People in the Western world are so bombarded with messages of white guilt that, in a word-association game, the first word that would probably pop into most people’s minds when the word “discrimination” is mentioned, is “racial”. From infancy to the grave, it is pounded into our heads that racial discrimination is bad. Of course we are also told that there are other kinds of discrimination (all of which are also bad) such as sex-discrimination, gender-discrimination, religious discrimination and age-discrimination. Every so often, politicians get it into their heads to pass a new law making yet another type of discrimination illegal.
Most people view discrimination negatively only when the trait in question has no obvious relevance to the job or promotion being sought. One of the more obvious types of discrimination, which is not yet illegal but can clearly be unjust, is height-discrimination. Short men arguably suffer far more than official “protected groups” in every area of life. Though no law can force people to vote for shorter politicians, and no law can force women to date shorter men, at least this type of discrimination is talked about.
One form of discrimination that is hardly ever discussed is “sports-discrimination”. Back in 1998, Jamie Schlabach wrote:
According to Gordon Allport (1954), it is necessary to categorize people into groups for adaptive functioning. Social categorization reduces the complexity of the social world. We use this idea to put people into categories like Miami University students or Proctor and Gamble employees. A very prominent category that many people belong to is that of a sports fan. Whether a Green Bay Packers fan, a Chicago Bulls fan, or a Miami Redhawk fan, a person fits into a category depending on who they cheer for. Categorizing people into groups by identifying some common attributes or characteristics reduces the amount of information to be dealt with (Hamilton, 1981) Such categorization can represent a sensible and useful strategy to reduce the complexity of the social world. But there are also some consequences that go along with this simplification strategy.
When a person identifies themselves with a group, they perceive themselves and the group members as different from other groups. A Packers fan may work with a Broncos fan, where both of them hold the same position, both love pizza, and both live in the same community. But the Packers fan will view the Bronco fan as being significantly different from himself. If another coworker is also a Packers fan, but lived on the other side of town and hated pizza, he would still be viewed as more similar to the Packers fan then the Broncos fan. A partial explanation for such in-group favoritism is provided by the social identity theory. Categorization can also create a basis for ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s own group is superior to other groups. People will put themselves into the “in-group” and all other people are in the “out-group.” This leads in-group members to favor their group over the out-group and is called in-group, out-group bias (Devine, 1996). Sports fans of any kind favor their teams fans over the other team’s fans. The fans of the opposing team are not seen as friends or equals, they are the enemy. During a game, fans of each team do not socialize with the opposing fans. The seating arrangement during games is usually segregated, with, for example, the Packers fans on one side of the stadium and Broncos fans on the other. This separation contributes to favoritism of the in-group over the out-group.
Human nature hasn’t changed much since 1998 and, as a person who has worked for avid professional sports fans, I can attest to the fact that it can be a serious distraction, and a nuisance, in a work environment. Far be it from me to encourage further anti-discrimination laws, but we can (and should) recognize a bad thing for what it is – without calling in the heavy hand of the law.
Most of us have heard of the proverbial “golfing buddy” phenomenon, where he who plays golf with the boss gets the promotion. I think the reason we hear so much about golf, as opposed to other sports, is that golf is a traditionally higher status/higher income sport. The promotions, and jobs, we see on T.V., read about in magazines and newspapers and see in movies, are high-paying jobs and high-stakes promotions. What we don’t hear about is the millions of average-income workers who are passed over for promotion because their bosses are fans of a different team – or even because their bosses are sports fans in general, while the victim is not. I say “victim” because ideally it is the best-qualified individual who gets the job or promotion. This is the answer we would get if we were to ask any CEO about his company’s policy. The employee who worked harder, is more honest, is more dependable and has more experience, is a victim if he is passed over in favor of another employee who happens to like the same sport as the boss. Sure, he can quit and find another company (maybe), but this doesn’t change the fact that he was unjustly passed over.
What are the code-words for this type of discrimination? “You don’t seem to have as much rapport with your co-workers”, “your communication skills aren’t as good”, “You don’t command as much respect” would be some possible examples. The reality might be that the underlying reason for the denial is that the victim lacks common ground with others – due to the fact that he is not a fan of their sport or team. But this is impossible to prove. I would imagine that back in the days when it was still legal (but socially unacceptable) to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender or race, the same rationals would have been given. As a matter of fact, it is legal to discriminate on the basis of race. It is even required – when the victim is white. It is also sometimes required to discriminate on the basis of gender – when the victim is male. In either case, rarely will the victim be told that he was passed over because of his race or gender. Instead, he will be told nothing at all – or one of the catch-alls I listed above.
There can be little doubt that many have learned to play golf with the intention of establishing a rapport with important people in order to advance their careers. But how many people have pretended to be baseball, football or basketball fans – or fans of specific teams – in order to advance their careers? Should those who do not be penalized*?
*Yes, I am aware that “life is not fair”. I am simply bringing attention to one of life’s unfairnesses that is often overlooked.