Monday, June 25, 2012

Singing in the Stands

A while ago on Twitter I had mentioned the need for an encyclopedia of fan rituals, across history and across cultural forms. Fellow Americanist Adam Golub suggested that a wiki-based source would be a means to start, a place where observers could note rituals they've discovered or witnessed and where a team of volunteer editors could sort the information. The social scientist in me would love the opportunities provided by simply gathering all that information in one place.

I'm thinking about this idea again in response to a piece by soccer writer Grant Wahl in the June 25th issue of Sports Illustrated. In "That's So Euro," Wahl recounts the various rites of European soccer fans, from the noble (Irish fans singing a haunting folk ballad in response to a loss; Lech Poznań fans "doing the Poznań, or groundhopping) to the ignoble (brawls, racist chants).

Wahl wonders whether the ways in which exposure to such rites among the growing numbers of English-language viewers for Euro 2012 might alter American sports spectatorship. As he notes, "NFL commissioner Roger Goodell marveled at European soccer, telling SI's Peter King that he would love to replicate the spontaneous songs and chants that are much a hallmark of the stadium experience as blaring music, Kiss Cams and T-shirt cannons are part of the NFL and other artificially enhanced U.S. sports." Wahl quotes a Polish-American Poznań fan, too, who questions whether refined middle-class NFL audiences would take to the expressive rituals of their European counterparts and whether hardcore fans might need some kind of special section in the stadium, where they might be led by a chant organizer.

It's kind of amusing that Goodell makes it sound like it was the fault of increasingly lethargic American audiences that they had to start showing candid audience shots on the jumbotron and playing AC/DC between plays. I'm not even a big sports person, yet even I have noticed how professional events have become more and more packaged for response, with choreographed fan "rituals" presented for consumption, like the brand name fast food that has taken over stadiums. The whole thing feels packaged like a commercial because, well--could it be possible that increased corporate sponsorship has anything to do with it?

Anyway, if you were to take away the packaging, and leave space for fans to organically respond to what's happening before them, I'm certain that Americans, middle-class or not, would be capable of developing and engaging in exuberant and supportive rituals. After all, they did so for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, before professional leagues took over. And elite social status certainly does not preclude chants and singing and other forms of exuberance. Has anyone been to an Ivy League hockey game lately?

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