Game One of the 1918 World Series was an unusually somber affair. Rosters for both teams, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, had been badly depleted as roughly 250 players had been drafted. Over the summer, America’s mobilization was finally running at full gear, with large numbers of US troops reaching the front lines and facing appalling losses. While the teams took the field in Chicago, US troops were locked in the brutal Somme Offensive, with the daily casualty toll filling the front page. The day before the game someone set off a bomb at a federal building in Chicago, killing 4 and injuring 75.
A normally rowdy Chicago crowd was much smaller than expected, less than 20,000, and largely sitting on their hands. Then came the 7th Inning Stretch.
The band from the nearby Great Lakes Naval Station began playing the Star-Spangled Banner in a new arrangement by John Philip Souza. Fans and players took off their hats and faced the flag. Red Sox infielder Fred Thomas, on leave from active duty in the Navy to participate in the Series, saluted. Fans responded with the loudest cheers of the game as the band played their final notes. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, stunned by the emotional response, made arrangements to have the band play at the upcoming games in Boston. A spontaneous demonstration of patriotic enthusiasm was quickly shaped by market forces into a national tradition.
What makes a bunch of people with different backgrounds, interests and ambitions an “us?” Those strangers in the stands in Chicago in 1918 shared certain experiences, like their fears for family and friends caught up in the war. They also shared an attachment to certain cultural artifacts, flags, songs, images and narratives which could call forth shared emotional responses. When those deeply embedded themes are summoned, 20,000 strangers can find themselves caught up in a transcendent experience, reminding them of their place in something much larger than themselves. Such emotional experiences, constructed out of a shared mythology, can become the foundation of collaboration. They can be leveraged to convert individuals into a People.
Where do these mythologies begin? How do we adapt old ones to meet new needs? How do we trim, curtail, or remove mythological traditions which have become maladaptive or malignant?
A mythology is a matrix of symbols or metaphors calling forth a shared, subconscious emotional response. That emotional response touches an invisible thread of common interest, appealing to a shared identity that can form a foundation for cooperation. Stories, songs, images and other art forms come together to define the meaning of an us.
Our most powerful mythological traditions are organic, seeming to well up out of a deep shared history old enough that its deliberate System 2, origins have been obscured, but all such traditions have origins and authors. Mythologies, like much else in a culture, move in a feedback cycle between the ambitions of their originators and the emotional response of an audience. A great place to view this cycle in its early stages is with the challenge of launching a new sports franchise.
From ancient times, sports have always taken on religious overtones. It’s not an accident that American pro football is played on The Lord’s Day. As explained in the film, Concussion, “The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.”
Our attachments to sports teams are rarely a product of some considered, calculated preference, almost always instead rising from connection to a place. Those connections are particularly powerful when they’re formed in childhood. A friend in Chicago refers to Wrigley Field as “church,” a fitting metaphor for a place hallowed by generations of tradition.
At Wrigley perhaps more than anywhere else the shared mythological mechanics between religion and sports are closest to the surface. Arriving outside the field you pass by the idols of Cubs greats, including the iconic Cubs announcer Harry Caray. He launched the tradition of singing the old baseball hymn, Take Me Out to the Ballgame with the fans at Wrigley Field in the 1970’s, a ritual which quickly spread across the sport.
Like Pharisees defending kosher, fans in the stands at Chicago’s Wrigley Field will recoil in horror if you put ketchup on a ballpark hot dog. From a 2016 New York Times story, “Once, a random fan bought me a hot dog,” said Solomon, the schoolteacher, who was touched by the gesture. “Then I put ketchup on it, and he took it away.”
As he rightly should.
Wrigley has its supernatural traditions, including hauntings and the 71-year Curse of the Billy Goat. Catch a home-run ball hit by the opposing team and you have to throw it back, another tradition which quickly spread through the sport. Cubs fans will even do this when the ball lands out on Sheffield or Waveland Avenues. At the end of a winning home game the fans sing along to the team’s corny victory song, “Go Cubs Go,” while the “W” flag is raised.
Liturgies. Gods and demons. Music, symbols, artifacts, rituals and taboos. Wrigley is church. Or, like church, it’s a mythological framework forged from shared archetypes that delivers a shared identity. People will pay to gain a place for themselves in that mythological construct. The Ricketts family bought the Cubs franchise in 2009 for $700m. It’s worth well over $3bn today. Mythologies are powerful.
