First, I have to admit I am a huge fan of American football. I say "admit" because it is hard to be a football fan these days. I think that is partially because of all the controversies (e.g. the long term effects of all those concussions on the players, its awful track record with violence against women, the openly racist name of the Washington Redskins, etc). But it's also because I am a Buffalo Bills fan and the Bills have the longest playoff drought in the NFL (yes, even longer than the Cleveland Browns). These facts can make it painful to keep watching the game.
But I do keep watching the game, and I am excited to watch the Super Bowl (if for no other reason than to root against the Patriots). And, given that I am a sociologist, I cannot separate my experience as a fan from my experience as a sociologist. So, inevitably, I always find myself sociologically analyzing various dimensions of the game. I suppose there are times where it would be easier if I could just chuck my sociologist hat and enjoy the spectacle itself, but you cannot just "turn off" thinking like a sociologist. Plus, I would probably not feel like I was being a responsible viewer if that happened. So I got to thinking about the various ways a sociologist can go about observing the Super Bowl and analyzing it sociologically. I discuss a few applications below (concerning the ads, the fans, and the game itself) and then mention why discussing these things during the Super Bowl sometimes can be tough.
Many fans look forward to the commercials aired during the Super Bowl. The ads can be very entertaining and fun, and are some of the most interesting and relevant places for sociological analyses. This is especially true for discussing gender. A few years ago, we wrote extensively about the new masculinity depicted in Super Bowl ads. For example, the Dodge Charger commercial below aired during the 2010 Superbowl. The commercial pokes fun at the idea of women emasculating men. Women are depicted as nagging relatively powerless men. In the clip, men are redeemed through driving a sports car. The ad makes a clear connection between masculinity and driving fast but also represents the desires of men as antithetical to the desires of women.
For other examples, see this Pepsi Max commercial from the 2009 Super Bowl. It offers the first diet cola that is flavorful (i.e., potent/powerful) enough for men. This Best Buy commercial from the 2012 Super Bowl reflects stereotypical portrayals of men's and women's occupations.
Ads can also be very politically charged, and the commercial below which aired during half time of the 2012 Super Bowl, represents a direct attack against unions. It is an excellent illustration of the use of ideology to promote false consciousness. The supposed union workers in the ad complain about unions taking such high union dues and state that they did not vote for the union (suggesting that they don't want the union and that it does not represent their interests). This demonstrates the use of ideology, or the dominant ideas that help to perpetuate the oppressive class system. They seek to discourage workers from joining unions in hopes of making them easier to control. When workers accept such ideas as truth, it promotes false consciousness. False consciousness occurs when a class does not have an accurate assessment of capitalism and their role within it, but instead adopts the ideology of the ruling class, and acts against their own class interests. See our full analysis here.
More and more women are watching NFL games. In fact, female fans are the league's fastest growing demographic. But it is interesting to observe the different norms and expectations for male and female fans. Take, for instance, the commercial below marketing NFL apparel to women. A series of attractive women throw NFL jerseys at their partners and storm off as Leslie Gore sings "You Don't Own Me" in the background. Finally we see it is because women get their own NFL jerseys—"NFL Apparel Fit For You." These words flash on the screen as a woman models her "Fit For You" jersey for a man, who checks her out approvingly. The commercial suggests that for women, part of being an NFL fan is performing a sexualized femininity for men.
At your Super Bowl party, you could pay attention to the gender norms of fans watching the game. You might notice other norms around clothing/appearance in relationship to the game, who is yelling/cheering louder, what kinds of assumptions are made about other fans' knowledge of the game, etc.
Have you ever noticed how the NFL is dominated by African-Americans? So that must be evidence that black people are genetically superior athletes relative to white people, right? Wrong. While it is true that certain sports (e.g. NFL football, NBA basketball) are dominated by African-Americans, other sports (e.g. NHL hockey and professional golf) are dominated by whites. Contrary to popular conceptions about race and sports, there is no genetic basis to race or any group differences in leg muscles, jumping ability, etc. It is socially constructed, which is another way of saying that the meanings we attached to race have been created through social interaction. Meanings and categories of race vary across space and time. The reasons that certain racial groups dominate certain sports is a combination of economic factors (relative to basketball, hockey and golf have much higher costs to participate in them and these costs are whites are more likely to afford those costs) and cultural factors (e.g. certain racial groups come to value, and self-select into, certain sports more than others). The documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion, addresses the genetic-basis of race (or lack thereof). The segment of 30:00-32:00 addresses race and NBA basketball:
Speaking of dominant black athletes playing in the big game on Sunday, how about Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman? Readers might remember that in last year's NFC championship game, the Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers in a thrilling victory that secured their spot in Super Bowl XLVIII (which they went on to win). Immediately following the Seahawks' defeat over the 49ers, Sherman gave an emotional, on-field post-game interview with FOX Sports reporter Erin Andrews. In the interview, Sherman portrayed a loud and brash display of aggression, in which he “trash talked” San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree. In the clip below, political commentator and TV host Chris Hayes highlights how the media framed Sherman--a black football player--as a “thug” after the interview. Hayes discusses the framing of black men and athletes as violent and hypermasculine with Dr. Jelani Cobb from the University Connecticut.
There is no doubt that American football is a violent sport. But how this dimension of the game plays out off the field gives us great insight into American society more broadly. And the issues of domestic violence, including the controversial actions of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and others, were at the center of NFL discussions throughout the entire season. We have written about this issue previously, including a sports commentator's victim blaming that teaches women not to "provoke" men into hitting them. However, in a long overdue attempt to address this issue of violence against women, the NFL has launched its No More campaign. For all the missteps in how the NFL has handled these issues, their highly visible ad campaign offers an excellent way to open up conversations about gender violence in our society. For example, a 30-second version of this ad will air during the first quarter, and might offer the best opportunity to open up some interesting conversations during the game:
Preparing for the Backlash to Sociological Analyses of the Super Bowl
Beware: depending on your audience, interrupting the entire game with all your sociological insights may not make you the most popular person at the party. Some people prefer to be caught up in the spectacle of the funny ads with cute puppies, heavy hitting plays, and greasy food. After all, sometimes we all just need a break and I would be lying if I said I don't enjoy those things too. But it is also true that people often get uncomfortable when you challenge their worldview ("What do you mean race isn't a real thing?!") or they might get defensive when you analyze inequalities inherent in those entertaining ads. This reaction is no accident; in fact, it is how dominant ideologues work to maintain power. When people have taken for granted beliefs about the way the world works (e.g. believing in inherent differences between men and women or that unions are bad), it helps to legitimate those differences and obscure the injustice inherent in our systems of race, class, and gender. Your sociological analyses of the Super Bowl can be subversive and when people themselves are invested within those systems, they might just push back. So good luck, and enjoy the big game!
Paul Dean is co-creator and co-editor of The Sociological Cinema, and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University.