• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Corruption of Sports

As spectators become less knowledgeable about the games they watch, they become more sensation-minded and bloodthirsty. The rise of violence in ice hockey, far beyond the point where it plays any functional part in the game, coincided with the expansion of professional hockey into cities without any traditional attachment to the sport—cities in which weather conditions, indeed, had always precluded any such tradition of local play. But the significance of such changes is not, as such critics as Jack Scott and Paul Hoch imagine, that sports ought to be organized solely for the edification of the players and that corruption sets in when sports begin to be played to spectators for a profit. It is often true that sport at this point ceases to be enjoyable and becomes a business. Recent critics go astray, however, in supposing that organized athletics ever serve the interests of the players alone or that “professionalization” inevitably corrupts all who take part in it.

In glorifying amateurism, equating spectatorship with passivity, and deploring competition, recent criticism of sport echoes the fake radicalism of the counterculture, from which so much of it derives. It shows its contempt for excellence by proposing to break down the “elitist” distinction between players and spectators. It proposes to replace competitive professional sports, which notwithstanding their shortcomings uphold standards of competence and bravery that might otherwise become extinct, with a bland regimen of cooperative diversions in which everyone can join in, regardless of age or ability—“new sports for the noncompetitive,” having “no object, really,” according to a typical effusion, except to bring “people together to enjoy each other.”3 In its eagerness to strip from sport the elements that have always explained its imaginative appeal, the staged rivalry of superior ability, this “radicalism” proposes merely to complete the degradation already begun by the very society the cultural radicals profess to criticize and subvert.

What corrupts an athletic performance, as it does any other performance, is not professionalism or competition but the presence of an unappreciative, ignorant audience and the need to divert it with sensations extrinsic to the performance. It is at this point that ritual, drama, and sports all degenerate into spectacle. Huizinga’s analysis of the secularization of sport helps to clarify this issue. In the degree to which athletic events lose the element of ritual and public festivity, according to Huizinga, they deteriorate into “trivial recreation and crude sensationalism.” But even Huizinga misunderstands the cause of this development. It hardly lies in the “fatal shift toward over-seriousness.” Huizinga himself, when he is writing about the theory of play rather than the collapse of “genuine play” in our own time, understands very well that play at its best is always serious; indeed that the essence of play lies in taking seriously activities that have no purpose, serve no utilitarian ends. He reminds us that “the majority of Greek contests were fought out in deadly earnest” and discusses, under the category of play, duels in which contestants fight to the death, water sports in which the goal is to drown your opponent, and tournaments for which the training and preparation consume the athletes’ entire existence.

The degradation of sport, then, consists not in its being taken too seriously but in its subjection to some ulterior purpose, such as profit-making, patriotism, moral training, or the pursuit of health. Sport may give rise to these things in abundance, but ideally it produces them only as by-products having no essential connection with the game. When the game itself, on the other hand, comes to be regarded as incidental to the benefits it supposedly confers on participants, spectators, or promoters, it loses its peculiar capacity to transport both participant and spectator beyond everyday experience—to provide a glimpse of perfect order uncontaminated by commonplace calculations of advantage or even by ordinary considerations of survival.

The recent history of sports is the history of their steady submission to the demands of everyday reality. The nineteenth-century bourgeoisie suppressed popular sports and festivals as part of its campaign to establish the reign of sobriety. Fairs and football, bull-baiting and cock-fighting and boxing offended middle-class reformers because of their cruelty and because they blocked public thoroughfares, disrupted the daily routine of business, distracted the people from their work, encouraged habits of idleness, extravagance, and insubordination, and gave rise to licentiousness and debauchery.

In the name of “rational enjoyment” and the spirit of “improvement,” these reformers exhorted the laboring man to forsake his riotous public sports and “wakes” and to stay at his hearth, in the respectable comfort of the domestic circle. When exhortation failed, they resorted to political action. In early nineteenth-century England, they were opposed by a conservative coalition that crossed class lines, the commoners having been joined in the defense of their “immemorial” enjoyments by the traditionalists among the gentry, especially the rural gentry not yet infected with evangelical piety, sentimental humanitarianism, and the dogma of enterprise. “What would be the Consequence,” they asked, “if all such Diversions were entirely banished? The common People seeing themselves cut off from all Hope of this Enjoyment, would become dull and spiritless…: And not only so, but thro’ the absolute Necessity of diverting themselves at Times, they would addict themselves rather to less warrantable Pleasures.”4

In the United States, the mid-nineteenth-century campaign against popular amusements, closely associated with the crusade against liquor and the movement for more strict observance of the Sabbath, took on the character of an ethnic as well as a class conflict. The working class, largely immigrant and Catholic in composition, struggled, often in uneasy alliance with the “sporting element” and with “fashionable society,” to defend its drink and its gambling against the assault of middle-class respectability. The passage of blue laws, which rendered many popular amusements illegal and drove them underground, testifies to the political failure of this alliance. Middle-class reformers, usually associated first with the Whig Party and then with the Republicans, enjoyed the advantage not merely of superior access to political power but of a burning sense of moral purpose. The spirit of early bourgeois society was deeply antithetical to play.

