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The NFL Referee Lockout: Why do We Really Care?

What the NFL Referee Lockout Means from a Socio-Cultural Perspective

Football fan or not, the NFL referee lockout was something worth paying attention to because it reminded us all of just how sacred the game is to football fans. Football is so ingrained in our lives we don’t see that embedded within the game and the way we watch it, are some very deep-seated American cultural values. There are certain cultural reasons why we, as Americans, do things that are a direct result of our country’s history and values.

Sports fan or not, you have to know that sports is more than just a game. It is a means of expressing very distinct cultural values, and a vehicle for pushing politics and nationalism. The referee lockout is a great example of all of that.

Football as a religion

From an anthropological perspective, football has all of the essential components to act as a religion: we wear special garb to watch the game, there is a pilgrimage involved (the seasonal trek to the Super Bowl), there are rituals to be observed during the game and there is a special day when we worship.

Look at it this way: if you are an avid football fan then this is how every Sunday goes for you: you throw on your jersey, fire up the grill (or make some sort of special food), and prepare to sit down with friends and family to watch your team play. Every Sunday. Compare that to church, where you put on your “church clothes”, take part in communion and sit down to follow a set of rituals in order to worship.

Political undertones

There are also serious political and national undertones in the way the game is ritualized: the military flyovers during the Super Bowl, the way we honor troops who have come home before games, and the singing of the National Anthem are just a few examples. All of these components serve as a way to blur the lines between the love of your country and the love of football — as if that love were the same.

That being said, what happens when you take a game, in which we as Americans were bred to believe watching is the American thing to do and start messing with the outcome? What happens when you take a game in which we observe every ritual, and are deeply passionate about our team, and start disrupting the way it is played and the rules that are to be followed? What happens is what we’ve been seeing for the past three weeks.

Sports anthropology

To an anthropologist, football is just another cultural ritual we perform. It carries the American values we have been bred to believe in and delivers them to us in a dramatic form of sport on the field every Sunday. To us, the game is sacred and it has rules that must be followed. It is governed by a body of rule keepers, and the stories and legacies are told by the demi-gods of the past — men whose strength and agility are well beyond the average American — who have already gone down in history for the way they played the game.

Replacing the governing body with referees who were too inexperienced to know the rules, make the right calls, and keep the players in line was messing with a game that American football fans hold very sacred. The rules of the game are what give it its structure, they separate a game with strategy from what otherwise would just be play.

The bad calls, the interruptions in the flow of the game to check on rules, and the aggressiveness that built up on the field were all changing the very outcome of each game. Rules and rituals are how we make meaning.This was not only a disruption of game day, but a disruption of meaning.

Underlying economic tension

All of this can also be overshadowed by the economic and political struggles we are having in this country: the people with the wealth are holding us hostage much like franchise owners hold their employees and their fans hostage by the mere fact that we can’t get enough of football. Whether the lockout was settled or not, we would not have stopped watching. This is why while all of this was going on, advertisers continued to buy ads during football games.

AdWeek reported, “NBC spent the last four months cutting deals as if the lockout were happening in a parallel universe.”

“There was never any real doubt in the mind of the ad market that there would be a resolution,” says Seth Winter, head of NBC SportsGroup sales & marketing.

In discussion of cricket in the West Indies, Jamaican novelist and sociologist Orlando Patterson described the co-participation of the spectators and players as “a social drama in which almost all of the basic tensions are played out”. This can also be said of Football and how Americans ritualize the game.

The Anatomy Of A Social Media Disaster – NFL Fans Turn To Twitter

Here is a great infographic that shows the reactions of sports fans everywhere while their sacred game was being disrupted by bad calls and unforgettable errors.

Photo credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Comment below with how you feel the NFL replacement officials impacted the league from a cultural perspective! Make sure to send us a tweet @sportsnetworker

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