During NFL seasons, I watch my hometown Jacksonville Jaguars. I grew up rushing home from church to catch 1 p.m. kickoffs, and I remember the thrill of the Jaguars’ Monday games — because those were the only school nights I could stay up late, and it sure felt like I was staying up with an entire city.
More like an entire country, which isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Way back when, the swelling popularity of baseball in the Northeast led, in 1856, to a New York weekly calling the sport the “national pastime.” Today, the most popular prime-time TV show is NBC’s Sunday Night Football. During the Super Bowl earlier this year, an estimated 77 percent of America’s TVs were tuned in, according to Nielsen data. And that’s just football. If we’re talking fütball, well, billions watched the World Cup in 2022.
But as sports entertainment absorbs more and more of our TV, journalism, and internet energies, sports plays an outsized role in American life.
Only sports possess the level of gathering power once a regular feature of American life. In the middle of the 20th century, everyone watched the Ed Sullivan Show — seriously, more than 82 percent of the viewing public weekly. In 1998, the Seinfeld finale reached Super Bowl numbers. Kids my age will remember the winding, near-midnight lines at bookstores awaiting the next Harry Potter release, and I remember how the vocabulary and characters of the Wizarding World felt familiar, even for those who hadn’t read the books. We could debate the exact moment or medium, but I’d guess The Office represents the last time most of us got together in real time.
Except for sports.
The viewable sports, the kind we lump into sports entertainment, represents one of our last-remaining shared texts. The last thing that happens in real time, with no good asynchronous option, that attracts people across political, class, racial, and religious divides. For better or worse, sports is what brings Americans together — at the same time and in one proverbial room.
This is how shared texts work: They serve as reference points for our life together, and they are part of what forms communities. And for those of us invested in social life, in speaking the language of our neighbors, sports inhabits an essential space in American life.
A lot has changed since my childhood Sundays watching the Jaguars. But the team in teal still plays in the same stadium, and my dad still watches from the same living room. So if you see me around Atlanta or in an airport wearing a Jaguars sweatshirt, you might think I just really like an obscure NFL team. I do. But the bigger story is that I am still part of where I grew up and it’s still part of me, and despite the years and miles and decisions that separate us, a real connection remains between my family and me and between me and some folks I’ve yet to meet but who know Myles Jack Wasn’t Down.