A View from the Stadium: Politics and Sport

A common view among academic writers, and especially writers of the political left, is that professional sport constitutes a diversion from practical affairs. The consuming public, according to the Diversion Theory, is made stupid and docile by generous outlays of – one can feel the approach of the inevitable phrase from Juvenal – ‘bread and circuses.’ Here I must qualify the discussion with a distinction between sports as recreation and sports as business. The following essay does not consider sports from the view of the participant, but rather from the view of the spectator-consumer. Our topic, major-league spectator sports, is particular. My job in the following paragraphs will be to answer a question: what is the spectator getting these days from sports? Indirectly, however, I shall be attempting to investigate the relation of sports and politics as this relation is described in conventional theory.

Intellectuals, among whom are few sports fans, often give an unflattering answer to the question just posed: what is the spectator getting from sports? Here are some of Umberto Eco’s thoughts on the subject, from a 1980 essay called ‘Sports Chatter’ (published in an excellent book, Travels in Hyperreality):

And since chatter about sport gives the illusion of interest in sport, the notion of practicing sport becomes confused with that of talking sport; the chatterer thinks himself an athlete and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in sport. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for sports activities.

You’ve gathered that the sports fan gets from sports, among other things which Eco elsewhere identifies, the illusion that he or she is an athlete. I suspect that this aptly describes a portion of the sports audience. One weakness of Eco’s approach however is that it considers sports from the point of view of one who presumably has risen above the folly he describes. This strategy comes with limitations. I shall attempt to clarify the matter of limitations by transposing Eco’s paragraph into another subject: literature.

And since chatter about literature gives the illusion of interest in literature, the notion of practicing literature becomes confused with that of talking literature; the chatterer thinks himself a writer and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in literature. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for literary activities.

I doubt that Eco, or academics in general, would accept this transposed statement. For chatter about literature (or art, or politics, etc.) is precisely how critics show their interest; they furthermore do not suppose this interest an ‘illusion.’ Here we disclose the critical necessity of attempting to understand human behaviour by examining one’s own.

We should be suspicious of the view which reduces all interest in sports to a parody of civic participation. The view is widespread, especially among Marxists – who necessarily suppose that ‘politics’ is a universal human concern. The alternative is to suspect that perhaps The People don’t care much for political affairs, and from this to infer a possible lack of enthusiasm for Marxism itself, or whatever one is promoting. The fan of sport, therefore, must be revealed as expressing his or her political nature. The result is a denigration of the sport spectator, over whom the superior theorist casts a dark shadow. The duped sports fan gets excited, argues about the decisions of the leaders, debates the strengths and weaknesses of outcomes, and urges what ought to be done to improve things. All of this energy is political in nature, but unlike the efforts of the scholarly investigator, it is foolishly misdirected toward an inferior end. Worse, the fan’s behaviour is manipulated by commercial interests: hence, he is not accorded even the attributes of agency. You can see why this reasoning flatters the academic, whose own perspective apparently rises above that of the mob. Eco, who (I think) is not a Marxist, even uses the telling phrase “fake conscience.”

Academic chatter about sports tells us a good deal about the assumptions of academics; it tells us less about the assumptions of fans. Seen from the perspective of the sports fan, professional sports are not a diversion from a more substantial occupation (that is, electoral politics); they are a diversion from tedium and banality. ‘False consciousness’ was a concept invented by Marxists to explain the masses’ complicity in their oppression. At the heart of the concept is the proposition that the people support the ruling classes because they (the people, that is) haven’t got a proper, Marxist understanding of class relations. In other words, to know Marxism is to love it. Needless to say there are other explanations for the rejection of Marxism, most of which concern the character of people who call themselves Marxist. ‘False consciousness’ nonetheless was adopted by critics of various political persuasions as an explanation of mass-behaviour. It allowed one to believe, ‘The People do not submit to me because they do not understand me: they are ignorant.’ Furthermore, false consciousness renders urgent the crusade to enlighten the masses. Academic writing on popular culture often discloses this logic, especially when it concerns political matters from the perspective of the political left. The unpleasant fact for the left is that they often find the behaviour of their beloved masses repulsive. Thus, the masses must be irrational or misinformed, and hence capable of being reformed through the application of rational analysis. Eco does not strike me as the crusading sort, but many critics are missionaries in disguise.

