Opinion: Huddle up! When football geeks’ and research geeks’ worlds collide

It’s football season in the Bay Area, and I remain resigned to being confused during the 49ers’ and Raiders’ games. I didn’t grow up in a family that watched or played sports. I was in high school before a friend’s father patiently explained to me what a “down” is. That cleared things up a little, but I still shake my head at the copious jargon that accompanies this game.

I’m a professor with a geeky love of research methodology, and I get teased a lot by my non-academic friends when I hold forth on qualitative methodology, my primary area of study, using terms like “epistemology” or “embodiment.” Strangers are far less indulgent, often openly ridiculing my profession or area of study.

Conservative pundits — and many who would never describe themselves using either of those words — reinforce dangerous currents of anti-intellectualism throughout American culture. It has become a reflex to dismiss academics as out-of-touch, our knowledge of obscure disciplines elitist and useless, our worth measured only in job skills that prepare students to work in Silicon Valley.

And yet, it is not considered elitist or exclusionary to discuss at length what the tight ends and running backs are doing on that field with all those white lines during sudden death or OT.

On one hand, American football terminology can be as elitist as any other body of knowledge with its jargon-laden analyses. Professors are pilloried for using big words that others cannot understand, and yet when I express my confusion at football terminology, it is I, the ignorant, who am met with derision across the platter of chicken wings.

On the other hand, all forms of knowledge can appear exclusive, unapproachable or useless until you learn some of it. I don’t know what a fullback is, but I don’t scorn friends who understand the rapid commentary when we gather to watch football every autumn. I just enjoy the nachos and shrug when the guy who is about to get the ball starts shouting numbers.

It’s fine with me that others have knowledge that I lack and that they openly enjoy sharing it with others.

Clearly, football is seen as everyday knowledge, common sense, something that average people absorb over time. But as any coach or seasoned football player knows, football knowledge is complex, nuanced and built on a foundation of theory and practice that is continually refined. That’s why I can’t easily decode its meaning despite all those years of graduate school.

We can look beyond what seem like glaring differences to embrace commonality — after all, most professional football players played during college while they also pursued an education off the field. Football and academic disciplines do have significant similarities: Both require a firm grasp of abstract concepts and strategies, learned through working with expert mentors, to study the knowledge of outstanding predecessors and cutting-edge peers. Only then can we develop our own unique contributions to our respective fields’ playbooks.

Maybe academia needs to offer more metaphorical snacks to complement our research publications so that we can be seen as valuable sources of knowledge and insight instead of snobs. Some scholars already do, translating our research into tasty bites of pragmatic suggestions and straightforward explanations that entertain and help people in their everyday lives.

And perhaps the public could give academics the benefit of the doubt and trust that the parts of our work that they don’t understand also have value, even if it isn’t immediately obvious.

Meanwhile, I’ll be passing the spinach dip and asking my football-fan friends to help me understand how the game is played.

Laura L. Ellingson is a professor in the Department of Communications at Santa Clara University. She is the author of “Embodiment in Qualitative Research and Engaging Crystallization in Qualitative Research.”

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