Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 30, 2011

To build bridging social capital requires that we transcend our social and political and professional identities to connect with people unlike ourselves. This is why team sports provide good venues for social- capital creation. (Putnam, 2000: 411)

Sport and social capital is a result of this proposition and others like it that suggestively position sport as an institution capable of creating substantial social capital. Even a cursory examination of public discourses that relate to sport and leisure reveals that politicians, academics, sport administrators, policymakers, journalists, athletes and commentators are convinced the idea that sport is a vehicle for the creation, development and maintenance of social capital is, at the very least, intuitively correct.

So begins the introduction to the book Sport and Social Capital (2008, Nicolson, Hoye). The book seeks to take a deeper, examined look into the connections between sport and what the authors call “social capital.” Social capital is defined as a sociological concept, which refers to connections within and between social networks. This concept details the importance of social connections and the crucial role cooperation and confidence play to attain economic results which benefit a collective rather than individual.

The explosion of college football over the last twenty years might be directly tied to this concept. Many commentators speculate about the lack of social interaction over this time frame, yet, at the same time, college football has exploded in popularity. Are the concepts of less personal social interaction and explosion of college football related?

I think the answer is yes.

As technology has advanced, our ability to communicate with one another has increased tremendously. While in South Dakota coaching, I was able to speak with family every night and see them through Skype, a free online video cam centered conversation. Skype is but a small fragment of our communicative ability. Look around, you will likely see men, women and children on a cellular phone. Twenty years ago, cellular phones were for the wealthy. Not so today.

At restaurants, you are likely to see husband and wife, sitting together, on their cell phones. Technology has advanced far beyond simple mobile phone calls to having these hand held, small devices, also act as portals to the internet. This has been a boon to instant information. However, it has had a negative side effect; less personal interaction. That same husband and wife sitting together, transfixed on their portable devices barely speak to one another.

To create an illusion of interaction, there are many great tools we use. This has expanded to websites that allow us to communicate with a wide array of people with a few “keystrokes” on a keyboard. First there was MySpace, an online “social networking” site. This allowed people to create connections based on many factors. Facebook has changed the way we communicate to not only our friends, but with others that might share a common interest and little else. With “status updates” people frequently broadcast their feelings on broad subject matter to hundreds, even thousands of people at a time.

This is not really interaction, though. Human beings are inherently social by nature. While social networking allows us to feel connected to others briefly, it does not give us that one-on-one, face-to-face communication that we deeply need to maintain our social bonds.

Enter sports.

As discussed in the Aesthetic Beauty of Football, sport has an appeal to people for many reasons. Certainly people are attracted to a wide variety of different sports for a multitude of reasons. On a more basic level, however, people are seeking others with whom they can share a common bond. The appeal of college athletics is that there is a built-in bond. We all grow up in the shadow of a major university. Most of us know someone who went to the same university. In smaller cities, like Eugene, this becomes a community. We feel a part of something when we share this common bond. Though I may like to lift weights and read philosophy with my free time; be more liberal in my political views. Steve, my long time “seat neighbor” at Autzen differs in just about every facet of his personal life. He is more conservative, works in an entirely different industry than myself and is not the avid power lifter like myself. Yet, after securing the Rose Bowl berth in 2009 with a victory over Oregon State, there we were, sharing high fives and hugging like two long time best friends. Form a football standpoint, we probably are like best friends. I have watched two young men who sit behind me grow from grade school kids to college graduates. Though you only see these people six or seven times a year, you feel like you know them.

Tailgating has become a natural off-shoot of this social bonding. To further enhance relationships built around a sport, we gather, prior to each game, to share talk of our common interest (football), food, drink and laughs.

So, while our daily lives seem to become less and less about personal interactions, our outside interests become more and more about seeking out people with similar interests. This is a great explanation for the existence of fan-centric websites devoted to a team and its fans. We desperately reach out to find others with common interests. We are so busy living our hectic lives; commuting long distances to work; working excruciatingly long hours; desperately striving to maintain what we have worked so hard to build; that we need the diversion. As we enjoy our diversions, we seek company. While it has been said that misery loves company, it can also be said that joy seeks company.

Think for a moment; when something brings you joy, do you really want to be alone? Or would you prefer to share that joy with others? I believe we want to share that joy with others. And, Saturdays at Autzen allow us that ability.

The growth of college athletics is directly tied to our diminishing personal contact on a daily basis. As our daily lives become more and more void of positive personal contact, our love of sport, particularly college sports, grows ever stronger.

And, in this, I find no reason to fear that growth. Embrace this as it only shows we are human. We seek social contact. Human beings are, at their core, social animals. Don't believe me? Look around this Saturday. People you have never met will interact with you after a great play simply because you share an affinity for a particular university.

For my part, people I have never met will come to a parking lot, eat food, drink beverages and laugh as we discuss Oregon Football.

This is proof, to me, that there is hope for the future.


  1. Scott

    Knowing some of the uses of social capital in community building that Robert D. Putnam has pointed out, I too gain hope for the future. The popularity of sport and its positive impact on social capital builds that.

    There's another factor in the rise of sport that reduces my hope: its tie to television.

    From Putnam, R.D. Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html:

    "There is reason to believe that deep-seated technological trends are radically "privatizing" or "individualizing" our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social-capital formation. The most obvious and probably the most powerful instrument of this revolution is television. Time-budget studies in the 1960s showed that the growth in time spent watching television dwarfed all other changes in the way Americans passed their days and nights. Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower."

    I'm not sure what these two factors interact. Spectator sports are tied to TV. Participant sports aren't. News media have ignored the growth of soccer in US because it has only recently become a spectator sport. It's a widely popular participant sport--dominant in suburban and college educated middle class networks.

    Perhaps participant sports build social capital more strongly than spectator sports. Perhaps certain spectator sports have a stronger effect than others.

    If you've a response, I'm interested.