Watching sport: what kind of fan are you?

29 Jul 2011 09:10:29.613
PA 233/11


Do you — can you — really love a sports team? Should we be learning from so-called bad role models instead of an impossible perfection? And fundamentally, why do we even bother watching sport? Should we rather watch a soap opera?

An expert at The University of Nottingham is challenging many widely held beliefs about sport, and what it does to fans, in his new book Watching Sport.

With the new football season a tantalising matter of days away and other sports like cricket already in full swing, fans around the country are hauling out the scarves, emptying their bank accounts and warming up their voices, bracing themselves for another turbulent year. Soon they’ll be idolising and vilifying their heroes in the space of a few minutes and steeling themselves for glory or abject misery.
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So why put themselves through it year in, year out? The answer, according to Professor Stephen Mumford (himself a self-confessed non-league football fanatic) is a philosophical one, and incredibly important.

“There is more to watching sport than meets the eye,” he begins. “Obviously the health benefits of playing sport are well known, but that doesn’t automatically transfer to watching it. In fact you could argue watching your team getting relegated from a particular league could actually be bad for you.”

So back to those soap operas. Would sports fans be better off watching them instead? Of course, those following football transfer market gossip could be mistaken for thinking they already are, but there is much more to it than that.

The book tackles a massive range of topics tied into the concept of watching sport, which include: dividing people who watch sport into two camps (the purists and the partisans); the ethics in sport and life; collective emotion; love, allegiance and identity and why do we care.

The argument that athletes make poor role models was simmering before Eric Cantona planted his boot-print onto the chest of a football fan, Zinedine Zidane let things go literally to his head, Stuart Broad’s reputation as rebel took hold in the media, or indeed Wayne Rooney swore into the camera.

But is the media right? Are they poor role models or are they in fact ideal role models?

Far from condemning athletes who behave unexpectedly, the book concludes that we could better learn from people’s frailties and mistakes, rather than from so-called paragons of virtue.

In the book Professor Mumford calls for a less rose-tinted view of what a role model should be.

“People who have experienced shame, troubles, and wrestled with inner demons may be able to teach us more about our own lives and how to handle our problems than any media-manufactured image of perfection we are given. Real people face real temptations and make frequent mistakes. How one responds to such defeats in life is often how character is built. Because sports stars face such temptation and pressure, they frequently give us role models of this latter kind and here we may learn real lessons. Defeat teaches us as much about life as victory. Athletes are some of the last persons on earth who should be role models in the former, perfectionist sense, and the reason for this is that they are actually role models in the second, flawed sense. They are in a position that almost certainly will lead to defeats, both professional and personal.”

The idea for the book came from standing in the terraces: “The philosophical questions around watching sport haven’t yet been addressed”, Professor Mumford adds. “The philosophy of sport concentrates on participation, rather than on watching”.
Professor Mumford also separates the purists from the partisans; those who see sport as art and those who just want to see their team beat their opponents.
“I also realised that I seemed to be watching sport in a different way from most of those around me. They were mainly partisans, but there were a few of us purists. I wanted to explain how there could be different ways of watching sport and also to defend the purist.”

However we watch sport, one thing is for sure, it’s not just ‘dumb entertainment’.

“Sport is something that is worthy of our attention,” says Professor Mumford. “At its best, we can discover something profound when we watch sport. Having considered the issues in this book, it is hoped we will be in a better position to do so.”

— Ends —

Notes to editors:
Watching Sport is being published by Routledge in September 2011.

The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘Europe’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking, a league table of the world’s most environmentally-friendly higher education institutions, which ranked Nottingham second in the world overall.
The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 40,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Stephen Mumford on +44 (0)115 951 5847,
Andrew Burden

Andrew Burden - Digital Communications Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8313 Location: University Park

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