Sport in Journalism and Fiction in the United States Today

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

113 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Literature – Sources and Methods
1.2 Journalism – Sources and Methods

2. Why Football? Why Baseball?
2.1 Why Baseball?
2.2 Why Football?

3. Play vs. Fight
3.1 Defining a scale
3.2 Journalism
3.3 Literature

4. Militarism and Imperialism

5. Commercialization and Automation

6. Folk Heroes and Team Spirit

7. Ritual and Myth

8. Conclusion


Works Cited

1. Introduction

Sport and literature have long been mankind’s central sources of recreation and entertainment. Anyway, the contact points of these two realms have been few, and where they existed a large part of the academic community did not pay attention to them. The world of sweat, dirt and physical exhaustion seemed to many incompatible with the clean, spiritual, intellectual world of literature. A concept of culture based on the dualism of body and soul made sport appear to belong to the physiological and hence “lower”, subconscious, animal part of the human being (Lobmayer). Especially in Western Europe this conception mostly disqualified sport as a matter of serious intellectual treatment until late in the 20th century. In the USA the fear of contact between intellectuals and sports was overcome earlier. The masters of US literature concerned themselves with sport and its meaning in people’s lives and discovered the possibilities of emotions and metaphors in competitive sports. Hemingway for example wrote highly influential pieces about boxing, hunting and bullfighting. Since the second half of the 20th century the scholars’ awareness of how games, sport and playing are decisive constituents of human culture grew. Sports, especially spectator sports, were more than just entertainment and recreation. The generally banal statements of sport events – e.g. “Final result: 7-4” – were extended. People talked and wrote about big sport events, which became events of great emotion, identification, and also intellectual discourse. The recapitulation of real sport events in newspapers as well as fictional stories about sport were and are representations of how people perceive the sport in which they participate, either as spectators or athletes. Anthropologists soon noticed how sport and people’s discourse about it formed systems of symbols which mirrored features of the culture they were produced in. Today, many scholars agree: understanding the sports of a society means understanding much about the world views in its culture.

The objective of this paper is to analyze how sports are perceived in the USA today by looking at journalistic articles of the last five years and literary production of the last forty years. The sports scene of the United States is peculiar in that the two most popular sports according to spectator numbers, football[i] and baseball, are very unpopular in most other countries. For a cultural examination it is thus useful to narrow the range of topics down to these two typical American sports. So all texts examined in this paper, journalistic and literary, deal with either football or baseball.

Sources and methods of these analyses will be explained in the following.

1.1 Literature – Sources and Methods

The best sports novels, readers and critics agree, were produced in the 1970s. Works by DeLillo, Gent, Roth and Coover belong to the classics of this genre and have been very influential to those who wrote about similar topics after them. Their novels about football and baseball were exciting and funny, at the same time provocative and insightful. At this point, it is important to define two generally different approaches to sport in literature.

On the one hand, some authors used a naturalistic approach and tried to reproduce the spirit of the sport itself, transforming the drama, beauty, or “truth” of the game into a piece of literature. Such works often became lyric celebrations of the sport. Pulp fiction, which was produced for the pleasure of sport fans, repeatedly used this approach and has had great successes with this tactic.

On the other hand, some authors focused on sport as an archetypal expression of Western or national myths. Writing about sport is their method to discover some truths about mankind, society and the American culture. Sport is used as a metaphor for real life. This approach produced pieces of high literary value much more often. Social satire and ironic depictions of human faults and culture’s weaknesses on the example of baseball or football was the main aim of these writers.

The chosen novels almost all include questions about society and American culture in connection to sport-related action and thus belong to the second category. The following novels are the representative examples of football/baseball literature, which are examined in this paper:


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[II]The choice of these texts has been made on the basis of certain assumptions. First, the sport in question is a major topic in the novels. Characters and action are very closely connected to the sport, so that it is a central theme, not only a side topic. Second, all novels play in the same period as their appearance. That is, the setting of the plot is the United States of the 1960s, 70s or 90s. Like this, accounts of early professional sport (of the early 20th century) must be excluded. The background of the novels is the highly industrialized, post-modern America of the late 20th century. An interesting difference provided by this choice of texts is that some appeared during the Cold War, others – those from the 1990s – were produced in a totally different political situation, with the Cold War ended. We will see whether and how the three decades between the appearance of the “older” novels and the most modern ones have changed attitudes and perceptions according to sport, society, culture and ideology. The general frame of analysis is thus two-dimensional: one dimension is the baseball/football scale. These two sports are very different in game character, still they are equally popular. The second dimension is the Cold-War/post-Cold War political environment of the novels.

In the following I will shortly summarize the plots of the primary literature to give an overview about action and characters who will be alluded to when analyzing the books in the further chapters.

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End Zone is an early novel of Don DeLillo and already shows many traces of the celebrated depth and insight of his later postmodernist masterpieces. The setting is the fictitious Logos College in Texas. The reader follows the running back of the college’s football team, Gary Harkness, trough training procedures, competition, and studies. He also immerses in philosophical questions and discussions with his teammates, fellow students, and professors. The college and its football team becomes a symbol of the war-obsessed, confused and fear-ridden USA of the nuclear age. An unreal atmosphere, eccentric characters and masterly play with words, meanings and symbols assemble a metaphoric football novel.

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The narrative of this novel covers eight days in the life of a professional football player at a fictitious team in North Dallas. The special feature of this book is that its author, Peter Gent, has played professional football for the Dallas Cowboys himself in the 1960s. The novel accordingly is mostly an autobiographic “behind-the-scenes” of the National Football League. The players’ daily routine consists mostly of partying, sex, and drugs. Meanwhile, morality and virtues are spoiled by an atmosphere of violence, fear, rivalry, and rightist world views in and around the Dallas team. The novel presents a rebellion and power struggle of its protagonist, Phil Elliott, with his dictatorial coach. In the end, Elliott is dismissed from the team after a week that presented pro football from its rudest side.

