Reason guides but a small part of man, and that the least interesting. The rest obeys feelings, true or false, and passion, good or bad.
– Joseph Roux
Boxing should be banned, of course: it causes brain damage, and there is something questionable about the pleasure taken by spectators in watching men hitting one another. And yet…
– AC Grayling
As a life-long fan of the Liverpool Football Club, it would be all too easy to use this column as a forum for celebrating the Reds’ heart-stopping victory in yesterday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal. I could go on about the shoot-out heroics of Pepe Reina, the tireless work of Stevie Gerrard, the sustained excellence of Zenden and Mascherano in the mid, or, of course, Dirk Kuyt’s coolly-taken, coup de grace. Equally, I could use the time to muse of their opponents, Chelsea (so full of talent, so disappointing) and their ‘colorful’ manager Jose Mourinho (wonderfully described by ‘Pool’s Jamie Carragher as the “funniest thing to come out of London since Del Boy and Rodney”).
But, of course, I won’t, for such indulgences seem hardly in keeping with what is supposed to be, after all, a forum for “the critical interrogation of physical culture.” We’re supposed to be sober “research scholars” aren’t we? Lest our emotional investments impinge on taking sport seriously.
Therein lies the rub, really. Whether we can speak as both fan and critic, whether we can be one and the same—at the same time. In my thesaurus, top of the list of synonyms for ‘critic’ are “detractor”, “opponent”, “enemy”, and—my personal favorite—“fault-finder”. Not the kind of replies you’d want really when asked that inevitable soiree ice-breaker: “So what is it you do?”
No doubt, anybody reading this column is already invested in getting others to think about sport in a more critical and insightful way. We all know that sport, in fact, matters. What’s interesting, though, is how we walk the line—if, indeed there even is such a line—between academia and fandom. Actually, it’s more how we talk than walk. Sport, as David Andrews reminds us, is famous for the “irrational and obsessive passions it frequently engenders even in the most (seemingly) rational of people.” What place irrationality in a rational (academic) world?
Being a ‘critical sporting intellectual’ so often seems to be about the suppression of our sporting passions and preoccupations, or, at least, the tempering of our cultural hubris and affective excess. The language of sport is a language of (not always logical) emotion so at odds with sporting critique.
On the flip-side, being a fan can necessitate the suspension of our interpretive and analytical powers. Our emotional investment in sport can be so contradictory. Fandom has need of the silence and containment of the analytical self. As Grant Farred—a fellow wannabe Koppite—writes of the complications of, in this case, race and fandom: “I did not want the political to intrude too rudely on a terrain I considered, in a mode best described as denial, personal.”
I know just how Farred feels. But, let’s return to Anfield for moment to explain what I mean.
On the night of their victory, Liverpool played a 4-4-2, with the indomitable Reina at the back. To the football(/soccer) illiterate, this basically means Rafael Benítez gave the order for four defenders, four midfielders, and two ‘strikers’ up front. It’s hardly spectacular, clichéd to the point of being of having an eponymous fanzine.
What is more interesting, however, is exactly who made up these numbers. To me, it resembled the great Liverpool teams of the late 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, not in terms of talent or style (even the most ardent Scouser would tell you the current crop couldn’t hold a candle to Dalglish et al.). What was perhaps of the times then, was striking now: Liverpool’s conspicuous whiteness.
Standing in for John Barnes—the first Black player to make an impact for Liverpool—was Jermaine Pennant, a player who shares Barnes’ Jamaican descent, but, sadly, possesses neither his talent nor grace. Sure, the thirteen other players who took the field for Liverpool came from parts afar, but the point is they in no way looked ‘cosmopolitan’ (admittedly, wrongly taking the term as an aesthetic rather than ethic). Opponents, Chelsea, in contrast, look to have scouts on a first name basis with customs officials on the Côte d’Ivoire.
And, how things look is often more important than how things are. I’m not saying ‘race’ was a factor in the selection decisions, but it could easily be argued that it looked that way. It looked like the Liverpool of old, lagging behind other top sides—even Arsenal!—who all had Black players in their teams.
Others have more dutifully dissected both racism and the Black experience within British football, and my target here is not the (continued) existence of racial exclusion and thinking in contemporary sport. Race in this case brings forth the conundrum of the politically-engaged fan: the battle, as I put it here, between politics and passion. How could I be a Liverpool fan when there is so much potential for ideological embarrassment?
