Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Soccer, Socialization and Human Evolution

I have a friend who insists soccer is an inferior sport because it does not take advantage of that great marker of human evolution: opposable thumbs. As a result my friend reasons that soccer is too primitive and not civilized enough for him to appreciate.

But the fact that soccer prohibits use of the hands for most players may, in fact, make it the most civilized of all sports.

Norbert Elias argues that "'sportization' . . . had the character of a civilizing spurt comparable in its overall direction to the ‘courtization’ of the warriors where the tightening rules of etiquette played a significant part" (151).

He offers hunting as an example. "Earlier forms of hunting thus imposed on their followers few restraints. People enjoyed the pleasures of hunting and killing animals in whatever way they could and ate as many of them as they liked" (161). But as hunting developed, as it became more civilized (if killing an animal can be civilized), more and more restraints were placed on hunters and on how they conducted the hunt and the kill. Traps were not considered gentlemanly. A sword or dagger was used to kill a buck instead of a bow and arrow or a rifle.

The same was true of in music. Concert goers used to cheer wildly at musical passages they liked even as the band played on. Then they restrained themselves, clapping only between movements. Now civilized concert goers know to applaud only at the end of an entire piece. (As an aside, this is one reason I prefer sports to concerts: I can cheer when the feeling takes hold.) In short, concert goers, like soccer players, can no longer use their hands except after the final note/whistle sounds.

By not using their hands, soccer players are showing they are civilized enough to compete, to do artful things with a ball, without the great evolutionary asset of opposable thumbs. Their fans are, admittedly, less civilized, but the sport itself is a model of restraint and civilization. In fact, soccer was introduced to the lower classes of the British Empire in order to civilize them... and teach them restraint.

All sports impose rules to force participants to exercise control over their bodies in often unnatural, but artistic ways. Imagine basketball without the dribble, tennis without the net, etc. Soccer is just a little more advanced in this, a little more evolved perhaps, than some other sports.

*Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Stu·pid·i·ty [stoo-pid-i-tee] --noun; see The IOC and Governor of Pennsylvania

A few interesting stories from recent weeks...

First, Scott sends me this story about the 2012 Olympics. As a French professor I'm OK with the first point, that French be the official language of the games. But the list of demands made by the IOC on the organizing committee goes from cumbersome to scandalous: "40,000 hotel rooms for IOC members." And "at least 105 members of the IOC have also demanded they receive 'four or five star' accommodation at the expense of the London Olympic fund." I hosted a conference in Salt Lake for my professional organization in 2009. We gave members of the national organization's governing committee a box of chocolates. Given the financial problems of London's organizing committee, I think they should follow our lead.

Carlos sends me the story of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell who criticized the Philadelphia Eagles for postponing their game due to snow, extending his criticism to all America, calling it a "nation of wussies." He apparently continued by saying that the Chinese would have held the game anyway, and done calculus on their way to the game. Right. Those Chinese love calculus, Chinese food, baby boys, and snow. Glad our elected officials can avoid stereotypes. And I only wish national strength could really be determined based on our stupidity (like the stupidity of going to a football game in a blizzard), instead of on ridiculous indicators like education, health care, and GDP.