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There's more to sports than meets eye

Why do we love following major team sports? Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes he knows.

One key reason, Mandelbaum said, is that sports offer simplicity and predictability in an otherwise complicated world.

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"Read the news section of the newspaper and there is confusion and uncertainty, a world buffeted by large forces people neither understand nor control," Mandelbaum said. "But turn to the sports section and it's all different."

In sports, there are schedules, standings, statistics, winners and losers.

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"Clarity," said Mandelbaum, author of a recently published book, The Meaning of Sports, in which he explores the popularity of baseball, football and basketball in America.

That sense of order helps make sports a great escape, Mandelbaum said, "a wonderful diversion" from life's harsher realities.

An esteemed academician, he pointed out other reasons sports are beloved during a recent lunch interview near his Washington-area home.

The games are "spontaneous and authentic" dramatic entertainment, unlike movies and television shows, which are scripted.

Athletes are among the last physical superheroes in a world in which many people work behind desks and technology is so pervasive that even wars are fought largely by computer.

Lastly, each of the sports stems from a different period of American history, and the fan bases reflect that.

Mandelbaum, a member of Yale University's class of 1968, which included President George W. Bush, previously wrote eight books on foreign policy, most recently The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the 21st Century.

The Meaning of Sports has been praised by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but some of Mandelbaum's colleagues are still reeling from the news that he wrote a sports book.

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"People were absolutely shocked when they heard," said Charles Doran, another professor at the School of Advanced International Studies. "[Mandelbaum] is the epitome of the scholar. You would not have expected him even to take an interest in sports, much less get into them to this degree."

Mandelbaum, 57, who grew up in Northern California rooting for the San Francisco 49ers and other Bay Area teams, smiles at the surprise he engendered.

"People do double takes. They say, 'You've written a book about what?'" he said. "But it turns out a lot of my colleagues are sports fans, too. Many have been intrigued."

Peter Kostant, a Yale classmate of Mandelbaum's and now a visiting law professor at Washington and Lee, said the sports book wasn't a surprise to those who know him well.

"Michael is a passionate and knowledgeable sports fan, and I remember him talking about writing this book 30 years ago when he was working on his Ph.D. at Harvard," Kostant said.

'Typical fan'

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Mandelbaum describes himself as a "typical fan." He attends a few major league baseball games and pro basketball games a year, but spends the majority of his sports time in front of the TV. Much of the sports history in the book was already in his head, he said.

The Meaning of Sports is a work of cultural anthropology, tracing the roots and popularity of the three sports. (He left out hockey because it isn't as popular, he said, and also because he doesn't follow it.)

Among his many observations and theories:

All three sports are thriving. A key reason is they have changed their rules to enhance scoring over the years. Baseball voted in the designated hitter. Basketball went to the three-point shot. Football made passing easier.

"These sports are all doing pretty well," Mandelbaum said. "The market for entertainment has expanded as people have more leisure time and more income. And these sports are flexible and adaptable. They have done very well at keeping themselves current."

Violence is the essence of football's appeal.

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"Violence has always compelled spectators," Mandelbaum said. "Hangings and floggings were very popular in 18th- and 19th-century England. At the first Battle of Manassas [in the Civil War], people took picnic lunches up to watch the fighting. Football is controlled violence, but it is violence, which people have loved to watch since the gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome."

The sports reflect distinct periods in American history.

Baseball was produced by the traditional life of early America: rural, agrarian, simpler.

Football corresponds to the machine age and the rise of industry, factories and cities.

Basketball is the sport of what Mandelbaum calls the "post-industrial era" of computers and more independent thinking.

"These ideas came to me once I began to think seriously about where these sports came from. It's the product of watching sports and also thinking about history and social science for a long time," said Mandelbaum, whose late father was a renowned anthropologist at the University of California.

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Baseball and tools

Each sport gets a long chapter in The Meaning of Sports as Mandelbaum delves into their roots, drawing conclusions that might surprise even ardent fans who thought they knew everything.

For instance, he details baseball's uncanny similarity to the traditional, early American life, including a dependence on tools (bats and gloves; shovels and rakes) and also the dependence on virtues derived from hunting and fishing (patience, local knowledge, reflexes, the capacity to accept failure).

