Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture

The following summary is from an event the Woodrow Wilson Center’s United States Studies Program sponsored with the Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE).  The event featured author Andrei Markovits, Karl W Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan and Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, held on October 18, 2010.

The video archive of this event can be viewed here.

“The world has always known disparate games of all kinds,” Andrei Markovits asserted, beginning his remarks. Prior to the 1840s, games were most often spontaneous, local, and violent contests whose legacy remains in the language of modern sports. For example, the soccer term “derby,” meaning a rivalry game between teams from the same city, is derived from a medieval form of football still played once a year in Ashbourne, Derbyshire that pits two teams against each other, with thousands of players to a side.

The modern era, however, has witnessed what Markovits called the “sportization” of games, a process that involved the standardization of rules and team identities that made specific games intelligible to a wider audience. This also transformed sports into “languages”–systematic communicative forms whose meanings were known to those who followed them. Although soccer, American football, rugby, and a host of other sports share a common history, each has its own unique language and code which accounts for the passionate followings of each game but prevents casual fans from appreciating the finer points of the other forms.

The establishment of leagues and associations prior to World War I, according to Markovits, raised the issue of “professionalism vs. amateurism.”. This was also the moment when several significant sports emerged, none more important or popular than soccer (or association football), which now dominates other sports globally.

But why does one country support particular sports but not others? In part, Markovits explained, this has to do with the historical origins of today’s sporting landscape. Taking British games as an example, he argued that the game of choice (soccer, rugby, cricket) in a given country is closely tied to its relationship to Britain. Cricket was adopted primarily by the aristocracy of directly ruled countries, such as India, but it slowly evolved into a game of the people. In countries where Britain held economic but not political sway, soccer became dominant. According to Markovits, soccer “bespeaks Britain’s economic might, not its political power” and was therefore adopted by a much broader range of nations.

A country’s sports preferences also have to do with what Markovits calls its “sports space”—the finite amount of leisure time available for sports spectatorship. When that space is monopolized by one or two sports, there is no room for others. But the allocation of sports space can change, In the United States after World War II, for example, the sports space was relatively stable. But then came the “second globalization” of the late 1980s, when technology made it as easy to follow a team on the other side of the world as easy as in one’s own city. Describing this shift led Markovits to ask, “Are these old sports spaces being…undermined in both directions?” In the 1970s, he said, the World Cup was practically unknown in the U.S., but that has changed. As a result, there has been an obvious shift in the dominant sports languages in both the U.S.and Europe.

Markovits also noted parallels between the growth of a global sports culture and the second wave of feminism: women are now “producing” (participating) in sports at a level equal to men. Paradoxically, however, women’s consumption of sports—as spectators–still lags behind men’s. Moreover, women’s sports have not developed the same fan base that men’s sports regularly enjoy. In this sense, Markovits said, sports remains one of the “last bastion of separate but equal.”

Commentator Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic and author of How Soccer Explains the World, was able to connect his experience researching Jewish sports clubs in Vienna during the 1920s with the Jewish identity of modern clubs in England and the Netherlands. This point reinforced Prof. Markovits’ thesis that ‘tribal’ identities persist in fan bases long after their historical origins have disappeared. Foer went on to say that globalization and traditions are “two sides of the same coin.”

By: Andrew Bedell

Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies

Photo credit: David Hawxhurst, Wilson Center


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