Nonverbals in football

The kiss

In the US right now there is a lot of buzz about American football, after the playoff games this past weekend determining who plays in the Superbowl, coming up soon. As is always the case in football, the games on Sunday were not just athletic contests but spectacles, in which lots was happening beyond sports, including interesting nonverbal communication. In the game between Kansas City and Baltimore, much of the attention was focused on one particular fan, Taylor Swift, in the audience to cheer for boyfriend Travis Kelce, a player for Kansas City. One of the memorable nonverbals was their kiss on the field at the end of the game.

The taunting

Most of the nonverbals in football games involve not kisses, but dances or other celebrations when touchdowns are scored, which has become common practice in professional football. In the Kansas City game, a turning point revolved around a different kind of nonverbal, namely taunting on the part of a Baltimore player, Zay Flowers, after a tackle. He was called for a penalty, which stopped his team’s momentum. Later in the game, Flowers was about to cross the goal line and score, when the very player he had taunted knocked the ball out of his arms, preventing a touchdown. Seemed like karma.

The pinched fingers

That incident brought to mind a story from the New York Times recently on that topic of football and nonverbals. It deals with a gesture made by backup quarterback for the New York Giants, Tommy DeVito, an Italian American. In the words of Mark Rotella, the article’s author, DeVito, after throwing for a touchdown, “raised a right hand and pinched his finger and thumb together in an Italian gesture that means, roughly, ‘Whaddya want?’”. The player subsequently used the gesture again several times and later was picked up by fans, as well as being used mockingly by opponents after sacking the quarterback.

The author, himself an Italian-American, very much identified with DeVito’s gesture and discussed in the article how important hand gestures are to Italians (and to Italian-Americans). Stereotypes tend to have an element of truth to them, which according to Rotella is the case here, as of all ethnic groups in the world, Italians have the most widespread reputation for using body language to communicate.

Amanda Fox & Reading Faces

Amanda-Knox-in-court-005This week, Amanda Knox gave her first TV interview.  She’s the American study abroad student accused of killing her roommate in Perugia, Italy.  The evidence against her is largely circumstantial, but she was initially convicted of murder, a sentence later overturned, but now her case is to be re-tried in Italy.  Most observers agree that she was convicted due to her body language and demeanor.  She didn’t seem remorseful or even caring.  Ian Leslie in the Guardian commented on the rush to judgment based on observing and interpreting her expressions:

 “Most of us know, when we reflect rationally, that other people are as complex and difficult to read or predict as we are, and we do compensate for the natural imbalance in our encounters with others. The trouble is, we rarely compensate enough. Thinking about what others might be thinking and feeling is hard work. It requires intellectual application, empathy, and imagination. Most of the time we can barely be bothered to exert such efforts on behalf of our friends and partners, let alone on people we read about in the news. We fall back on guesses, stereotypes, and prejudices. This is inevitable, and not always a bad thing. The trouble comes when we confuse our short-cuts with judgment.”

 It’s certainly the case that we don’t all express our emotions the same way.  Sometimes this is partly culturally determined (Japanese stoicism) but may be absolutely personal as well.  We expect traumatized humans to act in a certain way and perhaps most of us do.  When someone fails to follow the code, we get suspicious.  It could be that this is even more the case for women, whom we expect to show their emotions more than men. This was certainly the case with the famous story of the dingo and the baby.  It’s likely that in Amanda’s interview with Diane Sawyer she failed to win many of us over – she was again, for the most part, cool and collected.

Who’s Italian?

The Italians may have lost in the recent European Soccer  Championships, but they did much better than anyone expected.  The most celebrated (and controversial) player for the Italian National Team was Mario Balotelli.  He’s the one who scored 2 goals to propel Italy to victory over heavily favored Germany. Balotelli was born in Sicily but speaks Italian with a broad northern accent. The big surprise, however,  is this:  he is black, born of  Ghanaian immigrants, but raised by an Italian adoptive family .  A story today on NPR talks about how the prominence of Balotelli is changing what it means to be Italian.  As with black players on other European teams, Balotelli has seen a lot of fan abuse and prejudice.  But the victory over Germany may change some opinions.

The photo above, with his mother, may contribute as well to a changed view:  “As the triumphant striker approached the stands, he gave this championship its iconic photo off the pitch — the 6-foot-2-inch black Italian Mario hugging his petite white Italian mother, Sylvia.  The sight of his mother’s hand caressing the Mohawk-topped head sent a powerful message in a society where la mamma still plays a crucial role and where immigrants are most often treated as second-class. And when Balotelli ripped off his T-shirt, proudly showing off his statuesque physique, it was as if to say, ‘I’m black, I’m Italian and I am here to stay'” (NPR).  Interestingly, something similar has happened in Germany with the Turkish-German soccer star Mesut Özil.  Are these echoes of Jackie Robinson in American baseball history?