Baseball has struggled at times, Mandelbaum said, partly because of an unavoidable contradiction. The sport's appeal is rooted in the joy of remembering how things used to be, yet it is forced to make changes to attract new fans. Those changes have included playoff wild cards and interleague games.

"Baseball has actually changed less than football and basketball; it really is the sport that was being played a century ago, much more so than the other two," Mandelbaum said. "But when it does change, it angers people like myself who think the DH is a blight.

"On the other hand, the changes that annoy old fans like me attract new fans."

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He added that baseball has capitalized on its strong nostalgic appeal with the opening of ballparks with a "retro" feel, starting with Camden Yards in 1992.

Football replaced baseball as America's favorite sport in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Mandelbaum, partly because the sport was more like America in the aftermath of World War II. Discipline, self-sacrifice and respect for authority were accepted norms and the tenets of combat and football.

The fact that teams play just once a week adds to the sense of spectacle the sport exudes, Mandelbaum said.

Being there counts

"There is just something important about a football game. There is something about being present at the event that makes it attractive," he said.

Basketball rose to popularity after the Vietnam War "brought about the devaluation of the norms and practices of war" that helped make the NFL popular, Mandelbaum wrote. Instead of discipline, self-sacrifice and respect, society valued spontaneity, self-indulgence and questioning authority.

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That led to the rise of a game in which individualism and creativity were valued, he wrote.

The fans who helped basketball reach a peak of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s had no connection to the traditional life, were turned off by the military and were comfortable in a computerized world.

Mandelbaum's deep thinking on such subjects is no surprise to Kostant, his Yale classmate.

"Michael tends to intellectualize every activity," Kostant said. "This book was a way for him to get even greater pleasure from sports, enabling him to think deeply about them in an intellectual way."

A typical result is this Mandelbaum take on a key difference between baseball and football:

"What is satisfying about baseball is you can see it and explain it. Football more corresponds to Tolstoy's view of history taken from the Napoleonic wars, which is that you can never really explain what happened because it's too complicated. Did the play fail because the guard missed his block, the fullback didn't cover for him or the end missed his cut? That's why football coaches spend all their time watching film.

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"The great thing about baseball is the causality is easy to determine and it always falls on the shoulders of one person. So there is absolute responsibility. That's why baseball is psychologically the cruelest sport and why it really requires psychological resources to play baseball - because you have to learn to live with failure."

Though he is an ardent football fan, he wonders if the violence that makes the sport popular might become a detriment.

Mandelbaum's views

On Pete Rose: "The cardinal sin in sports, what could really wreck it, is not cheating to win, which has gone on forever, but cheating to lose. That threatens a fundamental aspect of sports' appeal, which is their spontaneity. If games are fixed, they're no different from movies; they're scripted.

"I don't think anyone has evidence that Rose tried to throw games he bet on, but the mere fact that he bet on them put him in a position where he could cheat to lose. Assuming that he did bet on baseball and on his own team, one has to say this is as serious an offense against the essence of sports as could be imagined."

On why soccer will never become widely popular in America: "I very much enjoy the game but there isn't enough scoring for American audiences. And too many ties. We're the most competitive society since the ancient Greeks."

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On whether poor behavior by high-profile athletes turns off fans: "I just don't see it happening. I think people make a distinction between what athletes do as athletes, which they have cause to admire, and what they do as private citizens, which may not be admirable.

"I suppose there's a point you can reach where you don't want to pay good money to see felons, but I don't see that [turnoff] happening. Picasso was not an admirable human being in terms of his relations with his wife and children, but people still admired his art."

On steroids: "They do threaten the popularity of sports because they threaten a basis of that popularity: authenticity. It's especially a problem for baseball because individual records are so important and part of the appeal. Barry Bonds is seen as competing directly with Babe Ruth, and in some sense he is because they're playing the same game. But if it turns out the home run record wasn't set by Barry Bonds but by Barry Bonds and his pharmacologist, that takes some of the luster off the achievement and the record itself."


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