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Lupica follows in Gent’s footsteps and writes a novel about the inner procedures of professional football clubs. Football outsider Jack Molloy over night inherits half of the fictitious NFL team New York Hawks. As club owner, he is forced to arrange himself with egocentric players, choleric coaches and the incredible media hype in professional football. Molloy and the reader learn in the course of the football season what really happens behind closed doors in the National Football League.

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The novel narrates the story of Henry Waugh, a lower class bachelor in his 50s, who lives the life of a typical employee in modern rural America. His hobby is a dice game in which he simulates the happenings of a whole baseball league in every detail. He imagines teams, players and has elaborated rules by which the dice decide the scores in his fantasy baseball games. Bored by his real life, he immerses more and more in his dice game. Soon, the border between reality and fiction fades away. The tragedy of the book starts when Henry’s favorite of his imagined players “dies” because a highly unlikely combination of dice throws determine a tragic lethal accident. Henry mourns as if it was a real person, he even takes revenge on the character that has thrown the lethal pitch. In the further narrative the reader experiences how Henry drifts into confusion. The game, his creation, becomes his doom and ruins his life and mental sanity.

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In The Great American Novel, Roth writes a metaphorical social satire on the basis of a fictional major baseball league of which the narrative covers several decades. In seven episodes, Roth alludes to many of the social and political questions that arose during the 20th century. The baseball league, its teams and its players become symbols of US society as a whole. The effects of unleashed capitalism, World War II, McCarthyism – to name only a few – are discussed with irony and wit. At the same time, Roth writes a satire about literature and people’s expectations about it as the title points out. Baseball, as the distinctive American game, works as a multifaceted metaphor in a lengthy but altogether funny and insightful book.

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The Fan is a modern suspense novel which depicts the downfall of a baseball fan, Gil Renard, whose enthusiasm for a baseball team and his player idol, Bobby Rayburn, turns into obsession. Unsuccessful in his job and isolated from friends and family, Gil’s only anchor in life is his passion for baseball. When even this anchor fails and Bobby plays badly, obsession turns into aggression. Gil attacks and kills one of Bobby’s rivals. Wanted for murder, Gil loses every handhold in his life. He intrudes into the life of Bobby’s family. When Bobby rejects Gil, it comes to a dramatic showdown. In a full stadium, Gil tries to kill his former god-like icon, but is stopped. Abrahams thriller is an interesting portrayal of how exaggerated fanaticism for a sport and its stars turn into madness and violence.

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This narrative covers a season of a minor league amateur baseball team in the rural Midwest. The coaches and players of the team struggle with various typical issues of middle class men: family, relationship, money problems, and the death of close friends. Baseball for these men gains a higher meaning: their ambition is to once in a lifetime win the national amateur championship in Battle Creek, MI. This aim becomes the ultimate goal for the characters, they project their hopes and dreams onto their sport. It is interesting to see how for these characters baseball, though only a hobby, takes on a larger-than-life meaning. Finally, after several ups and downs the team succeeds in the end. Baseball as the sense of life for the novel’s characters is reaffirmed.

1.2 Journalism – Sources and Methods

Computer technology today provides us with great new possibilities to handle and analyze large amounts of data. Linguists use these possibilities to easily store and browse huge amounts of written language to empirically prove or falsify theses about human language use. In this paper, the methods of Corpus Linguistics are utilized to examine the language use of today’s sport journalists. For this purpose, a text corpus has been assembled by downloading texts that appeared on internet sport pages which deal with football and baseball. Since the 1990’s, the internet has become a major platform of sports coverage used by the main media companies. Due to its possibilities of real-time coverage in form of “Live-Scores” and “Live-Statistics” and its worldwide access the internet today is a very important source of information for sport fans all over the world. Though “classical” coverage in newspapers, magazines and radio still plays a role, all major sport broadcasters and magazines have built large and detailed websites next to their “normal” business in television or print. It often occurs that the very same article or commentary on a certain game appears twice: first a few hours after the game on the company’s website and a few days later in the next issue of the printed magazine.

The corpus that is used for this research has been designed by systematic browsing of the largest sport news websites of the United States. Saving this first hand data in text-files enables us to analyze the language and rhetoric of the sport community with the help of appropriate software. For this paper, the following software was used:

- MonoConc Pro ver.2.0
- Oxford WordSmith ver.4.0

To suit the research agenda, the corpus is assembled of articles that deal exclusively with football or baseball. There are in general three text types in modern sports coverage: recapitulation of a game (“recap”), interview, and commentary of an expert. A clear distinction between these different text types cannot be made as they often occur mixed and fading into each other in the very same article. A rough estimate is that about half of the textual data in these articles is subjective opinions – often direct speech – of individuals, be it players, coaches, or sport experts.

The texts in the corpus were assembled in the period between May 2004 and May 2005 from the following internet sites:

Table 1.1

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All of these pages present archives of texts which were recently published online. To track the source of each text and identify the origin of contextual examples later in this paper, a coding scheme is developed, which is explained in detail in the appendix[iii].

The total amount of words is 523,639. In the corpus 273,378 words come from journalistic texts about baseball; 250,261 words come from football-related texts.

In tables of word frequencies that will appear in this paper, the term that has been counted will only appear in the infinitive form or singular if it is a noun. Anyway the search string used in the concordance software will include the so-called wildcard symbol “*”. For example, searching for the word “frustration” was performed as “frustrat*” to include the verb “frustrate”, the ing-participle “frustrating” and the past tense form “frustrated”. These derivative forms are called lemmas.

