After watching Super Bowl XL on Sunday night, I got to thinking. Since my team, the Indianapolis Colts, did not qualify for the game, I was able to think rationally, even sociologically and philosophically, about what it all meant–football, that is.
Looking at both sides’ fans, I couldn’t help but notice that there really wasn’t much to notice. Both sides look the same, speak the same language, and lead similar lives. Like any NFL fans, they just happen to root for different colors and mascots. In the grand scheme of things, nothing separates Steelers fans from Seahawks fans other than a couple of time zones. Which raises the question: Why do they pull for different teams? How can people so similar have conflicting loyalties? More generally, why are there even fans to begin with?
As strange as this may sound, people become fans in order to become part of a tribe–each with its own customs, chants, costumes, and idiosyncrasies. America, like Iraq today or Scotland centuries ago, is still a tribal society, but a highly sophisticated one. Sectarian conflict still exists, but it is artificial and superficial and, thankfully, governed by officials. We no longer fight with weapons; now we fight with footballs. Instead of fighting to the death, we play until sudden death. Unlike our brethren in the Middle East, Americans have learned how to channel their tribal aggression. That channel is ESPN.
The beauty of team sports is that they allow us, as fans, to identify with a large group of people–mostly strangers–who partake in a common heritage, cheering on players we will never meet. In this way, being a fan is no different than being a tribesman. Singing the fight songs, donning the colors, and investing one’s time, money and emotion in a team’s success–these are the ways of the athletic clan.
Yet, what works inside a country doesn’t necessarily work between countries. The Olympics haven’t yet proved to be a cure for war. Recreational softball won’t keep Kim Jong Il from playing nuclear hardball, just as field hockey isn’t going to cajole Hamas into coexistence with Israel (evidently suicide bombers don’t like the idea of short-skirted girls who speak softly and carry big sticks).
Believing that a sports league is the answer to global conflict is about the same as believing the League of Nations is. Similarly, sports cannot end sectarian conflict in Iraq any more than the United Nations could prevent America from invading it. Kofi Annan cannot referee the world into peace.
Nevertheless, while athletic competition itself may not be a remedy for ending hostilities, sometimes it indicates that hostilities may already be ebbing.
When the teams represent significant blocs of society, sports can serve as a medium for enmity between rival factions within a country. More often than not, domestic obsession with team sports is a positive sign; it suggests that war-torn rivals have found a safe venue in which to settle the score.
It is worth noting that American football became popular in the late 19th century–after a war that had divided the nation against itself and pitted brother against brother. Writer Jim Weeks suggests that in those volatile postwar years, football emerged as a substitute for war. “In an era concerned with reviving the Civil War virtues of self-sacrifice, courage, discipline, teamwork and public spirit, football appeared to be the panacea.”
That the teams in the NFL and NCAA represent major cities or states shows how civilized and harmonious American society has become. Better for Carolina and New York to face off on the gridiron than in civil war.
The same fighting spirit that pervaded America in 1861 persists to this day in stadiums across the country. Thanks to football, secession is no longer necessary, but a Lombardi trophy is.
Even when we pretend that a game is a life-and-death matter, we suffer none of the costs of war. We get the excitement but none of the pain–at least not the sort that Shiites and Sunnis are now experiencing.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Iraq’s major factions ever find reconciliation. What matters is how they express their animosity.
George Orwell once described sport as “war minus the shooting,” which, if true, would be a welcome improvement in Iraq and elsewhere.
We will know Iraq has reached maturity as a civil society when the main topic of conversation among Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites is who among them is winning–not in the parliamentary elections, not on the battlefield, but on the athletic field. The turning point will come when they put down their shotguns and go into shotgun formation.
–Windsor Mann is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.