Belonging In Sport

Belonging as part of Sport #


Sport through the ages has been a way of bringing people together and can become one of the most inclusive avenues to acceptance in new surroundings.  Spontaneous unorganised sports can be wholesome, fun and cohesive.  John Carroll, * professor of sociology at La Trobe University, his book Ego & Soul, argues that:*

* organised sport used to be a rich part of local community life, providing convincing rituals for the exhibition of such values as skill, courage, and fair play. However in the process of commercialisation of sport,  the rituals are destroyed, the rules are changed, and the standards decline. The players lose their traditional attachments to club, team-mates, and the ethos of good sportsmanship. They themselves become the selfish pursuers of maximum personal gain.*

The severe weakness of the commercialisation theory is that it grossly underestimates the enduring attachments of the great majority in the modern West. Most people continue to feel strongly moved by such age-old values as trust, nurture, protection of the innocent and helpless, honesty, courage, and patriotism.

Sport sociology suffers equally from a lack of empathy with the fan. It fails to imagine what it is like to stand in his or her shoes. It could learn from Nick Hornby, who, in his multiple award-winning and best-selling book Fever Pitch confesses to a life obsessed by soccer - “nothing ever matters but football”. One of the things Hornby makes clear is how non-consumerist his passion is. The natural state of the fan is “bitter disappointment” ; the typical crowd experience is “going spare with frustration and worry”.

It is the warrior drive and the warrior ethos that are resurrected in modern football. The team becomes a band of blood brothers, men who assemble together to undertake dangerous exploits under conditions of duress and threat. The experience creates strong bonds of companionship - ones that often last for life, and certainly long after the team has disbanded. Students who were members of teams wrote unselfconsciously, in a similar vein to returned soldiers, about their attachment to their mates.

The warrior ethos, stressing courage, tenacity, and self-sacrifice for the higher good of the collectivity, carries over directly into football with, of course, the one great difference that the greatest sacrifice of all is not asked for. What is involved is “manliness”, with its deepest roots, whatever the humanist niceties of modern civilisation, in the war hero. These roots do not seem to wither.

Indeed, I had students who added, without prompting, that if there were a war they and their team-mates would be the first to volunteer, and that, because of their collective morale, they would make an excellent unit. Football shows the young the working of key values in situations of high emotional and physical duress. It shows them what it means to be a hero, and what is shameful.

It teaches a new generation how to act. As a value-asserting rite it serves also to strengthen the sense of community; that there is a community with obligations to which everyone belongs.

There are other psychological factors at work in sport, especially for spectators. First, there is identification with the strong. The team provides an image of the powerful and heroic into whose collective and individual boots onlookers can imaginatively project themselves, for the afternoon or evening.

Third, there is in sport, and certainly in football, the acting-out of some vestige of tribal life. The supporters behave like members of a pre-modern tribe, dressing in ceremonial warrior colours, holding sacred totems in their hands, and performing ritual dances and chants during the festival. There is something of both the Aboriginal corroboree and the orgiastic Dionysian festival about modern sport.


Being in form is a state of grace. It is as if some transcendental power has given the player its blessing. Watching a football team that has suddenly lifted itself, and found its feet, is to observe a collection of individual, fast-running men become one organism. In a state of collective ecstasy, which incorporates the collective mass of cheering fans, they achieve superhuman control.

Gumbrecht notes an ecstatic communion that develops between spectators and players, one that serves to lift the players’ energy. Players will often, at the end of an important match, bow their heads or fall to their knees, and spectators will sweep outstretched arms and heads up and down, in a partly serious imitation of pagan worship of their heroes. We are witnessing the birth of a new type of sacred site.


This is an edited extract from Ego & Soul, by John Carroll, professor of sociology at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Published by Scribe.