Urban Sports

The city is the site of sports production today in ways that rival ancient Athens and Rome. Even as countryside-oriented a sport as Le Tour de France begins and ends in urban centers. The production of the recent World Cup in Brazil began with infrastructures to accommodate a larger, denser, more diverse population. The late British historian Eric Hobsbawm identified the period between the two world wars as the time when sport stopped being the middle-class pastime of students, both actual and nostalgic (a very British view of pre-war sports; continental and American experiences organized local sports in factories and social clubs), or an attempt to integrate multi-national empires (think of the mascot names of sport franchises in America), and became instead ‘the unending succession of gladiatorial contests between persons and teams symbolizing state-nations’ (Hobsbawm, E.J. 1990. Nations and nationalism since 1780: programme, myth, reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 142). Later, Hobsbawm writes that sport becomes central to our lives (like our clubs or our home spaces) because the middle class is always in search of itself. The way out of being the leftovers between the Lower and the Upper is to distinguish one’s group life with a unique, shared history. This is a paltry substitute for Ancestry or Oppression, but it will do. Sport supplies this history through the unrolling of the seasons of accomplishment of one’s favorite teams. Sport produces milestones in memory, and thereby a shared class history for the ones who need such markers the most, the rootless urban middle strivers. The deeper the involvement in sport production, the denser the history and the more satisfying one’s embeddedness in a larger social experience. This is where my understanding of sport languished for several decades.
Lately however, I had cause to reconsider the popularity of sports in our lives and the money we are willing to spend to be entertained by sports performers. I was waiting for an elevator with two strangers, a man and a woman, who were also apparently strangers to each other. This was one of those elevators that made you miss your children’s growth years before it arrived. The fellow decided he was tired of just standing there pretending we did not exist and said directly looking at me, “Did you see the game last night.” This was a very creative statement in which he declared his own interest in the game, a familiarity and brotherly solidarity in male game watching with me that should tie us together, while asking both of us to presuppose that he is non-threatening. He didn’t need to say which game because if I didn’t know that fact of our mutual urban lives, the conversation was going to be over anyway. I hesitated as I analyzed all of this, and the woman spoke up, “Wasn’t (insert name of star player here) on fire.” Also a very creative move. She deftly inserted her belongingness in this conversation, transgressing gender expectations, and declaring a solidarity with a fellow fan. They turned to each other and continued their discussion of the game, the team’s chances for victory this season, and their knowledge of past behaviors while the elevator came, opened its doors and swallowed us up. She gave as good as she got, besting him on a trivial point of memory and challenging the precision of his assessments. When we reached the ground floor, they continued talking over coffee at a cafe in the building, while I went on my way. They were still there an hour later when I walked by the building again and spied them through the cafe window. So much important social work was accomplished in those moments and all because of a prior investment in sports experiences. I may have to rethink that subscription to ESPN. . . Naw.

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