Not only did games contribute nothing to capital accumulation, not only did they encourage gambling and reckless expenditure, but they contained an important element of pretense, illusion, mimicry, and make-believe. The bourgeois distrust of games reflected a deeper distrust of fancy, of histrionics, of elaborate dress and costume. Veblen, whose satire against bourgeois society incorporated many of its own values, including its hatred of useless and unproductive play, condemned such upper-class sports as hunting, fishing, and football on the grounds of their “futility”; nor did he miss the connection between sport and histrionic display.

It is noticeable, for instance, that even very mild-mannered and matter-of-fact men who go out shooting are apt to carry an excess of arms and accoutrements in order to impress upon their own imagination the seriousness of their undertaking. These huntsmen are also prone to a histrionic, prancing gait and to an elaborate exaggeration of the motions, whether of stealth or of onslaught, involved in their deeds of exploit.

Veblen’s satire against the “leisure class” miscarried; in America, where leisure found its only justification in the capacity to renew mind and body for work, the upper class for the most part refused to become a leisure class at all. Fearful of being displaced by the rising “robber barons,” it mastered the art of mass politics, asserted its control over the emerging industrial corporations, and embraced the ideal of the “strenuous life.” Sports played an important part in this moral rehabilitation of the ruling class. Having suppressed or driven to the margins of society many of the recreations of the people, the haute bourgeoisie proceeded to adapt the games of its class enemies to its own purposes. In the private schools which prepared its sons for the responsibilities of business and empire, sports were enlisted in the service of “character” building. The new ideology of imperialism, both in England and in the United States, glorified the playing field as the source of qualities essential to national greatness and martial success. Far from cultivating sports as a form of display and splendid futility, the new national bourgeoisie—which at the end of the nineteenth century replaced the local elites of an, earlier day—celebrated precisely their capacity to instill the “will to win.”

At a time when popular preachers of success were redefining the work ethic to stress the element of competition, athletic competition took on new importance as a preparation for the battle of life. In a never-ending stream of books turned out to satisfy the rising demand for sports fiction, popular authors upheld Frank Merriwell and other athletes as models for American youth. The young man on the make, formerly advised to go into a business at an early age and master it from bottom to top, now learned the secret of success on the playing field, in fierce but friendly competition with his peers. Proponents of the new strenuousness insisted that athletics developed the courage and manliness that would promote not only individual success but upper-class ascendancy. “In most countries,” according to Theodore Roosevelt,

the “Bourgeoisie”—the moral, respectable, commercial, middle class—is looked upon with a certain contempt which is justified by their timidity and unwarlikeness. But the minute a middle class produces men like Hawkins and Frobisher on the seas, or men such as the average Union soldier in the civil war, it acquires the hearty respect of others which it merits.

Roosevelt believed that sports would help to produce such leaders, at the same time warning his sons not to regard football, boxing, riding, shooting, walking, and rowing as “the end to which all your energies must be devoted, or even the major portion of your energies.”

Athletic competition also laid the foundations of national greatness, according to ideologues of the new imperialism. Walter Camp, whose tactical innovations at Yale brought into being the modern game of football, argued during World War I that the “grand do-or-die spirit that holds the attack on the one-yard line was what made Chateau-Thierry.” General Douglas MacArthur echoed these platitudes in World War II: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds which, on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory.”

By this time, however, the cult of the strenuous life was as obsolete as the explicit racism that once informed imperialist ideology. MacArthur himself was an anachronism in his flamboyance and his faith in clean living and high thinking. As American imperialism allied itself with more liberal values, the cult of “manly arts” survived as an important theme only in the ideology of the far right. In the 1960s, reactionary ideologues extolled athletics as “a fortress that has held the wall against radical elements,” in the words of the head football coach at Washington State University; or as Spiro Agnew put it, “one of the few bits of glue that hold society together.” Max Rafferty, California Superintendent of Schools, defended the view that “a coach’s job was to make men out of wet-behind-the-ears boys” and tried to reassure himself that “the love of clean, competitive sports is too deeply imbedded in the American matrix, too much a part of the warp and woof of our free people, ever to surrender to the burning-eyed, bearded draft-card-burners who hate and envy the athlete because he is something they can never be—a man.”

  1. 3

    Games Big People Play,” in Mother Jones, September-October 1976, p. 43.

  2. 4

    Robert W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 70.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print