The challenge for the academic, then, is to offer a rational explanation for a behaviour that is considered irrational. The favoured explanation of the academic is that mass behaviour is a distorted version of his or her own; hence, the sports fan is engaged in an irrational parody of a rational human activity. Yet the sports fan’s relation to sport is the same as the academic’s relation to his subject of study. Both relations are rational and gloriously useless. Both reward an intimate knowledge of the discipline’s history, techniques, and rules. Both involve skill, the pursuit of excellence, and above all competition – for a trophy, for jobs, or for scholarly eminence. The literary critic who cleverly discerns a feature of, say, Shakespeare’s genius implicitly puts himself in Shakespeare’s company. The idea is that it takes a certain degree of skill to discern and appreciate skill in others. One reveals his or her genius in the praise of the genius of others. On this foundation rests the reputation of scholars and sports commentators alike. Academics, like sports fans, affiliate themselves with the honoured tradition and are thereby honoured.

If an intellectual feels it necessary to hitch his efforts to High Public Purposes, then we may reasonably suspect that he feels insecure. His insecurity is probably apt, given the unenviable social status of most intellectuals. Sports fans, for their part, are comfortable with the inutility of their pursuits. Indeed, inutility is one of the chief merits of sport for the fan. Sport, we need not be reminded, is play. Politics, we have all learned, is crass; it is about little more than advancing one’s own agenda. At least one is able to enjoy sports, despite the commercialization, and to see in them something more than money- and power-grubbing. It is precisely the academic thesis that ‘everything is political’ which blinds many intellectuals to the positive value of sports and mass culture in general. Many fans see as clearly as the intellectual that sports are political (theirs is not a ‘false’ consciousness), but they choose sports nonetheless and manage to look beyond the politics. The sports themselves are felt by the fan to be good; when however there is no ‘sport in itself,’ but only a manifestation of the political, the rot appears wherever one cares to look. So it is fulfilling even for a casual fan to sit in the stadium and watch the game, while it’s a scandal for the theorist who sees only or mostly political theatre. Both sports and politics offer intellectual stimulation, abundant statistical data, debate, controversy, allies and enemies, and collective endeavour. The principal difference is this: sports do not leave you feeling only that people are vile.

Perhaps the previous line is too harsh. Nonetheless, I think, it makes my point. The public aspect of life, which includes the pundit’s analysis of it, is rather cynical. Professional sport may be the only public good able to command broad respect. We recognize that sport is a business, and that as such it is a private commodity as much as it is a public good. My point is that mass-produced spectator sports often succeed while politics often does not. By ‘often’ I mean that sports command a broader following than politics. I cannot prove this with numbers; it is a conjecture based upon my experience. Furthermore, my definition of success is the following: the ability to produce and substantiate both constructive attitudes and actions toward collective ends. Politics fails because contact with it produces, in many cases, the feeling that the world is filled with shits. It is perhaps healthy to avoid environments that support this feeling, and on this proposal I rest my claim that the sports fan is usually engaged in healthy behaviour. The word ‘usually’ allows for the sports fan who engages in chauvinistic displays of team boosterism, especially where these displays involve violence. Violence tells us something about the psychological condition of the individual fan, and it reminds us that spectator sports invoke deep feeling. But it is clear that deep feelings do not lead by necessity to predetermined acts. In any case, some of the feelings are themselves good – for instance, the sensation of being involved in the pursuit of a shared, worthy good, such as winning the championship. When is the last time politics made you feel something good?