This technique (“lemmatization”) is used with all following searches in this paper, though in the chapters this will not be explicitly mentioned.

The focuses of research in this paper are various. How and why they are set as they are is explained in the following chapter “Why Football? Why Baseball?”. It will explain how and why football and baseball have become so distinctively American and which characteristics have shaped these games. These characteristics then form the starting point for the research in the further chapters.

At this point the limits of this paper should also be mentioned. Scholars agree that gender questions especially in sport and its representation are worth examining. Questions of masculinity, femininity, fatherhood, feminism, homosexuality and heterosexuality are undoubtedly interesting when they find their representation in sports. As a matter of fact, a sub-culture of sport fans and literary writers has formed a wide network that covers exactly these topics. Additionally, as in all topics concerning US culture and history, the matters of ethnicity, discrimination and segregation can be queried in sports as well, as the sport scene has a unique history of dealing with questions of skin color. Unfortunately, these topics cannot be embraced in this paper. Limits of time and volume simply prevent their inclusion.

So this paper covers the realm of male and mostly “White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant” sport, knowing that this is the mainstream, but not the only stream, of sport and literature today.

2. Why Football? Why Baseball?

To gain an idea of why the sports scene of the United States is so unique, scholars have studied the origins and game characteristics of typical American sports. For some sociologists American football is a direct mirror image of the violent US society, others emphasize the myth of the frontier when giving reasons for baseball and football being so popular (Wenner, Candelaria). The temptation is great to interpret the sports of a culture as direct mirror images of its culture (which they are not), and the danger of falling into clichés is as high. But as the task of this paper is to identify specialties about the American sports scene (as opposed to the “rest of the world”) it makes sense to have a look at the characteristics of football and baseball and their interpretation by sociologists. These shall be the basis for the first hand analysis of the literary works and linguistic data.

In his highly influential book “From Ritual to Record” (1979) Allen Guttmann identified seven characteristics of modern sport:

- Secularism
- Equality of opportunity
- Specialization of roles
- Bureaucratic organization
- Rationalization
- Quantification
- The quest for records

(Guttmann 16)

These characteristics, he argues, are the factors that enable the modern sports scene to present itself as we know it.

Especially the three last ones, we can add, are main pillars of baseball and football today. In opposition to all physical activities of the past (until 1900), today everything in sports in the USA is measured and quantified. This is not only the case in individual sports, where measuring of meters, seconds, gram (the three basic values of physics) is essential to find a winner. Heavily detailed measuring takes place in ball sports as well. After a baseball game not only the final score is matter of discussion, but also the batting average, number of RBIs and homerun quota of every player (adding another hour to television broadcasting of the match including six or seven commercial breaks). American sport reporters and their viewers seem to be obsessed with numbers. In a world full of numbers and indices this is not surprising, one could argue. After all, numbers (the Dow Jones index, the unemployment rate) are what give people the feeling of being able to still grasp and control the increasingly confusing events in “the global village”. Accordingly we tend to quantify the physical performance of athletes to find a factual, real and undisputable evaluation of their skills.

Regarding baseball journalism, from the beginning of newspaper coverage on the course, the emotional ups and downs, in short the “narration” (Oriard) of a game, was done in numbers, not words (Barth), which is still the case as the corpus will show.

Closely linked to the obsession with quantification is the record system. It is pretty much the reason for any quantification. Records enable players and teams to compete not only against their direct opponents, but also against great achievements of the past. Breaking the record of homeruns per season, or touchdowns per game, can make a player “immortal” as the media enthusiastically puts it. But why are records so important, even in ball games?

Records, some say, implicate a feeling of progress and of ever-growing achievement (Guttmann). No matter how great an achievement in the past was, an even greater achievement in the present or future will some day beat it. The record system thus follows the idea of progress inherent in the American Dream, and the linear world view of capitalist economic theory. In addition, the quest for perfection (in baseball a “perfect game” is possible, when a pitcher allows no hit at all) is inherent in the idea of measuring and keeping records. As people become aware that perfection is impossible in everyday life, the quest for perfection, for the sublime and the pinnacle of achievement (desires inherent in human nature) is transferred to the ball park (Candelaria).

In addition, some argue, the record system creates a “common history” for a people without one. Especially in the beginning of the 20th century, it thus served as an integrating force for the masses of immigrants in urban areas. The struggle for success and progress was easily observed and learned in a baseball or football stadium (Barth). In addition to that, the “democratic” and “egalitarian” experience of cheering for the same team may explain why especially in America sports with elaborate quantification and rationalization would become the favorite pastimes.

As a result, for Americans it seems impossible to watch and analyze a game without any percentages, quotas, and striving for records. Sport in other countries prove that it is indeed possible. Especially the world’s number one sport soccer works totally without these mechanisms, still its attraction to people all over the world (except the United States) is immense. (A short comment on these differences is in the appendix[iv]). The record system and obsessive quantification in baseball and football alike are indeed exceptionally American.