These mythologies take shape through a kind of guided evolution in which a few elements emerge organically, while many others are fed deliberately into the feedback loop to see what takes hold. While the Cubs have had a century and a half to churn through the cycles that produce a powerful myth, a new sports franchise must manufacture a sense of coherence quickly, out of almost nothing, to obscure the raw financial calculus that forms the real System 2 foundation of a sports franchise.
Energy billionaire, Bob McNair, won his bid to bring a new NFL team to Houston in 1999, agreeing to pay $700m for the privilege. Getting a stadium constructed and recruiting players wasn’t enough to secure the team’s future. A sports team without a story is just a bunch a people sweating for a living. No one wants to watch that any more than they’d watch workers toil in an Amazon warehouse.
With careful attention to community feedback, the team launched a mascot, “Toro.” Marketers set about manufacturing traditions, starting with a “bullpen” area of the stadium only accessed by select, enthusiastic fans. Marketers outsource to that bullpen priesthood the job of creating new traditions. Some of them stick and some don’t.
Team colors aren’t just red, white and blue. They’re Deep Steel Blue, Battle Red and Liberty White. With too little history to have any hallowed players, the only idol outside the stadium is a vaguely Mithraic bull sculpture. You have to start somewhere. An effort to establish a fight song for the team back in 2003 met with loathing. An awkward tune donated by country star Clay Walker has tentatively taken its place, but nothing with the persistence of “Bear Down Chicago Bears” or “Fly Eagles Fly” has yet developed. Evolution needs time, plus an occasional nudge.
It’s working. A young franchise with a poor record of success on the field, still hunting for a defining set of players and personalities, consistently ranks in the top ten for attendance. McNair’s original $700m investment has been profitable in recent years. If placed on the market the business would probably be worth as much as the Chicago Cubs, a return on investment outpacing average S&P 500 returns over that period.
How do you turn an entertainment business into an icon of community identity? By building around that business a System 1 mythological framework which obscures the grubbier commercial purpose of that enterprise, converting it into a foundation for unity and collaboration. Sports teams, like religions and political systems, survive by constructing a mythology.
What forms these mythologies? Symbols, stories, images, rituals, songs, personalities, rivalries, defined enemies. The best sports franchises have manufactured personalities. The Chicago Bears are known as a gritty, blue-collar club that reveres players like linebackers and tight ends, rather than the usual flashy ball-handling positions. The New York Yankees are the aristocrats of baseball, a team that produces not just outstanding players, but celebrity icons.
Transforming an existing mythology, or forming a new one, is an exercise in guided evolution. As public moods shift, new elements are introduced, and old ones stripped away. What we celebrate and elevate becomes our identity and shapes our collective behavior.
When Colin Kaepernick began his silent protest against police abuses by kneeling during the anthem in 2016, the move provoked outrage. It’s safe to say that no one witnessing his protest remembered the origins of this practice back in the dark days of 1918, yet they remembered that this civic ritual was an expression of appreciation toward those who risk their lives in military service. Many white fans saw the move as a sacrilege. Kaepernick was punished, then fired, then quietly barred from the NFL, but the mythological significance of this simple act of protest resonated. There was a new chord waiting to be played in America’s collective unconscious. Kaepernick was playing that note at a perfect pitch.
The NFL banned kneeling during the anthem and threatened to punish players. The practice spread further. A Fascist President made kneeling players a national enemy. Pushed into a choice, more and more players took a knee. The protests spread across different sports and across lines of race and ethnicity. Republican state legislators threatened to punish sports franchises for the practice. The practice continued to spread and its popularity grew. In 2018, Nike offered Kaepernick an endorsement deal worth millions. By some estimates it’s netted Nike well into the billions.
By 2020, a player refusing to kneel during the anthem could face a torrent of hostile press. NFL star Drew Brees was forced to walk back his criticism of anthem protests after withering public response. The entire University of Kentucky basketball team took a knee in January 2021, sparking an angry but toothless response from fans in that very conservative state. The Dallas Mavericks went so far as to briefly stop playing the Anthem before games, inspiring the Texas Legislature to intervene in a gesture of pathetic impotence.
Americans closest to the country’s commercial and artistic core are rejecting an old mythology of white nationalism. Expressions of protest against that dying mythology are evolving into the kernel of a new mythos. The challenge in forming a new mythology is to make the leap from opposing an old mythos to defining the new. Like an expansion team in sports, the challenge now for political reformers is to manufacture a new unifying identity, borrowing scraps from an established history where possible and originating new traditions where necessary.
Elements of a new mythology are out there, like notes on a piano waiting to be played.