In The Meaning of Sports, Michael Mandelbaum wants to find out what the driving force is behind the American fascination - nay, addiction - with sports. Anyone with even a casual acquaintance with American culture knows that we nearly worship our teams - half of all Americans make a point of watching the Superbowl, and I have seen my fair share of Raiders tattoos. Taking an anthropologist's stance, Mandelbaum explores the history and lore surrounding the great American three: baseball, basketball, and football.
This book relies heavily on its author's ability to draw interesting conclusions and make illuminating insights, and Mandelbaum is up to the task - in his hands, plain facts turn into pithy truths. For instance, ties are not uncommon at international soccer games but are never allowed in major American sports, and this says a lot about how we view the world. Minor differences in Japanese baseball and American baseball speak volumes about our cultural differences. Individual fans are revealed as well: men who choose baseball are more rooted in tradition, and men who choose basketball have faith in technology and innovation. Mandelbaum explains why and, in effect, turns out the psychological theory for reading fans based on their sport of choice -- I went around for days asking the men in my life, "baseball, football, or basketball?" and sitting back while they revealed their innermost secrets.
The Meaning of Sports lands somewhere in between a classic sports text - filled with stats, quotes, and stories - and a cool-handed analysis of a cultural phenomenon. Mandelbaum's text is factual enough to satisfy hardcore fans and cultural observers alike, but lucid enough to understand even if the only thing you remember about baseball is the way Cal Ripken Jr. looked in those tight pants. There are times, however, where the facts and lingo come thick and fast, and unless you sustain an indefatigable interest in sports (more common than you might think), you will find yourself skimming.
Michael Mandelbaum is a university professor, and his writing style reeks of the classroom. You all know the type: every point must be declared in thesis formula, the pages are riddled with citation numbers, and otherwise lively facts are beaten to death with the word “therefore.” His insights are clever enough to shine through the academic dust, but the book does suffer from the detraction. To overcome this stylistic obstacle, I would recommend to Mr. Mandelbaum that he say the following daily affirmation when he sits down at his typewriter: “I will not be receiving a letter grade for this book,” followed by some deep and freeing breaths.