Of course, I’m intellectualizing a feature of contemporary life which is transparent to ordinary folks. I suppose a good many fans would say they like sports because sports are action-packed, interesting, and full of compelling strategy. In other words, they no more feel their pleasure needs analysis and justification than do the critics theirs. Pleasure is pleasure. Nor is there only one sort of pleasure involved in any single field of interest. Sports offer the pleasures of watching, reading, learning, committing facts to memory, and discussing those facts with others. Unlike other forms of knowledge – knowledge of literature, for instance – sports knowledge also constitutes a lingua franca. Sports talk is the language of Common Humanity, and unlike talk of politics, it is usually jovial and at most mock-belligerent in nature. In short, sports yield a useful and engaging discourse among many ordinary, civilized people. And as any intellectual ought to understand, language itself is (among other things) a basic form of human recreation. [-January 1999]

One response to “A View from the Stadium: Politics and Sport

  1. I am a reformed academic, so forgive the longwindedness. This is a thought-provoking post and it provoked many thoughts.

    I appreciate your observation that, “Academic chatter about sports tells us a good deal about the assumptions of academics; it tells us less about the assumptions of fans.” I heartily agree. However, I would respectfully observe that your post tells us a good deal about your assumptions about academics; it tells us less about the assumptions of academics about themselves.

    As far as how an academic understands her profession, an academic and a critic are not in every case the same animal, yet you use the two words somewhat interchangeably. You seem, primarily, to be taking issue with academics in literature, in which case I agree that many end up becoming critics. But this is not always true of other disciplines, even other disciplines in the humanities: an historian is less critiquing her subject matter than performing original research and then analyzing that research. My point is that the relation of many academics to their field of study is not, in fact, “the same” as a sports fan’s relation to sport. Many academics are, metaphorically, the players themselves, performing the tasks that comprise their field, not simply watching and admiring those who do.

    As far as literary academics go, I am more inclined to agree with your assessment. However, I would draw one further distinction here – between writers of criticism and writers of literature. A critic and an author of literature use the same medium, the written word, but they are also not the same animal. Most literary critics, save the most arrogant, would not actually disagree with your transposition of Eco’s statement…simply to write about literature is *not* to produce literature. No more than writing about a film is to produce a film. The one is criticism, the other a work of art. They are distinct endeavors, if the separation between them sometimes becomes muddied by egos, which I will admit.

    I think you may underestimate (or perhaps simply you don’t agree with) the motivations of academics. They might be fooling themselves that their endeavours possess utility. I disagree, but can do so based only on my gut, not on any argument I can launch. And most academics I have met feel the same way — they do not appeal to “High Public Purposes” because they are insecure, but because they sincerely believe in the importance of their work. Literature, history, anthropology, even the sciences (any of the fields one could call “academic”) are pursued by individuals who, for the most part, sincerely believe in the ability of these fields to positively affect the quality of human life. If they have an “unenviable social status,” it is because money and fame are not their goals – and they are not fooling themselves on this point. There are more important goals than money and acclaim. There are goals related to personal betterment and to what fulfills a person. I.e., most academics pursue their studies based on an unquenchable curiosity about the “big questions” – why are we here, what is “here” anyway, what does it mean to be human, what are consciousness, love, art? For an academic, pursuing the answers to these questions simply enriches one’s life. In the same way a sports fan feels her life enriched by watching sports? If the sports fan feels that watching sports gives her some insight into the human condition, then yes, I’d say the two equate. And I am not being sarcastic here – I wouldn’t presume to know how intensely, spiritually or deeply a sports fan feels about sport. But perhaps that’s the real point. Perhaps pure love of something is its own reward and needs no excuse – and this should be equally true for academics and for sports fans.

    And one final point – Most academics are not as politically vocal as an Eco or a Chomsky – they retreat in equal measure with sports fans, also finding politics fairly depressing. But I think you err in relating sport to politics, both as shows. Politics is only a spectator show when the spectators, the people, do not participate. Politics ought to be about participation, not watching. Maybe watching politics tends to dishearten us about humans because so many of the good humans, who don’t seem vile or self-serving, are off watching sports or studying something academic, and not participating in politics.


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