Sports Fans across Borders: America from Mars, Europe from Venus

By Markovits, Andrei S. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Sports Fans across Borders: America from Mars, Europe from Venus


Markovits, Andrei S., Harvard International Review


There is ample evidence that sports have performed an enlightening function in human history--that precisely by dint of their inherently competitive and agonistic nature, they foster a profound meritocracy and cosmopolitanism that few other venues in social life have. By virtue of these integrative qualities, sports enhance intercultural tolerance and understanding. However, just like in most realms of human activity, so too in sports do cosmopolitanism and inclusiveness meet with resistance by forces that the philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah has so aptly termed "counter-cosmopolitanism." Newcomers, immigrants, and "alien" languages and cultures are met with ridicule, hostility, and even violent reactions by entrenched forces and institutions. Since cultural changes inevitably imply some threat to established identities, such changes exact tensions and defensive responses. This is evident in sports since adversity, opposition, contest, and thus conflict are their most essential markers. By their very nature in demanding winners and losers, sports feature a zero-sum essence that extols tensions, rewards the victors, and punishes the vanquished.

Counter-cosmopolitanism's ugliest expression is resilient racism and random violence against "others." However, the quantity and quality of such counter-cosmopolitan activities varies over time and space.

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This article argues that at least over the past tour to five decades, there has existed perhaps no greater difference between US and European hegemonic sports culture (i.e. sports that attract a mass following well beyond its actual producers and most immediate fans) than in the expression of counter-cosmopolitanism. Briefly put, while racism, xenophobia, and--above all--regularized fan violence, often on a massive scale, have accompanied and marred European soccer for decades, few, if any, similar occurrences have accompanied the most popular US spectator sports. This fact constitutes an interesting puzzle precisely because US society, by virtually any available measure, is much more violent than its European counterpart.

Contrasts between Fan Cultures

To be sure, US sports featured many "European" traits in their history. They were bastions of the most ugly racism and counter-cosmopolitanism both among players and spectators prior to their gradual incorporation of African Americans and Latinos from the late 1940s to the 1960s. But by reaching a critical mass in the quantity--and more importantly, the quality--of players of the "Big Three" American spectator sports of baseball, football, and basketball during these decades, and by the civil rights movement's gains and the general discourse of empathy that changed what constitutes acceptable language and behavior toward the disempowered in general and racial minorities in particular, overtly racist taunts accompanied by violent acts against players and viewers in the United States' major sports venues have all but disappeared and lack any kind of legitimacy in contemporary sports.

This, alas, is not the case in Europe's most popular sport, that of Association Football, better known in the United States by the term "soccer," a mid-nineteenth century English student slang abbreviation of the cumbersome "Association." Starting in the early 1970s in the United Kingdom and spreading across the continent during the last four decades--precisely when racism and counter-cosmopolitanism became taboo in US sports venues--soccer grounds (and almost exclusively those in contrast to other sports venues featuring rugby, cricket, basketball, or any other team sport) have become the last bastion in contemporary Europe in which the worst kind of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic--i.e. counter-cosmopolitan--language and behavior have not only been tolerated, but actually extolled. But it is not the activities of a committed counter-cosmopolitan minority in European venues that differentiates the European case from its US counterpart; rather, it is what the majority on each continent tolerates as acceptable discourse and behavior.

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