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Sports in the US: Year-round madness

From the bracketology of March Madness to ESPN Everything, sports has become one of the most pervasive forces in American culture. Is it a great unifying force or a sign of misplaced priorities?

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My dinner with Andre (Agassi)

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The typical modern American family does not eat dinner seated perfectly around an oaken table like a 1950s sitcom brood. They usually are not talking about who did what in school, or how the day went at Dad-and-Mom's workplaces, or about the merits of China floating the yuan. No, they are often watching television. Sports television.

Maybe it's one of ESPN's seven 24-hour channels, or any of the multitude of specialty networks: New England Sports Network, MLB Extra Innings, Fox Sports, MLS Direct Kick, the list goes on like a Dick Vitale commentary. And what they are eating most likely came from a box that one of the parents picked up in a rush on the way back from Sarah's soccer game, Teddy's lacrosse practice, Joey's pitching lessons, or Mary's basketball tryouts. Sports and family: The new American equation. The family that plays together... well, this family is only sort of staying together.

Teddy and Joey are on their computers, reading about their favorite teams; Sarah is texting her friend about a soccer game; Mary is on her iPhone, talking about basketball hairstyles. Dad is playing fantasy baseball and Mom is wondering if, just once, everyone might congregate at the table.

But when sports aren't co-opting the dinner conversation or dividing rival fans, a shared enthusiasm for what happens on the gridiron or diamond can be a unifying force. "At the end of the day, that's what makes sport so compelling, it's the great common denominator," says Peter Roby, athletic director at Northeastern University in Boston. "Sport can be such a link. It can bring people from such diverse backgrounds, politically, religiously, socioeconomically, ethnically."

Technology has expanded the unifying potential of sports. Fans have always tailgated or painted their faces in bizarre ways to show team loyalty. But now, as cameras broadcast fans flashing their team colors out into the electronic ether, devotees everywhere can identify with their partners in passion. Suddenly, an isolated clique becomes a global fraternity. "It's just how they are able to articulate their passion now to the rest of the world that's totally different," Mr. Roby says.

Mr. Geller, the fantasy sports guru, typifies how technology is creating bonds. He's participates in a fantasy NASCAR league with his 7-year-old son. "It's purely for fun," he says. "I don't really care who wins. I just love the fact that we get to spend the 15 or 20 minutes a week together discussing it and getting online together and picking our drivers."

Sports have also helped Sam Butterfield, a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., tighten ties with his family, particularly his father and older brother, both avid sports enthusiasts. "It's a theology all of itself," he says. "It's both a ritual and a catharsis. It allows people who might differ in terms of personality and temperament to pull for one collective set of values."

The kid in all of us