Sociologists study groups. Or “human behavior and social interactions within particular contexts” according to Dr. Robert Pankey, Texas State University professor of Health, Physical Education and Recreation on his webpage titled Sport Sociology.
Those broad statements explain why there is a sociology of the family, of marriage, of social class, of race, of health care, of religion and… of sports.
In the United States, the king of sporting events is the Superbowl. Sociologists look at the Superbowl and see more than rival teams scoring points; they see reflections of deeper social patterns.
The Superbowl as Male Dominance
Sociologists note that the Superbowl is a game whose players are exclusively male. Sports Sociology notes that “certain groups of individuals may have limited access or be restricted or forbidden to take part.” in some sports. Society’s preference for watching sporting events that feature men says something about the value and place of women in society.
While women’s sports have certainly come a long way since the Title IX, a 1972 decision that gave women equal access to sports in public funded schools, nothing in women’s sports comes close to the popularity of the Superbowl. The slow growth of women’s sports reflects cultural attitudes about females. As ABC News quoted John Clark FitzGerald, a New Haven Superior Court judge, saying in 1971, “Athletic competition builds character in our boys… We do not need that kind of character in our girls.”
The Superbowl as Hallowed Competition
In the United States, the value of competition is considered almost sacrosanct. Trotted out in every political argument about economics and social values, Americans are accustomed to assuming that competition and rising to the top is a good thing. Standing out is valued in the United States.
One business, American Family Traditions, sums up the view of competition in the United States, “Americans love Competition, it permeates everything we do. We love to participate in Sports or be a spectator observing the competition. In business we compete for customers, development of products, exploration, building the biggest, building the fastest etc. In school we have Spelling B’s, achievement tests, grades etc.”
Robert L. Kohl, former director of training for the U.S. Information Agency and the Meridian International Center, listed competition (as opposed to cooperation) as one of the key values that Americans live by in his book by the same title.
Other cultures, such as Denmark, lack this orientation. In fact, a cross-cultural advertising website, Limbistraine notes that in Denmark “What is missing is the existence of aggressive businessmen and politicians who dare to stand out, to lead the way, to rise above society as a whole…”
Superbowl as Religious Ritual
In a narrow sense, the Superbowl highlights religion. Players with religious stances are showcased in the media such as in an article titled “Super Bowl 2014: Religion runs deep for many NFL players and teams” by Matthew Stanmyre that highlights the religious practices of the Seattle Seahawks.
Stanmyre writes, “Faith and football — with themes of adversity, dedication and striving to improve — have always seemed tied together.” Stanmyre presents football players seeking soundness of mind and protection through religion.
In a wider sense, football is a religion, or at least takes on many of the aspects of it. In his classic 1967 book The Sacred Canopy, sociologist Peter Berger argued that humans organize society in a way that helps them create a sense of meaning and completeness. The ritual of the coin toss and singing of the national anthem, the enshrining of values such as competition and hard work, the collective nature of the team and of their fans, the sacrifice made by the hurt player, all hearken to religious practices, and help satisfy our need for sense, order, and meaning.
Superbowl: It’s More than Just a Game
No matter what team you favor, or what the outcome, looking at the Superbowl as more than a game makes the experience even more fun.