2.1 Why Baseball?

“Exceptionalism” is a concept which has shaped Americans’ understanding of the history of their country since the first settlements. The idea, that the New World and later the United States was God’s chosen country, exceptional in history, development and thus also purpose. Still, the myth of exceptionalism prevails in the collective consciousness of Americans, and interestingly one of the reasons why baseball is quite exceptional for the USA, has its roots here. Since the successful fight for independence in parts of the American population the yearning for a national culture arose. The “historylessness” of their country disturbed and frustrated many people. A uniquely American artifact and historical achievements like a national literature was simply lacking for the identity of a culture, some thought. One of baseball’s basic myths directly serves this yearning: Abner Doubleday, a U.S. Army officer, was credited with having invented baseball as we know it today out of the blue and as a creative outburst of American ingenuity. Today historians agree that this is a false claim by baseball officials of the late 19th century trying to dissociate the “American” game from its true roots in English folk games (Oriard). But obviously, the people’s belief in its exceptionalism and the lack of a uniquely American cultural work of art, were strong enough causes for views and interpretations which indeed would support this myth – even if hard historical facts do not exist. Philip Roth ironically plays with the idea that the “Great American Novel” as a cultural masterpiece, which captures the national spirit of the US, was never successfully written. He gives it an ironic try, calls his book The Great American Novel and lets it deal with baseball, the only uniquely American “work of art” there is.

But what is typically American about baseball? Over the last centuries, fans of the game have dealt with this question, trying to pin down either historical fact, national character or myth in the development of the game, to conclude sometimes realistic, sometimes absurdly chauvinistic interpretations about the origins of “the American pastime”. Let us shortly sum up their arguments, to later be able to see if authors’ and journalists’ treatment of the sport exploit these lines of reasoning.

Having never had an aristocrat class, which would develop elaborate (sport) games for their entertainment (as in England in France), the American population was naturally apt to play a game with easy access for everybody, which includes technological simplicity. Later, when becoming a spectator event, baseball’s potential for the creation of folk heroes helped making it a popular and durable sport (Guttmann). Especially the “star system” in sport as well as in music and Hollywood movie making is after all a phenomenon strongly connected to American popular culture. Though a team sport, individual performance is crucial in baseball, as the game consists of a series of one-on-one duels. Andreano suggests that pitcher and batter as “lone heroes” incorporating strength and endurance are insofar specifically American as they resemble an ideology of rugged individualism, self-reliance and capitalism. (quoted in Candelaria).

But, as Guttmann correctly argues (91 ff.), the above characteristics are neither restricted to baseball, nor uniquely American. There are sports even more easily accessible, and individualist folk heroes from the sports scene are observable everywhere on earth.

The major point of the argument deals with another characteristic, not exactly of the game character, but its heritage: baseball’s pastoralism. Pastoralism basically means that it is strongly connected with ruralism, which is intertwined with many American myths. Baseball is the game of summer and spring and it is always played on a square lawn, practically a garden. The garden as a motif was of genuine importance in the myth-making of the USA. As a symbol of the Southern States and their heritage, the garden symbolized tamed nature and civilization on the basis of private property, for many the roots of American democracy. Baseball was and sometimes still is considered the game of the small town, a rural pastime. Again, this is a cliché as modern historians point out. Barth proves that “baseball was distinctly urban” (158) in its beginnings. Still today most players and spectators are city people, and the rise of baseball as spectator sport is linked to the urbanization process of the early 20th century and the integration of masses of immigrants. But, as with the Doubleday legend, the collective memory of the American people seems to have created its own interpretation and justification for the myths around the sport.

Another important factor included in the rather abstract term “pastoralism” is a sense of harmony and order. “Baseball creates an atmosphere in which everything exists in harmony” (Candelaria 104), the garden as motif also symbolized harmony between nature and man.

Traits of primitive religion and mythic origins of the game are identifiable (see Guttmann, Candelaria). The baseball diamond as a symbol of “sacred” symmetry, the batters running path (also a cycle, “returning home”) as symbol for nature’s circularity, the theoretical infinity and timelessness of the game’s framework; all these characteristics can be interpreted as originating in nature worship and primitive religion, emphasizing the harmony and perfection of nature (Candelaria). In addition, baseball is one of the most rule-governed sports; its rules and regulations are very elaborate and strict. This strictness has also grown out of a desire for order and harmony. A well-formed balance between offensive and defensive play is enforced by the rules and regulations in baseball. Though sometimes restrictive to creativity, the complicated rule system provides a framework for a game of order, “law” and peaceful coexistence, in short: harmony. These pastoral ideals build core values of American civilization. They are deeply ingrained in the people’s consciousness and, even though not often articulated, felt as inherent in baseball as part of America.

Accordingly, baseball with its traits above mentioned is for the American culture not only a sport, one can argue. It has become a ritual, celebrating itself and the values it incorporates: individualism and “pastoralism”, that is perfection, harmony and order of the American civilization.

2.2 Why Football?

As far as uniqueness is concerned, American football on a large scale is even more restricted to the United States than baseball. Though leagues outside the USA exist, they consist mostly of emmigrants from the US; interest for the “NFL Europe” for example is restricted to a very small core of fans. Some media companies tried to boost the American sport in countries like Germany and Spain in the mid-1990s, with little success.

Trying to pin down a simple reason for this situation may be as hard as for baseball. Again the argument about the myth of American exceptionalism applies here as well. When American colleges began to develop this sport on the basis of British rugby, distancing themselves from aristocrat Europe and the idea of creating “something typically American” may have played a role (Guttmann).

Also for football, sports enthusiasts and sociologists have analyzed the game’s character, trying to draw parallels to cultural values in the United States. The most obvious (and most discussed) characteristic is the roughness of the game. Football is possibly the most violent team sport. Interestingly, scholars interpreted this feature in very different ways. These anti-theses shall be shortly summed up in the following.

A group of scholars blame football for being not only overly violent and thus dangerous for the physical health of its participants, but also of supporting militarism and fascist tendencies in the society. Their arguments are conclusive.

