You Can’t Like Sports, You’re an Intellectual!



Professor B.

Like many Midwestern gals, my cousin Kris often likes men easy categorized in bright shiny boxes. Once in Chicago, while I was reclined on the couch enjoying a lazy afternoon Cubs game with multiple beers, she protested: “you’re an intellectual, you can’t like sports!”

Intellectuals and sports? Can they go together? The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould was famous for his sports essays including a brilliant one on the disappearance of the .400 hitter, which everyone should read. Chicago intellectuals also mask their braininess from the opposite sex in bars by hiding behind t-shirts and baseball caps proclaiming their favorite teams, but camouflage is not true fandom. It’s like students who tell me: “Dude, I love philosophy. Philosophy and the Simpsons is my favorite book!”

The hard line was laid down by theorists from the Frankfurt School, exiled German Marxists who sat out WWII in California, NYC and other places, and hypothesized that sports, popular culture and all other American art forms were all designed to keep the masses infantile and unaware of their massive exploitation by big business and politicians. The blue collar workers take it on the chin every day, but feel like winners when their ball team scores. Maybe so. But what about that certain root-for-the-underdog, Spartican allegiance to sports enjoyment, which could be considered pro-revolutionary, at least by American standards. “America loves a winner and will not tolerate a loser!” bellows George C. Scott as General Patton. Really? Does America love the New York Yankees?


Or are sports just anti-revolutionary, with their mythos that favors the establishment, I mean ‘fair play’ and ‘rules’ and ‘may the best team win’? Do sports and other entertainment play a role in infantilizing the public so that it is incapable of rising in revolution: If you were an editor, which headline would you run:

“Oil companies making record profits!” OR

“Britney Enters Rehab! Again!”

I noticed after returning from a long trip abroad that American television is peppered with subliminal suggestion that warp the mind towards the predetermined conclusion: ‘do nothing, you’re perfect, just sit there, be docile and eat what we’re shoving at you.’

Ever wonder why you feel angry if you watch too long?

Or are we intellectuals too prone to conspiracy theories?

Are we paranoid?

Or are they really after us?


While away, I was amazed how this nerd or sports fan distinction doesn’t exist in Europe where the religion is football, or soccer as we Yanks call it. Yeah, I know, it must be an intellectuals’ game, because, like baseball, it’s slow, boring, byzantine in its rules, etc. etc. But football also appeals to violent Hooligans, the ultimate anti-intellectuals. It is also very surprising to many people abroad that America doesn’t produce hooligans at football or baseball games in nearly the same numbers. But that’s because we are too stupefied into obedience, right?

Intelligence and a taste for violence and revolt are not at all irreconcilable. I know a now eminent art-historian who had gleefully busted some heads in Rome during his teen years as a soccer maniac. The Granta and New Yorker fiction editor, Bill Buford wrote a memoir “Among the Thugs” about encounters with fans (or rather “supporters”) of Manchester United, also my favorite club—even if it is the moral equivalent of the Yankees (you’ll see why I like them below). At one point Buford sees the mythic Bill Gardiner, warrior chief of the ICF, West-Ham hooligans, standing his ground in a brutal melee. It is a crucial moment. Buford never managed to interview him, but these moments of existential violence seem to transfix the writer, the sheer brutality of it. I am also fascinated by the underside of European football, although I made the mistake of riding in a subway car with some FC Bayern München supporters when they were jumped by AC Milan fans, nearly getting jumped myself. Ironic that I almost took a beating for them because I really hate Bayern! In a great game in 1999 Man United beat them 2-1, after trailing 1-0 well into the final minutes. I hated living in Munich and was overjoyed when the English United humiliated them on home turf.


The connection between sports and intellectuals goes way, way back. The Theban poet Pindar composed odes to athletes that classicists still treasure. And although many sports figures today are more street thug than “gentlemen-sportsman,” there is still a great tradition of student athletes—I get them in my classes sometimes. Far from taking away their focus, it seems that sports actually teach them how to study harder, and how to tolerate no excuses from themselves or others. And I have recently discovered a new connection between sports and intellect. Gambling. Now I have long believed that many professional sports are fixed, although I think our Republic is not yet ready for this knowledge, on the heels of the steroids/doping scandals. Yet, even if I don’t believe the outcomes are entirely the result of pure athletic competition, hell, I just enjoy trying to second guess the fixers. I am pretty sure the 2008 Cubs are in, folks. A huge corporate media bonanza is on the way: great ratings, great story, great advertising and in short a major merchandizing event. I just hope my old hometown team, the Yankees are picked to do a lay down. I even believe that the 2005 Chicago White Sox championship was a “dry run,” a chance to do some “testing on focus groups” to see which consumer markets could be best tapped with the Cubbies in ’08.

Or am I paranoid?

But in any case, Kris, I’m sorry sports, and brains do go together! I’m going to go on cheering my Giants and the Cubs, and….U-NI-TED!

America may not have many soccer hooligans….


….but it does have student rioting at Michigan State University following the elimination of the basketball team

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  1. paulmbanks says

    I do hope Kristen sees this and fires back a response or two to this. I’m going to become and Arsenal fan now just to have a rivalry with you. Arsenal was the team in Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” book. Funny how they converted it to the Boston Red Sox for the movie with the LOATHABLE Jimmy Fallon. I think thats funny because if Manchester United=NY Yankess, then Arsenal=Red Sox

  2. Intellectuals can like sports but can sportsfans like intellectual discussions?

  3. I don’t hate Arsenal. My loyalty to Man United really is based on that game against FC Bayern. As usual my loyalties tend to be negatively motivated as much as positively.

  4. Julia, One of the best 20th c novels A Fan’s Notes was written by rabid Giants fan Fred Exley.

  5. paulmbanks says

    George Will. he may get it wrong most of the time politically, but he’s still a very sharp guy, and a HUGE baseball fan.

  6. Charley Davis says

    George Will actually is RIGHT almost all the time, except in relation to baseball. He favors those losers that play in that derelict excuse for a ballpark on the northside.

    According to Billy Crystal, Henry Kissinger (another intellectual) goes by ‘Hank’ at the ballpark.

  7. I don’t think George Will qualifies as an intellectual. I’m actually bipartisan that talking heads are idiots, or they wouldn’t be on tv. Kissinger should be arrested and sent to the Hague for war crimes. Maybe they can catch him at the ballpark sometime and rendition him to Belgium.

  8. paulmbanks says

    Agreed about Kissinger. Although I enjoy a lot of what George Will has written, when it comes to climate change, he’s one step away from Dick Cheney or Rush Limbaugh (or fat Goebbels as I like to call him) Are all talking heads on tv idiots? Pat Buchanan, Ron Reagan Jr. and Tucker Carlson are all pretty awful. Noticed how I slammed 3 sides of the aisle there. Seriously, whoever thought Tucker deserved a show? like he’d be anywhere at all in life if not for his upbringing in the family that owns Swanson foods.

  9. The Statue of Harold Baines says

    OMG, Tucker Carlson is prodigiously bad! thank God that idiot’s show got cancelled

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