And, this is not only a story about absence. Racial invisibility at Liverpool is more anomaly than standard these days. Thankfully, one might say. Then again, I sometimes feel equally guilty supporting a team dominated by the faces and bodies of ‘Others’: the, non-too ironically named, New Zealand All Blacks.
In recent years, New Zealand rugby has unmistakably ‘browned’—the popular term for the growing number of Pacific peoples entering the game. At the top of the ladder, the All Blacks have well and truly reflected the trend. With all the brown faces its easy to mistake them as standard-bearers of racial tolerance. That they have also named two ‘Samoan’ captains in recent years, on the face of it, it seems difficult to dispute the popular celebration of New Zealand’s emergent ‘Pacific-ness’ through rugby. Consider one local columnist’s recent description:
“More than evener, watching them take the field at Twickenham, I was struck by how exotic the All Blacks now appear—tattooed, dreadlocked, surnames festooned with apostrophes. If these are among our most prominent cultural ambassadors, then we are projecting an ethnographic image somewhat advanced from the dour old verities of yore.”
Thank goodness, then, that the All Blacks salve my (Liverpoolian-)wounded academic conscience.
Oh, how I wish it were that simple.
My academic self knows its All Black counterpart is trying to fool it. It knows appearances can be deceiving. It knows we can’t make inferences about the changing nature of race relations based on participation rates. It knows, to borrow from sport studies scholar Robyn Jones, that the growing number of Pacific peoples in the highest echelons of rugby “is as indicative of racist social processes as if they were absent from it.”
It knows that Pacific players continue to be stereotyped. It knows how New Zealand exploits athletic talent from the Pacific Islands. It knows that racist fear is behind ‘white flight’ in junior rugby. It knows the success of Pacific peoples in rugby comes at a price. And, despite what Chris Laidlaw—one-time All Black and erstwhile Race Relations Conciliator—thinks, it knows the All Blacks do not portend the Pacific Island community becoming “part of mainstream New Zealand.”
Yet, I’m still a fan. I still cheer them as loud as anyone. Though, anguish would be too strong, I still genuinely hate to see them lose.
This, then, is the “troubled conscience” of which Farred speaks. The incongruence between my cultural investment, my passion and my politics.
Former Stanford University social psychologist Leon Festinger would probably have been wont to call this “cognitive dissonance.” This is the “uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs.” It’s when we find ourselves “doing things that don’t fit with what we know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions we hold.”
Festinger proposed, however, that there is a basic human need to avoid dissonance. It motivates us to change either our behavior or our beliefs. He’s probably right, but it doesn’t always seem to fit. We usually try rationalize our behavior. We are, as Elliot Aronson put it, “rationalizing animals.” But I can’t seem to find a reasonable way of squaring my (sporting) passion with my (academic) politics.
It’s like an episode of Seinfeld: there are different ‘worlds.’ There’s an ‘academic-me’ in one. Then there’s a ‘fan-me’ in the other. As George knows, bad things happen when worlds collide. I perpetually postpone this difficult encounter with the self. Never the twain shall meet.
This isn’t always the case, of course. A recent special issue special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly (Spring, 2006 [guest edited by our own David L. Andrews]) has shown how eloquently worlds can be reconciled, how the passion of sport can speak a language of criticism. But, for me at least, it isn’t that easy. Fandom seems something to be hidden, to be locked in a dark cupboard somewhere, only to be set free around familiar, friendly, faces, around those who live in fan-me’s world.
This all requires a performance of sorts. Goffman has never been so apt.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life he laid out a dramaturgical sociology that sees all human actions as dependent upon time, place, and audience. Maybe that’s me. Academia is my “front stage”, where my actions are visible and I’m “performing.” This is where the critic is on display, where politics take flight. I’m conducting myself with a certain “manner,” wondering whether we’re all engaged in a game “impression management.”
I sit on my couch watching the All Blacks “back stage” or among friends “off stage.” No audience is present, only “colleagues” with whom I am open in my (sporting) sins. Here the “mask” is dropped. Passion rules.
