereotypes in the mass media, the team spirit created amongst teams considered ‘underdogs’ or the outbursts of tennis players on court during matches. Why is sport so significant to people and why does it arouse such strong emotions?
The study of sport has, since the late 1960s, gradually become part of the established order and sociology was among the first disciplines to embrace sport as a subject worthy of academic attention [BSA Sport Study Group here]. One important aspect of the sociology of sport is the finding that sport is significantly related to identity formation, and this is particularly noticeable at the national level of our identity. Extensive preparations are made, especially in World Cup years, to manage and police fans travelling to international fixtures to avoid trouble between national fan groups and there have indeed been numerous cases of violent outbursts during tournaments. Indeed, the absence of aggressive and violent behaviour by England fans was something worthy of media comment and political praise following England’s defeat by Germany. The assumption being that national identification in sport is so strong that we might expect trouble when ‘our’ team is beaten by an historic ‘enemy’ with the implication that sport is really war conducted by other means (with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz). The sense of national shame which pervades countries that haven’t performed as well as expected is quite palpable and startling. In England the team manager’s position was under severe threat, in France the national team’s poor showing has been the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, whilst in Nigeria the national team was apparently so bad it is to be prevented from taking part in international tournaments for two years. I’m really not making this up, check out the stories here and here. Sport apparently has the power to shake our sense of national identity and esteem and to strike at our very sense of who we are.
Understanding how sport has taken on such an important role in social life requires an historical-sociological approach. The gradual emergence of modern societies from the traditional social structures of the Middle Ages has often been referred to as a process of ‘civilization’. If we ignore the obvious normative dimension of the concept of civilization as meaning somehow better than what came before, the civilizing process can be taken as those social changes leading to a state monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, the consequent pacification of everyday life and an increasingly stable control of emotion at the personal level which makes for a more predictable life [see Norbert Elias (2000) The Civilizing Process (Cambridge: Wiley-Blackwell) for the original theory of the civilizing process]. In this context the development of sports with codified rules, national standards of behaviour and an ethos of fair play, created arenas in which participants were expected to exercise more stable and even emotional control, whilst at the same time offering the experience of intense emotions and genuine pleasure and excitement. Sports not only allow emotional expression then, but actually generate emotional experiences not only for participants but also for spectators. One way of putting this is to say that sport offers a pleasurable and exciting, but quite clearly controlled, decontrolling of emotions. The things that spectators do, say and sing during football matches, for example, they wouldn’t dream of doing outside that arena and would find them rather ‘un-civilized’. Similarly, the ‘hardest’ and most aggressive of players can be quite shy and unassuming in every other part of their life. Sport, on this view, is a kind of emotional safety valve for our pacified societies, which offers the kind of experience that is hard to replicate in other spheres of life. No wonder then that ordinarily sane, rational individuals can sometimes be seen crying at sporting occasions, whether they happen to be televised or not.
[Issues of sport in society are scattered within the book, but the box on pp. 241-2 specifically covers the Olympic Games. Elias’s theory of the civilizing process can be found on pp.1037-8, whilst national identities are covered in Chapter 23. Human emotions are discussed on pp.25-6, 252-4 and 853-4.]
Philip W. Sutton