First of all the aim in football is territorial win. Violence and roughness are necessary and indispensable means for this final goal – just as in warfare. The flags next to the field, which indicate the territorial progress of the attacking team, are caricatures of similar flags on the map of army generals. In opposition to most other sports, the “battle-ground” is absolutely clear with unmistakable frontlines before every single play, or “skirmish”. Second, and here the argument of fascist tendencies comes into play, a successful football team must have a clear hierarchy. The ranks go from the coach (as the general), via quarterback, running backs etc., down to “simple” defensive player’s whose only task is to stand in the way of the opponent. The hierarchy is absolutely fixed and obedience is indispensable. In addition to this, specialization of roles (which has also been one of Guttmann’s characteristics of modern sports) is central to American football. Some players are only specialized on kicks or blocking, they never do anything else; others are receivers and only receivers. Except the quarterback (who is center and mostly “hero” of a team), no player needs all-round abilities. Picking up a Marxist argument some see this specialization as an example of the alienated worker in capitalist exploitation. The players have to be submissive to their orders and their given role, thus alienating themselves from the “product” (= the game) in a dehumanizing process (compare Wenner, Guttmann).

Third, technology plays a vital part in football today. Not only the “armory” in form of high-tech head-gear and shoulder pads, also team radio as means of communication on the field has made technology a central part of the game. Sociologists have interpreted the Americans’ enthusiasm for a game of this character as expressions of the belief in their own superiority (economical and military) on the basis of superior technology (as present throughout the 20th century).

The inherent violence, militarism and fascism in football, critics of the sport scene of the US argue, directly mirrors modern US society (see appendix[v]). What many Americans like to call “interventionist foreign policy” and many others call “imperialism” is only the outcome of a society which cherishes a sport with the outlined character, some say. Obviously a conclusion like this provides many attacking points for neo-Marxist and anti-American argumentation. The arguments are of course not new and in the ideological battles of the Cold War, critics of the American system of capitalism found a lot of ammunition in them.

The anti-thesis to the above chooses the same starting point: football is indeed very violent, these sociologists agree, but it is controlled violence. It is regulated by rules and restricted to the field. It thus exists outside the “real world”. As such it does not increase the potential for violence in society but serves a catharsis effect. Violence, rudeness and also verbal obscenity in football stadiums on Sundays provide a “time-out” for the citizens, in which they temporarily are allowed to deviate from the expected behavior in social life. Modern society demands rationality, empathy and political correctness, football provides a “safety valve” for frustration and pent-up emotions. The “American enthusiasm” (Barth 177) in the common people, which is capable of providing great achievements as well as very negative outcomes, meets more and more restrictions in the modern world. It is channeled into an exchange activity on weekends. Spectators can for at least some hours yell, boo and offend referees (as the voice of authority) and opponent teams, thus “letting off steam”. The controlled violence and chaos thus serve the greater good of a more peaceful society by purging some of the inherent human aggression, which would otherwise end up in real violent acts like rape and murder (which are undoubtedly worse than verbal aggression in the stadium or in front of a TV set).

The accusation of being militaristic and fascist can be countered by another argument: the hierarchy and specialization in football, some say, is an expression of team work, not of fascism. Successful team strategy based on these features shows the triumph of the human mind and its ability of abstraction, anticipation and creativity over the apparent chaos of pure physical energy in the form of 22 perfectly trained men with power and force in abundance. Successful team tactic becomes a symbol of mankind’s or civilization’s triumph over chaos and primitivism. It thus cherishes civilization, not militarism, the argument concludes. Additionally, in connection to the catharsis theory the argument continues that the “mock-territorial-warfare” in football stadiums would eliminate people’s desire and readiness for real wars, rather decreasing hostility and aggression in society. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Konrad Lorentz supported the idea of this catharsis effect (quoted in Lobmayer 16).

Obviously both anti-theses identify the same traits in the character of football, only their interpretations vary widely. Scholars agree that trends in popular sports find at least some representation in civilization and society and vice versa. One side emphasizes the positive values, concluding a rough sport to be supportive for peaceful civilization, the other emphasizes negatives to prove in a neo-Marxist approach that the American system is violent, corrupt and failing. Of course the presented strains of arguments denote the extreme points of a sociological and political discussion. As in many dualistic discussion, the “truth” about the question why football has so much appeal to American people, certainly lies somewhere in between these points.

To add some understanding about how on the one hand writers of the last decades as well as journalists of the last years deal with these topics, the following chapters pick up the arguments that have been presented in this chapter. The analysis should show how critical or how appraising writers of different professions deal with baseball and football, to reveal something about the Americans’ reflection on their sports and their self-awareness. Militarism and its connection to the sports scene will be a topic, as well as the ritualization of modern sport events, the influence of technology and commerce, and the idolization of individuals in sports.

3. Play vs. Fight

“To play” is linguistically speaking a synonym for “to take part in a game or sport”. “Play” also means distraction and fun, people who play “do things that they enjoy, often together” (“play” in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). Recently though, philosophers have developed schemes to analyze and predict human behavior with “play theory” (also called “game theory”), indicating that many if not all rational activity of human beings fit into similar schemes comparable to playing games (Lobmayer, Higgs). It is not the aim of this paper to describe the various approaches of this “play theory”, but their importance for psychology, sociology and cultural studies can hardly be overestimated (see appendix[vi]). As Higgs wrote in 1997 “play theory is everywhere in the intellectual scene” (144). Without going too deep into the details of play theory, the obvious semantic connection of “play” and “sport” shows the use of a closer view on the question, what is exactly meant by “play”, and why not all sports are “all play”. We try to define a scale with which we can measure the representation of sports in literature and journalism.

3.1 Defining a scale

“Play is purposeless activity, for its own sake” (quoted in Guttmann 3). This includes playing the piano (as long as there is no audience, then we have to take into account the communication between individuals, in this case artist and audience, thus exceeding the definition). While playing, the individual comes closest to a state of absolute freedom and creativity, referred to as homo ludens by philosophers (compare Guttmann).

