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Culture is a little like muscle memory. You can’t see it, but it does something really important.
Culture is the grease in the wheels of sports. It coordinates all the meanings and actions on the field; organizes, motivates and engages all the players, coaches, fans, businesses and media.
Without culture, there is no sport. We’re robots in soccer shorts.
And, like muscle memory, it takes an enormous amount of repetition and practice to develop. Only after a whole lot of talking and playing and arguing about stuff does culture form.
And yet – again like muscle memory – we almost always take it for granted. We often think about our behavior as a series of conscious, rational actions that reflect our personal preferences, when, in fact, most actions result from a stream of automatic thinking that is only made possible by deeply rooted culture.
We want to putt better, so we practice and practice and eventually we putt better.
But how we putt, who we putt with, when we putt, what we putt with and into, and why we putt in the first place are all the products of something we did not create intentionally nor choose on our own.
And that something is culture. Consider, for example, these two lines. What do you see here?
If you’re an accountant, maybe you see the beginning of a ledger. If you’re a Christian, perhaps you see a cross. It’s not that hard, right? Everybody sees something. That’s because our culture allows us to quickly make sense of things, even when the thing is vague, ambiguous or doesn’t make sense at all.
Of course, our culture can lead us astray. In this case, our accountant and the Christian are way off.
This, of course, is a tic-tack-toe board. It may be the simplest game on the planet, but even tic tack toe demands a culture – that is, a mutual interest in jotting Xs and Os on a piece of paper and a shared understanding of the rules.
Without culture, we may have something, but it’s not tic tack toe. For instance, a while back, here’s how a game went down between me and my five-year-old nephew. I tried to explain the rules to him, and he seemed to listen, but pretty much the same thing happened again.
Now, some might argue that my nephew is at fault in this situation. He’s not playing by the rules. His approach to the game is arbitrary and just wrong. Of course, this assumes that my understanding is not arbitrary, that my approach is the right way to play.
But why am I right? On what grounds can I make such a claim? The answer, I’m afraid, is unsatisfying. In the end, I’m right for no other reason save the fact that many other people think I’m right.
The culture of sports, especially for new and emerging ones, is a popularity contest.
Whoever drums up the most support for their understanding of the game wins. My nephew is not wrong, and I’m not right. My version of the game is just more popular than his.
Once we see that the dominant and alternative meanings of games and sports are equally arbitrary and completely subjective, we can then appreciate the importance of culture, this entirely made-up yet super important collection of shared beliefs, values, languages and material objects that coordinate all aspects of every sport.
And once we realize that there are winners and losers in the popularity contest of sports culture, we might be more interested in it.
Consider the case of the culture warrior Brodie Smith, a relative newcomer to disc golf whose bro army on social media outnumbers at least a dozen other pro disc golfers combined. His hot takes have ruffled more feathers in disc golf than big bird on a roller coaster.
Boiled to their essentials, here are some of his proposals for the future of the sport:
1) Only pay top finishers at tournaments.
2) Lose the amateurs at pro events.
3) PDGA ratings bad – PGA rankings good.
4) No more next-day tournament coverage.
5) Institute the PGA’s Cut Rule.
6) Stroke and distance.
7) Stop calling it ball golf.
Although some disc golfers disagree with these proposals, Brodie Smith is not wrong. Because, when it comes to sports culture, there is no right or wrong. There is only a growing ideological consensus, which ebbs and flows over time, and eventually smothers competing views, and becomes so normal, so ordinary that we hardly even know it’s there.
In the next installment of Rise of an Unknown Sport, I’m going to say more about the hidden, yet highly consequential nature of sports culture, focusing this time on the rise of equipment standards.
To follow along, you can subscribe to the YouTube channel or you can find the videos and written content under the category “Rise of an Unknown Sport” here on Parked. You can also follow me on Twitter (@ADiscGolfBlog) for daily updates on all things disc golf, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.
Josh Woods is editor at Parked and author of Emerging Sports as Social Movements, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August 2021.