I’m not saying that we’re all playing at being something we’re not. I can’t speak for those whose passions (seem to) marry neatly with their politics. In fact, I’m jealous. I’d love for “consonant” politics and passions, for the very act(s) of fandom to itself be a political act (and, ‘act’ as in ‘do’, not as in ‘pretense’).
I once knew a scholar who was also an ardent ‘off-hill’ snowboarder. Going where he ‘shouldn’t’ meshed with his anti-establishment outlook. Passion and politics harmonized. I asked him what he’d do when ‘going backcountry’—inevitably—lost its sense of alterity. “Quit” was his lean, but pithy, answer. Wither the politics, wither the passion he was somehow saying.
To me though, this is a romantic ideal. Least of all, it fails to account for the arbitrariness of fandom. For whatever tenuous reasons we have latched on to a particular team, a particular player. Politics is often late to the scene. By then too late to win the ideological battle perhaps?
Maybe in trying to think this matter—this discord—through I’m actually tacking in the wrong direction from the outset. Defining terms is always so difficult, especially when those terms are so loaded: politics? passion? Does it bias the issue to use the word passion, for example? It suggests something elemental, emotional, uncontrollable—what is, in other words, close to who we ‘really’ are. That makes the topic moot. Politics versus passion: it’s a battle the latter will always likely win.
Certainly, the modern view of emotions, as expressed in Darwinism and neurobiology, considers them as organic, personal feelings independent of social circumstances. Such views have a long history: Descartes, Damasio, LeDoux among the many proponents. Even Plato in his tripartite conception of the human soul throws ‘appetite’ (to which we could add ‘passion’) into conflict with ‘reason.’ And, it is reason and wisdom, he argued, that should govern, not rhetoric and persuasion.
Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutor, Phaedrus, tenders the rather effective chariot allegory. The chariot, pulled by two horses, illustrates our soul. The charioteer’s task is to discipline the unruly black horse of desire in favor of the obedient white horse of reason.
Some souls have difficulty controlling the black horse.
Consider George Ritzer, the famed social theorist who has laid bare the rationalization of modern society. How wonderfully ironic his recent confession to an irrational affection for the New York Yankees, a team he himself admits to being sport’s equivalent of “the devil incarnate.” Quite the quandary for a man whose work is so often informed by that of Marx. “There was my dilemma” Ritzer writes, “How, with [my] theoretical orientation, could I possibly root for the Yankees, given that they symbolized, among other things, the fundamental unfairness and inequality of the capitalist system?”
What is it, to steal from David Andrews, about the “affective purchase” of sport? Is there something so innate, so primal about sport that it makes hypocrites of us all? Sport, as we all know, is—in no way—apolitical. But sport so often seems so fundamentally unsuitable to the carriage of our critical intellectual projects. Inter alia, it’s racist, sexist, classist, and ageist.
Putting the possibility (if at all) of reconciling critical sports scholarship and fandom momentarily aside, this brings back the question of how we deal with internal conflict. Festinger, as I’ve already alluded, has shown the role of ‘justification’ in dampening the side effects of cognitive dissonance. It’s a matter of putting actions and attitudes back in harmony. Certainly, I’ve seen a lot of rationales offered about our commitments and performances.
Ritzer again provides an example. To explain his unwanted devotion to the Yankees, he intellectualizes. He tries to rationalize the irrational. Citing Bourdieu he defends his fandom as a product of an upbringing, “a habitus that favored baseball and the Yankees.” It too is at the root of his simultaneous distaste for them.
Then he wonders why, despite his best efforts, he’s still a Yankees fan. He needs a pseudo-intellectual justification; something he finds in the team’s marginal players. Of the journeyman minor leaguer Shane Spencer he writes:
“By rooting for him, at least in his early career, I could through him legitimate rooting for the Yankees…[my] distaste for the rich and successful and a corresponding appreciation of the underdog manifested itself in baseball in my ability to overcome my distaste for the rich Yankees by focusing on underdog players like Spencer.”
Maybe this is a way through my All Black conundrum. They’re the lesser of rugby evils. They’re not the (still) lily-white South Africans, nor the genteels of England or Australia. I can celebrate that at least we’re better than them. In this way I can racialize my fandom, bringing into line my passion and my politics. Like Ritzer I too cheer for the All Black underdog (if there is such a thing). No Dan Carters or Richie McCaws for me. Give me the taciturn Carl Hayman or Jerry Collins, a one-time garbage collector still living in the working class neighborhood—and house!—that he grew up in.