Nevertheless, the definition excludes activities like playing badminton in school only because it is part of the curriculum and jogging for the purpose of losing weight. Group socialization at playing Monopoly or any team sport, or the famous “character-shaping” of youths while doing ball sports (in football literature this will be an interesting point of discussion) also add something to the activity of what is commonly perceived as “playing”, destroying its “purposelessness”. The point is: in real life there exists rarely a situation of pure playing, except in early childhood.

The English language, unlike for example German, provides a further term, “game”, to define the action of real life playing. A “game” adds order in the form of rules and regulations to the absolutely free “pure play”, sacrificing some creativity. Still “one remains outside the sphere of material necessity, but one must obey the rules one imposes on oneself” (Guttmann 4). Almost all modern sports are organized in “games”, in individual sports also called “races”. By keeping score to evaluate the performance of athletes or teams, which is the most important and basic rule underlying every game, the “game” introduces something else: a “prelusory goal” as B. Suits defines it (quoted in Guttman 5), namely winning. Though not in all games a winner/loser outcome is necessary for the game to be completed (Guttmann gives as an example with “ring-around-the-rosies”), most games include this concept and are thus competitive. All team sports, thus also the two sports examined in this paper, are competitive sports.

The word “contest” comes to mind, as the term is often used for the official labeling of sport events or tournaments. According to Guttmann, the term includes an infinite variety of human activities that follow some sort of rules and pursue a special material purpose which goes beyond sheer pleasure or distraction. A soccer tournament, where the winning team wins a cheque of a few hundred dollars fall under this definition; so do legal proceedings and war. As said before, a closer look at the various details of play theory cannot be made here. The same is valid for a detailed differentiation of different types of games, namely games of chance, games of imitation or ”mimickry” and pure contests (Guttmann 10)

It should only be remarked that Guttmann correctly discards the idea of equaling any “contest” with “play” as defined above, as the pleasure and satisfaction of playing by definition has to lie in the act of playing itself, not a material result. Normally this is not valid for courtroom proceedings, military action etc., although there is always the possibility of a task, be it warfare or running a company to become a sheer pleasure for the performing person (see also video games simulating these activities for the joy of the player).

“Sport” can consequently be defined as a subcategory of “contest”, which include “game” character, competitiveness and physicality (though this is also discussable regarding for example motor sports and chess). Sport inherits “pure playing” and thus characteristics of the homo ludens as long as the “prelusory goal” (scoring goals or arriving at the finish line first) remains immaterial and has no significance outside the game. This might be valid for participants of minor leagues of amateur players and youths. But we get to an interesting problem as soon as we look at the world of modern sports, especially professional sports. There are highly significant aims outside the joy of the game itself for pro players, coaches, clubs: fame, stardom, and especially huge amounts of money. So much money that players not only earn a living but millions by “playing” a “game”; a paradox considering the deduced definitions above.

It is exactly this paradox in definition, the contradiction of “pure play” and “pure contest” that is the topic of the analyses of this chapter. Higgs uses the term “edenic” (= pure play) and “agonic” (= pure contest or “fight”) accordingly. Some questions which arise are: Is a professional player a “player” in the sense of the word at all? In how far is it possible to maintain the sheer joy of playing in a game of which the outcome directly influences your monetary situation and the further progress of your career and life?

Guttmann proposes a primitive set theory graph to imply the hybridism of modern sports between “play” and “contest” (6). After having elaborated the above definitions, we can now extend this idea to visually locate sports within the set of different human activities.

Graph 3.1

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Each subset in graph 3.1 features different characteristics. The subset of games and sports (which excludes activities like freeclimbing or Nordic Walking) is the interesting one for our analysis. These sports are crossing the otherwise rather solid border between “play” and “contest”, which normally exclude each other per definition. The same sport event can be “pure play” in one moment and highly “agonic” in the next. It is exactly this “gray area” which many professional sportsmen and sportswomen describe as strange and paradoxical emotional states during a game: feeling the joy of one’s favorite physical activity, at the same time the pressure that failure may have very serious consequences: public dishonor, painful injuries, loss of money, income and job.

If we draw a scale in horizontal direction through this graph, we can identify in how far different sports are located in different areas in this dimension of play/fight.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Graph 3.2

In general we can claim that the rougher a sport is, the further away from pure playing it is located. In a “fight sport” like boxing “agon” definitely outweighs the ease of playing; pain and injury are the major factors which constrict a homo ludens in the boxing ring (Lobmayer 220). On the other end of the scale, golf, being an absolutely un-physical game of technique emphasizes the joy of playing and exercise in fresh air. The team sports, baseball and football, are located more in the center, though football having become a very intense and violent sport tends to be very “agonic” at times.

Nevertheless, every sport in this graph is highly mobile and their classification is therefore by no means fixed or absolute. In particular, the amount of money involved can quickly move every sport into the direction of “pure contest”. When millions of dollars are involved, the fun is soon subject to the necessary means to win. Critics of the modern pro sports scene of the US claim that this commercialization has already extinguished any spirit of play, turning sport into a spectacle of fake emotions and passions (Michener). On the other hand, aficionados of sports and players themselves in their autobiographies praise moments of pure aesthetic pleasure even during the toughest football games or boxing matches (Lobmayer). The above mentioned “gray area” turns out to be most controversial and interesting.

3.2 Journalism

In the following we will examine the corpus for terminology which implies play, fight and contest as defined and differentiated above to see to what extent modern journalists portray the professional sports scene and its protagonists.

