There's more to sports than meets eye

Book: Michael Mandelbaum has taken time out from analyzing foreign policy to analyze the grip of sports.

Books

July 22, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN STAFF

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.

"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.

"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.

"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'

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.

"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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