field of memes

All of the world cup fever has got me thinking about sports. These are peculiar meme-arenas because of the shockingly low mutation rates. This is to say that the rules of the sports change at a glacial pace, and new sports are quite rare.

Sports fan-dom, though has many of the classic elements for a system of control. It is certainly tribal, with an “us vs. them” mentality. There are people who sacrifice enormous amounts of time and money to participate, spectate, buy merchandise, and even buy products supported by their favorite stars. It is an enormous business, and for many, an emotional (bordering on spiritual) investment.

We have all the attributes to set up a nice investigation, so I’ll begin by applying the standard approach for meme systems that I have used here in the past. How do we access memes? (uptake) how do they change or evolve? (mutation), and how are they passed between people? (transfer).

  • Uptake: Equipment is one of the biggest barriers to entry and hence a huge determinant of who acquires a particular sports meme. Short track speed skating, swimming and polo require larger investments and are therefore more limited in areas with limited access. Hockey rinks are tough to come by in some areas (Arizona) but not so hard in others (canada)  so there are geographic issues as well as class issues that come into play.
  • Mutation: The first example I can think of is has to do with equipment as well. The game of football changed most not because of the rules, but because of the advent of helmets and pads that let people hit harder. Fiberglass poles in track and field allowed pole vaulters to spring to new heights. The advent of special cameras brought issues of review and goal confirmation to enhance referee decisions.  There are even some minor rule experimentation in soccer by FIFA such as the goalie not being allowed to pick up the ball on a back pass, or the use of golden goal overtime. Different leagues in baseball have a DH or not. We do have examples of mutation in the sport, and I would be happy to argue the point but it seems that the adoption of sports is not very heavily dependent of these minor rule changes.
  • Transfer: This is a tricky one. Decisions for sports are made quite early on, commonly when a parent their kids in a league. Our cities, and rural areas seem pre-set with sports ideology. Soccer grew in the US though (i’ll guess) in response to the more violent nature of football.

There are many more interesting questions about sports psychology – no not the players, everybody else!  Why did lacrosse grow? Woman’s ice hockey? Why are some sports such big business for colleges, cities, and countries? Why is there so much pride involved even when there is not financial return?

My initial hypothesis is that sports, like a good meme, hijacks the basic wiring of the human brain – especially the parts that were designed for tribal warfare. There is no stretch to My initial hypothesis is that sports, like a good meme, hijacks the basic wiring of the human brain – especially the parts that were designed for tribal warfare. There is no stretch to make the connection between most sports, and warfare. When we watch sports our primal group survival instincts take over.  However there is a balance – people are greater fans when they have actually played. This means that we need a good balance, between strategy, skill, athleticism, brute physicality, and something that most of us will be able to play.



About livingthememe

engineer and armchair philosopher
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