Sports provide ‘social identity’ we thrive on, despite off-the-field drama
No matter what team holds your allegiance, there is an army of likeminded believers who share your enthusiasm and excitement for the cause. And that’s what makes sports great
It’s an hour before kickoff and walking around the concourse at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is no easy trek. Philadelphia and New England fans are smashed together like sardines while they jockey for a pathway to their respective seats.
Not only was this the first nonpreseason NFL game I had ever attended, it was also Super Bowl LII. I was there as a reporter for KSL-TV so any loyalty to either team or any player had long since dissipated with the conclusion of our family’s fantasy football league.
I was an observer and here is what I saw — men and women, young and old, decorated in their team colors — green for the Eagles and blue for the Patriots. They high-five their own kind like they were devout family members knee-deep in a reunion while sidestepping the opposition.
This is a moment where politics, religion, ethnicity and financial station in life are tossed aside, replaced by an all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality. It’s a realization that the hot dogs and drinks are overpriced for everybody, and nobody cares, despite the fact that some arrived by limousine and others by city bus.
I positioned myself off to the side and watched this mass of humanity rally around each other and that’s when it hit me — the true power of sports is not in the Super Bowl itself, but the social identity it provides to a person, a community, a state and, as we witness during the Olympics, to an entire country.
Nothing outside of tragedy can bring a community together quicker and with more enthusiasm than a sports franchise. This is why politicians are willing to pony up tax money for arena construction and upkeep because there isn’t a better way to get people to willingly unite behind a single cause.
Utah witnessed this firsthand when the Jazz reached the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 and again when the state hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. No matter which religion you favored, which candidate you voted for or which college team you supported, on those occasions, it was all-for-one and one-for-all. And it was nice.
In recent years, Las Vegas has used sports to reinvent or at least expand its identity beyond gambling. The birth of the NHL’s Golden Knights and the relocation of the NFL’s Raiders not only spearheaded growth (T-Mobile Arena and Allegiant Stadium), but it gave locals something they could hang their hat on — or at least buy a hat and put it on. My 6-year-old granddaughter wears her Golden Knights hat with pride — in Logan, Utah.
Las Vegas will host the sold-out BYU-Notre Dame game on Oct. 8, the Super Bowl in 2024 and the Las Vegas Review Journal reports the city is a finalist to host the Final Four between 2027 and 2031 — all three events were once as unfathomable in the gambling mecca as the return of those 99-cent shrimp cocktails.
Still waiting on the shrimp.
During my 20 years working for KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, the megaevents included boxing and conventions, with the marketing focus on nightlife. It left very little for the locals, who were a melting pot of move-ins to begin with, to rally behind, especially when the Runnin’ Rebels ran out of gas. While its vices still have their place, a very strong place, sports have given Las Vegans more to offer — more to identify with.
Of course, just like the sports themselves, there are always hits and misses.
Three years before covering the Super Bowl, I was in Sochi, Russia, to report on the 2014 Winter Olympics. It was the opinion of many, including my own, that the Games should have never been there.
For one, the city of Sochi is a resort town with a subtropical climate that only saw snow when it came out of a machine. Most of the snow used in the mountain venues was also fabricated. Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent $50 billion in an effort to show the world that he was not only beloved by his people, but he was still a player on the global stage.
Putin popped into one event after another, smiling and waving as he moved. The pop-up venues were state-of-the-art, and, on television, the Games were presented as Russia’s finest hour — especially by non-NBC outlets who were broadcasting to the rest of the world.
The surreal moment for me came when I walked out of the splendid ice hockey arena to see smoke coming from the homes on the nearby hillside. Without electricity, the heat from a fireplace was all they had. It became quite clear, this Russian renaissance I was witnessing was a fake.
Even with deep pockets and national athletes, Putin still couldn’t change Russia’s identity and when a number of those Olympians tested positive for doping, it made things worse.
As a side note, while driving to the airport to fly home, I watched an endless convoy of military trucks carrying Russian soldiers from Sochi to their next assignment. By the time we landed in New York, word was out of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The fun and games were over and his chance at a new identity turned into an identity-crisis and an eventual international crisis.
I asked a group of Russian college students who were providing volunteer work at the skeleton/bobsled track if they still identified the United States as the place to be? One young lady said without hesitation, “Oh yes! My goal is to graduate and somehow get to America.”
Sorry Mr. Putin, $50 billion didn’t change her opinion. That’s a pretty big miss.
The BYU and Utah football programs are no strangers to an identity crisis. Historically, it seems when one team is up and full of itself, the other is down in the dregs and as fans, we take it personally because it affects us socially.
BYU enjoyed “King of the Hill” status in the WAC, while Utah closed the gap between them in the Mountain West Conference. With the Pac-12 invitation in 2011, the Utes bolstered its identity with P5 status and enjoyed a nine-game winning streak against BYU.
The Cougars wallowed through the in-state skid and fought to stay relevant as an independent for 11 years. But, the Big 12 invite on Sept. 10, 2021, and BYU’s 26-17 victory against Utah the following day, instantaneously recharged BYU’s identity like a firefly sipping a Red Bull.
In recent weeks, with the announced departures of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, the Utes are staring at a new crisis. What happens to them if the Pac-12 collapses? As unthinkable as that idea was a month ago, it was top of mind at last week’s Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles, and nothing rattles identity more than uncertainty — just ask the Jazz.
The Cougars, Utes and Jazz are all facing uncertainty and all at the same time. One team is overhauling its roster, one is preparing to move into a new conference, and the other is trying to hold its current league together.
Fortunately, for fans, who are powerless against the politics of money and sports, even at the collegiate level, the return of simpler, more enjoyable times are coming.
In just over a month, we can again put on our respective team jersey, blue, red or whatever color the Jazz are wearing, and throw around high-fives to complete strangers and post witty one-liners on social media as another season is kicked or tipped off.
The competition and the judgement-free fellowship is what we thrive on — it is our social identity — and it’s also why we don’t mind buying those overpriced hot dogs and drinks.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.