As said before, by definition it is only natural that the term “play” and all its tokens are omnipresent in the corpus. A high count of 3853 (0.74 % of all words), including the nouns “player”, “play-off” next to the basic tokens of the verb, is not surprising. “Play” is one of the top “keywords” (as defined in the appendix[vii]) of the corpus just as “game” (4039 counts) and basic numerals, which are necessary for all scorekeeping in these sports. The roots of baseball and football as “games” for the sake of fun find their representation here. The theoretical contradiction of “play” and professionalism as displayed in chapter 3.1 is of course not able to distract the traditional language use.

But if we take a look at related vocabulary concerning the research question we get more insight:

Table 3.1

illustration not visible in this excerpt

We find negative emotional states (“pain” and “frustration”) in higher frequency in football than in baseball, whereas “fun” seems to be much more present in baseball. In quotations of direct speech, baseball players tend to remark on the “fun” time they had as well as commentators giving personal opinions as in these examples:

- "We're coming to the ballpark with a different attitude, which makes it fun to be here right now," said Posada. (BB V)
- "It was pretty incredible to watch. That was a lot of fun." (BB V)
- "It's fun to watch these guys hit," said Clement. (BB VI)
- Still, no matter who you root for, it's fun to watch and it's great for baseball. (BB II)
- The fun didn't stop there. Winn singled up the middle. (BB IX)

It is rather surprising that the sum for the term “frustration” and its tokens is approximating the total count of “fun” plus its synonym “joy”. Together with “pain” the sum of negative emotions even surpasses the positive ones; the count of the word “fight” is remarkably high. “Fight” (=”agon”) theoretically has nothing to do with exercising one of the popular American sports; neither of these two is a fight sport like boxing or wrestling, where the term “fight” would make clear sense.

Nonetheless, the count of 109 for this word is remarkable. A closer examination shows that it is more often used as a verb than as a noun.

These are representative examples:

- Auburn has the hunger of a War Damn Eagle, and will gladly fight inch by inch for each tiny scrap of real estate in a war of attrition fought only with bare hands. (FB IV)
- "We had to come out fighting and that's what we did. (FB VII)
- “If I'm going to go, I'm going to go down kicking and screaming and I'm going to go down fighting.” (BB IV)
- "That's just how we've fought all season, characteristic of this ballclub in that we just keep fighting," Muhammad said. (FB II)
- "We've had so many tight games, we just keep fighting." (FB II)
- “We fought hard and we didn't lay down like some teams have or had a chance to.” (FB VII)
- “It's unbelievable the way the guys fought, and I think that's why we were Super Bowl champions last year.” (FB VII)

The representative examples show that the term “fight” mostly is not used in its literary sense and that it is always connoted positively. “Keep fighting” and “having some fight left in you” are metaphors for strong physical play, roughness and absolute will to win by all means.

“Fight”/“Agon” is not only accepted, but cherished by sports writers. Does this indicate that participants and spectators of professional sports suffer more than they enjoy?

Considering the “pain” occurrences there is another interesting fact. It is clear that sports as physical activities can lead to various injuries, meaning physical pain. Though football being generally of a rougher character, “pain” in the sense of body injuries occurs equally often in baseball as in football (10 times each):

- Sturtze didn't appear […] because of a strained oblique muscle that he described as "excruciatingly painful." (BB V)
- Sierra said he didn't feel any pain while swinging in the cage.(BBV)
- “Eddie had a phenomenal game, after separating his shoulder and all the pain associated with such an injury.” (FB I)

But there is also emotional “pain” and “painful” conclusions that come with lost games or other disappointed expectations as in the following:

- The Cowboys have had plenty of painful losses this season, but this one hurts more. (FB II)


[i] Definition of terms: To differentiate between the two kinds of ‘football’, that is ‘American football’ and ‘European football’, which is also called ‘soccer’, a consistent definition is useful. In this paper, the term ‘football’ always means ‘American football’. The European kind, which in Great Britain is called ‘football’, will be referred to by its American name ‘soccer’.

[ii] For reasons of readability of the further text the following abbreviations are introduced:

Robert Coover’s novel The Universal Baseball Association will be abbreviated UBA.

Philip Roth’s novel The Great American Novel will be abbreviated TGAN.

[iii] When quoting from a corpus, we have to make different assumptions than when quoting from primary or secondary literature. In the case of this sports-related corpus this means that the name of the creator of the text is not of importance, neither is the title or specific contents of the article (that is which teams were involved etc.). Our sole interest lies in the rhetoric and semantics of the language in use. For these reasons, the coding scheme in use in this paper will identify the source on the internet and the period of publishing (give or take some weeks). No “classic” quotation reference will be made as this would have been very time-consuming without revealing any more insight. In quotes from the corpus, the code will only clearly identify the internet site from which the text originates. FB plus Roman number identifies football articles, BB plus Roman number identifies baseball articles.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

These links lead to indices from which single texts can be reached. As the table shows, the earliest texts appeared in 2002, the last ones in May 2005. The websites were last visited on May 28, 2005. Among journalists, they say that nothing is older than the news of yesterday. Then (sport) news of the last year are even older and mostly uninteresting today for the readers of the sports pages. So in the fast-moving world of media and sports it may well be that some of the text will be or maybe already have been taken offline.

The file tagging according to sport type allows us to differentiate the results of the corpus research and assign them to the two sports. This will show whether the differences in game character also induce differences in terminology and rhetoric. Further “tagging”, that is of word classes or grammatical features, as it is often done by linguists who research syntactic linguistic questions, is not applied in this corpus. As said before, the aim of the corpus analysis is semantics.

[iv] Due to the fluid character of soccer it is simply impossible to use numerals for a realistic evaluation of a player’s performance. Thus media broadcasting of soccer matches mostly forgo numeric record of matches or seasons.

