It's not just a game

it's 'social capital'

Sports et politique

At this time of year, when Quebecers are divided over municipal politics, stressed by global economics, and gloomy about looming winter, we can all take solace in one simple mantra. It's not even French, but it is the universal language of Quebec: Go, Habs, go!
Whether we realize it or not, that simple expression of enthusiasm for our local heroes contains more than trivial boosterism. Sport has always been an important element of social cohesion, and Montreal is a place that needs all the social cohesion it can get.
As a cosmopolitan metropolis, Montreal has astonishing diversity, which brings many benefits. But in an age when media have fragmented into countless options, when one religion is no longer central to society, when the public school system is eroding, and when the Internet gives us each a personalized world of choices and influences, we seem to have less in common than ever before. Grumbling about potholes is not by itself sufficient social infrastructure.
Neither is sports fandom, of course. But it can't hurt. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, whose landmark 2000 book Bowling Alone analyzed the decline in "social capital" - the various voluntary links that knit communities together - found a clear trend in recent decades: Participation in organized sports, from bowling leagues to Little League baseball, is down, while sports spectating, is up. This is true not only via TV; in-person spectator attendance at major U.S. professional and university sports events almost doubled, per capita, between 1960 and 1997, he found.
Putnam concluded that this trend "is not a dead loss from the point of view of social capital." Watching a game with friends, he says, is at least being with friends, and "can generate a certain sense of community."
We wouldn't want to overstate the Habs' role as social glue. It's only a game, after all. And like all pro teams, ours consists of imported mercenaries, with few Quebecers - [a fact that one or two local media personalities have made a career out of denouncing.->21662] As for fans, plenty of Montrealers couldn't care less how the Canadiens do.
Still, many indicators - including TV ratings, the ubiquity of the team logo on sweatshirts and caps, and the consistently high "hit rate" at our authoritative website - suggest that support for the Canadiens is one thing, at least, that brings a high proportion of Montrealers together in harmony.
Does this bring any long-term benefit to the city's sociology or psychology? Well, it can't hurt. And in any case, it's all so much fun.

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