Nautilus

Stadiums and Other Sacred Cows

There’s a strange sort of reverence that surrounds our relationship with sports. Jay Coakley first noticed it as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana; he was studying sociology, so perhaps it was hard not to analyze the sport-centered culture that surrounded him. He observed the hype around football weekends, the mania of pep rallies, and the fundraising enthusiasm of booster clubs. He noticed that football players always seemed to have the nicest cars—and heard through his wife, who worked at the registrar at the time, that sometimes transcripts were changed to keep players on the field.

He was so intrigued that he proposed doing his thesis and dissertation on the topic.

“My faculty advisor in the sociology department said, ‘Are you crazy? You have to focus on something serious, not sports,’ ” Coakley recalls. “I said, ‘How can anything be more serious than something that evokes almost 100 percent of the interest of 100 percent of the people on this campus for five to six weekends of the year at least?’ ”

Coakley ended up doing his dissertation on the racial and religious identities of black Catholic priests, and his Master’s thesis on the race violence seen around the country in 1968. Yet sport, laden as it was with many of the societal tensions he saw in his graduate work, continued to draw him back in. He proposed courses on sports and leisure; he conducted independent studies discussing what sports meant to various individuals; he worked with PTAs and parks and recreation departments; and he began focusing on coaching education. As the years passed, Coakley became one of the most respected authorities in the growing field of sports sociology—a much more serious field than his academic advisor might have ever expected.

Along the way, Coakley developed a theory that finally explained the strange behavior he had first seen at Notre Dame, and

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