The Meaning of Sports (2004, PublicAffairs)
Michael Mandelbaum
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Amazon US | Amazon UK

Why do people watch sports? And, in particular, why do they watch the sports they do? Why is football more popular in the US than baseball, for example? These are the central concerns of Michael Mandelbaum’s The Meaning of Sports, which is only a third of a football book but still likely to be of interest to Pigskin Books readers.

In exploring his theme, Mandelbaum, whose day job is teaching and writing about US foreign policy, examines baseball, football and basketball and what each of them says about America. The emphasis is on team sports, rather than individual ones, and on watching, rather than participation. For Mandelbaum, the popularity of each of the major team sports can be explained by, and tell us a lot about, social forces in America and how they have changed.

Baseball makes sense as a preoccupation for a largely agrarian society. The field size is not fixed, instead they suit the environment, and there is no clock to say when the game is over. In contrast, football first grew in popularity between the two World Wars, in an era of industrialisation. These forces, Mandelbaum argues, are reflected in the militaristic language of football, its violence and focus on gaining territory. As in a factory, roles are specialised, processes carefully coordinated and timings are strictly governed by a clock.

In this analogy, the coach is the CEO and from them comes the strategy that will determine ultimate success or failure. Teams may have star players but they are much more likely to be interchangeable parts than their baseball predecessors.

Finally, Mandelbaum moves on to basketball, arguing that its growing popularity in recent decades reflects a post-Silicon Valley world that requires workers who can be flexible, improvisational and function in small teams. He hints towards basketball ultimately replacing football as America’s favourite sport but his conclusion is more complex than that; he argues that basketball moved to the centre of American culture but, at the same time, shifted emphasis to individual stars rather than teams.

Mandelbaum is interested in team sport as a reflection of how people come together in society, which is why tennis and golf, say, popular as they are, do not merit a place in his analysis. For him, this change in basketball’s emphasis means that it is playing a different social role.

It would have been interesting for Mandelbaum to consider the contrast between America’s dominant team sports and those in the rest of the world. His opening chapter briefly notes that American sports are more concerned with balanced competition, through measures such as drafts and salary caps, while European sports are happier for games to end in a tie. However, he doesn’t ask why America has so little interest in soccer, cricket and rugby or why America’s three main sports remain minority interests elsewhere.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with the book’s US-only focus. It’s tempting to read Mandelbaum’s argument and ask whether it’s right or wrong but that would be a mistake. It’s a lens through which to view sport. It isn’t necessarily the perfect lens and it’s definitely not the only one but it is a way to deepen any fan’s appreciation of what they get from watching sport.

Only a third of this book is about football, but football fans will find it worthwhile.

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