This is what Kenneth Surin means when he talks of an ‘ethical’ criteria of fandom. Finding solace in the being different, supporting a quirky or obscure player, finding a ‘moral’ quality in our partisanship (with any ‘moral’ qualities obviously existing in the eyes of the beholder).
Presto. The All Blacks become a political statement.
But that would be lying. It all sounds so much like a post ipso facto explanation, what Farred would label an attempt to “explain a love that was consummated before it was understood, narrativized, or even articulated.” I didn’t choose the All Blacks. The All Blacks chose me.
Without naming names, I know I’m not the only one who feels compelled to justify their pleasure. However, when they do, I can’t help thinking of ‘Buffy Studies.’ Studying a vampire-slayer from Sunnydale isn’t so much a problem as its scholarly devotees who seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time legitimating what they do. They don’t seem to want to admit their unfettered fandom. It’s always conditional, dependent upon it’s edificational potential: what can we learn from Willow, Wesley, Spike et al?
Sometimes, I wonder, though, if it’s all, going back to Goffman, “mystification”, a “protective technique.” The scholar doth protest too much, methinks.
Really, when it all comes down to it, it’s just not that easy to be an ideologically responsible fan. Mciheal D. Giardina writes of his own dilemma:
“It is this very contradictory nature of sporting culture that a great many of the few who dare write on sport—challenging at every step the normative frameworks that we have come to know since childhood, in essence disavowing all that we had taken on face value about the “unquestioned” and positive role of sport writ large in our daily lives, while at the very same time being able to surrender ourselves to the passion of a playoff hockey game or the light-hearted nature of a cousin’s youth soccer match—must come to terms with if we are to move the field forward and realize its promise, not just in words but in actions.”
How we “come to terms” is really what I’m asking.
Should we even be bothered spending time trying to prove fandom worthwhile by conforming it to academic interests, fitting it into an intellectual framework? Critical cultural analysis is, and should be, as Pierre Bourdieu famously reminds us, a reflexive enterprise. We should be on guard about how interpretation, biography and personal bias affect our engagement with the world. While it’s no doubt interesting to know how we became the fans we are, do we really want to know?
I’m not necessarily advocating being unreflexive. The expropriation of sporting passion to the sciences would be equally dangerous. Even if we don’t know where our passions come from, or understand their logic, they shouldn’t be assumed to stem from some inherent, universal nature of men and women. Even psyches are conditioned by power relations and social hierarchies, as Daniel Gross reminds us in his Secret History of emotion.
But that, again, is not the issue at hand. I’m interested here in how to bridge an impasse, if such path exists.
I’d like to think that there’s a way of bring emotion back in. Passion after all remains a central and unavoidable component of our political life. The role of reason and autonomy in our lives is already overplayed by the Left, to the point says Princeton Professor Michael Walzer, of undercutting undercut their ability to be politically effective. For fear that we in sport studies fall into the same trap how can the sheer intensity, the raw passion, of fandom be translated? What is the middle ground of our warring selves?
I don’t profess any answers. All I know is I don’t want to go on making (qu)easy contracts between my academic consciousness and my All Black self.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of making peace. Even if “criticism is actually a form of commitment”, the denigration of modern sport is really our stock in trade. Maybe when you’re around that day in, day out fandom becomes a succor. The very act of taking pleasure in a culturally degraded pastime constitutes an act of rebellion. One of the justification many of us give for taking sport seriously is simply the fact that they are ‘important’ to the people who watch them. I think we’ve done an admirable job of convincing the wider academic community of that. The problem is we don’t seem to have convinced ourselves.
Researchers have long distinguished between public compliance and private acceptance. Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life, for instance, is very good at showing up the discrepancy between who people are supposed to be and what they actually do. I’m willing come out. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I’m Andrew, and I’m a sports fan.
And, don’t worry, everyone has guilty pleasures, things they are reticent or even secretive about. Did you know Naomi Wolf avidly reads Star magazine? That famed feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter is a fan of Trinny and Susannah?
My favorite though is cultural theorist Homi K Bhabha. The author of such classics as The Location of Culture and Nation and Narration likes to watch Project Runway. Strangely that brings me some comfort. Loving the All Blacks doesn’t seem so bad after all.