The Place of Sports in U.S. Cultural Meaning Systems

How many different sports can you name off the top of your head? Five or six? Actually, there are thousands of sports played every day by people throughout the world. In the United States alone, people watch and/or participate in football, basketball, baseball, hang-gliding, soccer, horse racing, boxing, tennis, auto racing, track and field, swimming, bowling, wrestling, surfing, lacrosse, rugby, cricket, rodeo, handball, archery, hunting, fishing, backpacking, cycling, climbing, golf, volleyball, badminton, squash, ultimate frisbee, skiing (water, downhill, cross-country), sledding, ice-skating, luge, ski-jumping, skate boarding, in-line skating, mountain biking, and racquetball -- to name a mere few. Whew! Just keeping up with the games people play and the rules governing those games could almost be a sport in and of itself.

The odds are, some of these sports are more familiar to you than others. Perhaps you play one or more sports on a regular basis, play others infrequently, and others you don't play but are familiar with through media coverage. But is there one sport that you strongly identify with? Are there other sports that you wouldn't ever admit to having played for fear of how others might react? If you answer yes to either of these questions, you have a head start in understanding how a sport's place in a cultural meaning system can affect our behavior and the meaning of our behavior.

For example, some people wouldn't be caught dead near a surfboard. They might associate surfing with simple-minded California subculture slang, with people whose passion for their sport takes over their life and makes other pursuits (like a job, for example) seem less important. A fair picture of surfers? Of course not. A fair picture of some of the meanings attached with surfing in the U.S.? Probably so. If nothing else, it is a stereotype that powerfully effects the way some people behave (by preventing them from getting on a surfboard) and the meanings associated with people who do choose to surf.

Click here to test your awareness of how several sports figure into U.S. cultural meaning systems.

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