The Meaning of Sports has as its premise a fascinating idea: Explain our national obsession with our three top sports . . . ones that fail to captivate people in most of the rest of the world. I had often wondered about that subject, and looked forward to learning a lot. Well, I didn't really learn very much at all on that subject.
While the book purports to take an anthropologist's view of our sports, we need to remember that anthropologists mostly work with scraps and remnants left behind from the past. The skills of psychology are probably more relevant to explaining sports fanaticism, and this book doesn't apply that reference very often.
Mr. Mandelbaum chooses to characterize each sport in an overly simplified way. Baseball harkens back to the happy summers of our youth when we had lots of unstructured time. Baseball is a reference to our agrarian roots. Football allows us to turn our fascination with violence into a more positive direction than invading other countries (recent events might challenge that interpretation), while being an emblem of the industrial culture that we are leaving behind. Basketball reflects the new world order of working in flexible teams on changing assignments, and is a good metaphor for the post-industrial society we live in today. For impoverished youths, basketball has some of the nostalgia that baseball has for the middle class. I found these references and conclusions to be pretty superficial and not very insightful.
What I was surprised to find in the book was a pretty thorough history of each of the three sports. For a non fan who wants to get up-to-speed with the fans in her or his life, those parts are valuable. If you just wanted to become knowledgeable in the least amount of time on the sports, this is a five-star effort.
Sports provide lots of emotional pleasures, and a book with this much intellectual perspective doesn't quite connect with those pleasures. The home team may be losing by three touchdowns . . . but the fans are still there. Why? Many would claim it is loyalty. But it's more likely to be that the home team still has as chance to beat the point spread. Although gambling is mentioned in the book, the full impact of the appeal of betting on the games isn't quite captured.
I hope someone will eventually explain why we pursue these games . . . rather than the other ones that fascinate the rest of the world.