With a multi medium spectacular of flair, the 2015 season of the National Football League (NFL) arrived this past weekend. Millions of fans across the United States and elsewhere tune into watch their favorite team and follow the unfolding dramas of new quarterbacks and coaches. Fandom crosses all lines of difference in our society and everyone seems to be watching and discussing the results the Monday after. Indeed political philosopher Noam Chomsky has said the energy and level of discussion regarding sports news (in which everyday citizens can participate) exceeds that of political discussion. In Understanding Power, Chomsky writes:
“You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folks. So what’s left? Well, one thing that’s left is sports – so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that’s also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter.”
Our national obsession with the NFL and sports in general demonstrates key components of public sphere theory and key criticisms as well. On one hand, public discussion surrounding the NFL can show the worst of the internet and public discourse – hateful and often racists comments abound in public discussion boards and fandom often limits the public’s ability to objectively discuss controversies regarding their favorite teams. And while there are fans of all genders, the discussion and tropes of the genre often track along hyper masculine lines.
Yet, football has also served as a place where the public can deliberate and understand important societal issues. Think of discussions regarding the name of the Washington football team, “spygate” and “deflategate,” violence against women, mental health and corporate responsibility. There are NFL apologists, social justice activists and a variety of discussants all competing for public attention. Along the lines of Fraser, heterogeneous publics have the ability to determine what is “political” through their discussions. The public sphere of NFL fandom is one of the spaces and is conjoined to other spheres.
As Sunstein says, there exists only a few days of national importance in America – and the Super Bowl draws more attention than the national holidays that have become “mere days off from work.” Football often provides a common language for different people to engage in and a ritual to participate in. “Watching the game together” perhaps remains one of the most significant social events in a highly individualistic society.
Our national obsession with football, like many things in our postmodern society, presents multiple contradictions for those concerned with the health of our democracy. It’s a common experience for us but also one utterly dominated by corporate interests. It creates lifelong memories and associations but also quickly destroys and discards the bodies (often black) it needs to power the enterprise.
Communicators and philosophers cannot dismiss the phenomenon when deliberations about power, race and violence are happening offline and online. In many ways, this phenomenon offers some lessons for the maintenance of democracy. There is no barrier to participation other than fandom. Contrast this to the “political” sphere where non-expert opinions are quickly mocked and dismissed and the “bracketing of social position” seems impossible. Yet there also must be a contextualizing of the space and connecting of the energy devoted to discussion towards productive political endeavors.