Attempts to introduce numeric databases into soccer by some magazines and internet sites in Europe met low enthusiasm of the spectators. Who cares if a defensive player’s quota of ‘fifty-fifties’ was above 80%, when this player made the decisive mistake in the last minute of the game, letting the opponent score to win? Counting successful passing or “yards gained” as in American football does not make sense at all in soccer, and there is no “perfect game” (Candelaria) to think of. As a result, objective evaluation of a player’s abilities is not possible, leaving even more room for post-game discussion.

Without going too much into clichés, one can state that the Anglo-American “Yankee spirit”, (rationality, punctuality, counting, measuring, achievement, progress), is not a vital part of the culture in countries of South America and Africa, countries in which soccer is prominent and baseball and football marginal. Vice versa US citizens seem to be puzzled and bored by a game, in which players’ skills and team performances cannot be reflected in clear absolute numbers or records.

[v] M. Real and others not only identified football as being militaristic, they also claim that it is possible to track reasons for different sports in different geopolitical areas by closely analyzing their paramilitary character. (compare Wenner 190 ff). They identify the overall character of football as directly mirroring conventional warfare (as executed by the US Army) and the overall character of soccer with guerilla warfare (a totally un-American thing) as the direct opposite. The argumentation for this is a quite reasonable one, because there are indeed some facts which support this thesis:

As mentioned, whenever a play starts in football, there is a clearly defined line of combat (the line of blockers of both teams). Not so in soccer, where the game has an internal dynamic and offense and defense lines are hardly identifiable, as players run around and change their positions in every new game situation. Due to soccer being a fluid game, the possibility of “foreign intervention”, through off-field play-calling and massive substitution (both very important in football) are very restricted. In addition to this there are no time-outs or other “gentlemanly” cease-fires during the match (except the half time break), so being inattentive in a soccer match is always potentially dangerous.

Football players are highly specialized, with clear separation of skill players. In a soccer team, except the goalkeeper, no player has a special status or task. Generally everyone needs to know all the skills of dribbling, passing and tackling to be an effective member of the team (so Guttmann’s thesis that specialization is a core feature of modern sport is challengeable when it comes to soccer).

As already pointed out, football is a very technological sport (padding, team radio), but also a sport of physical strength and aggressive power. In soccer, neither technology nor physical size and massive power provide advantages but can be surpassed by technique, swiftness and clever tactics.

The given examples of differentiating characteristics show that there are in fact several traits in the discussed sports, giving them decisively different paramilitary structures, for football a conventional and soccer a more guerrilla-like character. This would partly explain soccer’s unpopularity in the USA, regarding that the United States has had no positive experience with this “dirty” warfare in the last century. But again, theses like this start to tremble when looking at other countries: what about Great Britain, which always relied on well-organized conventional forces and still has soccer as number one sport? What about Germany? And what about Eastern Block states in the Cold War?

Interpretations like these are definitely noteworthy when conclusive. They are provocative and interesting to discuss, nevertheless they must be handled with care. A counterexample can be easily found in the large variety of sports in various cultures. Sports are part of cultures, they are not 1:1 translations of it.

[vi] During the making of this paper, Robert J. Aumann und Thomas C. Schelling were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in the economic sciences for their theories on “game theory” (see SPIEGEL-Online, Oct. 10, 2005). The topic has the highest actuality.

[vii] The linguistic software WordSmith 4.0 provides a routine to automatically find out the keywords of a corpus. This works as follows: the software makes a word list of all words that appear in the corpus, including their frequency and percentage. For example the word “and” appears 14,120 times in the sport journalism corpus. That means: 2.24 % of all words are “and”, it is the fifth often appearing word.

Now the software compares this word list with a “reference corpus word list”. A “reference corpus” is a preferably large un-specific corpus. For this paper the British National Corpus (BNC) word list has been used. In comparing a specific corpus word list (sport articles) with an un-specific corpus (the BNC covers all aspects of language in written and spoken form), the software is able to sort out especially those terms which appear relatively often in the specific corpus. This is very useful as the most frequent words in any corpus are always articles and conjunctions like “the”, “and”, “a”. A keyword list is based on the above comparison, so these “omnipresent” words are purged. What remains is a keyword list that displays only words that are in above average use in the specific corpus, according to percentage.

WordSmith 4.0 calculates a “key-ness” for every term in the list in a quite complicated mathematical procedure (“the classic chi-square test of significance” – quoted from WordSmith Tools Help (c) Mike Scott). In short, the “key-ness” shows exactly how excessive a term is used in a corpus compared to un-specific language.

The top 25 keywords of the sports corpus are:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

So, for example the word “inning” is a more central keyword in the corpus than the word “ball”, though “ball” has an absolute higher frequency. But: “ball” appears in general language as well, whereas “inning” is absolutely restricted to baseball language.

Note also that “defense” has a higher keyness than “offense” and “win” is more of a keyword than “lose” (which is not on the list). Such lists provide great possibilities for linguistic research and interpretation.

Excerpt out of 113 pages


Sport in Journalism and Fiction in the United States Today
University of Osnabrück
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This "Magisterarbeit" analyzes the status and cultural meaning of mass spectator sports as a cultural artifact in the USA (especially Baseball and American Football) by examining texts from the last decades written by both literary writers and journalists. By analyzing 6 novels from the last decades and a corpus of journalistic writing on these sports, the paper studies how American sports are considered to reflect and form American national character and cultural values by writers from different...
Sport, Journalism, Fiction, United, States, Today
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Magister Artium Karsten Senkbeil (Author), 2005, Sport in Journalism and Fiction in the United States Today, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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