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The Corruption of Sports

Left-wing critics of sport have made such statements the center of their attack—another example of the way in which cultural radicalism, posing as a revolutionary threat to the status quo, in reality confines its criticism to values already obsolescent and to patterns of American capitalism that have long ago been superseded. Left-wing criticism of sport provides one of the most vivid examples of the essentially conformist character of the “cultural revolution” with which it identifies itself. According to Paul Hoch, Jack Scott, Dave Meggyesy, and other cultural radicals, sport is a “mirror reflection” of society, which indoctrinates the young with the dominant values. In America, organized athletics train militarism, authoritarianism, racism, and sexism, thereby perpetuating the “false consciousness” of the masses. Sports serve as an “opiate” of the people, diverting the masses from their real problems with a “dream world” of glamor and excitement. They promote sexual rivalry among males—with “vestal virgins” leading the cheers from the sidelines—and thus prevent the proletariat from achieving revolutionary solidarity in the face of its oppressors.

Competitive athletics, so the indictment goes, force the “pleasure-oriented id” to submit to “the hegemony of the repressed ego” in order to shore up the nuclear family—the basic form of authoritarianism—and to divert sexual energy into the service of the work ethic. For all these reasons, organized competition should give way to “intramural sports aimed at making everyone a player.” If everyone “had fulfilling, creative jobs,” moreover, “they wouldn’t need to look for the pseudo satisfactions of being fans.”

This attack, offensive in the first place in its assumption that cultural radicals understand the needs and interests of the masses better than the masses themselves do, also offends every principle of social analysis. It confuses adapting to a society’s patterns—“socialization”—with indoctrination, and takes the most reactionary pronouncements at face value, as if athletes automatically imbibed the right-wing opinions of some of their mentors and spokesmen. Sport does play a part in socialization, but the lessons it teaches are not necessarily the ones that coaches and teachers of physical education seek to impart. The mirror theory of sport, like all reductionist interpretations of culture, makes no allowance for the autonomy of cultural traditions. In sport, these traditions come down from one generation of players to another, and although athletics do reflect social values, they can never be completely assimilated to those values. Indeed they resist assimilation more effectively than many other activities, since games learned in youth exert their own demands and inspire loyalty to the game itself, rather than to the programs ideologues seek to impose on them.

In any case, the “reactionary values” allegedly perpetuated by sport no longer reflect the dominant needs of American capitalism at all. The champions of “cultural radicalism” do not begin to understand the society they profess to criticize. If a society of consumers has no need of the Protestant work ethic, neither does it need the support of an ideology of manliness and martial valor. The professionalization of sport and the extension of professional athletics into the universities, which now serve as a farm system for the major leagues, have undercut the old “school spirit” and given rise among athletes to a thoroughly businesslike approach to their craft. Athletes now regard the inspirational appeals of old-fashioned coaches with amused cynicism, nor do they readily submit to authoritarian discipline. The proliferation of franchises and the frequency with which they move from one locality to another undermine local loyalties, both among participants and spectators, and discourage attempts to model “team spirit” on patriotism.

In a bureaucratic society, all forms of corporate loyalty lose their force, and although athletes still make a point of subordinating their own achievements to those of the team, they do so in order to promote easy relations with their colleagues, not because the team as a corporate entity transcends individual interests. On the contrary, the athlete as a professional entertainer seeks above all to further his own interests and willingly sells his services to the highest bidder. The better athletes become television celebrities and supplement their salaries with endorsements that often exceed the salaries themselves.

All these developments make it difficult to think of the athlete as a local or national hero, as the representative of his class or race, or in any way as the embodiment of some larger corporate unit. The recognition that sports have come to serve as a form of “entertainment” alone justifies the salaries paid to star athletes and their prominence in the media. As Howard Cosell has candidly acknowledged, sports can no longer be sold to the public as “just sports or as religion.” “Sports aren’t life and death. They’re entertainment.” Even as the television audience demands the presentation of sports as a form of spectacle, however, the widespread resentment of star athletes among followers of sport—a resentment directed against the inflated salaries negotiated by their agents and against their willingness to become hucksters, promoters, and celebrities—indicates the persistence of a need to believe that sports represent something more than entertainment, that though neither life nor death in themselves, they retain some lingering capacity to dramatize and clarify those experiences.

The secularization of sport, which began as soon as athletics were pressed into the service of patriotism and character building, was complete only when sport became an object of mass consumption. The first stage in this process was the establishment of bigtime athletics in the universities and their spread from the Ivy League to the large public and private colleges, thence downward into the high schools. The unprecedented emphasis, in late nineteenth-century commercial life, on competition and the will to win, stimulated the growth of sports in another way. It made the acquisition of educational credentials essential to business or professional careers and thus created in large numbers a new kind of student, utterly indifferent to higher learning but forced to undergo it for economic reasons. Large-scale athletic programs helped colleges to attract such students, in competitive bidding for enrollments, and to entertain them once they enrolled.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, according to Donald Meyer, the development of an “alumni culture” centering on clubs, fraternities, alumni offices, money drives, homecoming ceremonies, and football, grew out of the colleges’ need not only to raise money in large amounts but to attract “a clientele for whom the classroom had no real meaning but who were by no means ready to send their sons out into the world at age eighteen.”5 At Notre Dame, as Frederick Rudolph has pointed out, “intercollegiate athletics…were consciously developed in the 1890’s as an agency of student recruitment.” As early as 1878, President McCosh of Princeton wrote to an alumnus in Kentucky: “You will confer a great favor on us if you will get…the college noticed in the Louisville papers…. We must persevere in our efforts to get students from your region…. Mr. Brand Ballard has won us great reputation as captain of the football team which has beaten both Harvard and Yale.”

In order to accommodate the growing hordes of spectators, the colleges and universities, sometimes aided by local business interests, built lavish athletic facilities—enormous field houses, football stadia in the pretentious imperial style of the early twentieth century. The growing investment in sports led in turn to a growing need to maintain a winning record: a new concern with system, efficiency, and the elimination of risk. Walter Camp’s innovations at Yale emphasized drill, discipline, teamwork. As in industry, the attempt to coordinate the movements of many men created a demand for “scientific management” and for the expansion of managerial personnel. In many sports, trainers, coaches, doctors, and public relations experts soon outnumbered the players. The accumulation of elaborate statistical records arose from management’s attempt to reduce winning to a routine, to measure efficient performance. The athletic contest itself, surrounded by a vast apparatus of information and promotion, now appeared almost incidental to the expensive preparation required to stage it.

The rise of a new kind of journalism—the yellow journalism pioneered by Hearst and Pulitzer, which sold sensations instead of reporting news—helped to professionalize amateur athletics, to assimilate sport to promotion, and to make professional athletics into a major industry. Until the Twenties, professional sports, where they existed at all, attracted little of the public attention lavished on college football. Even baseball, the oldest and most highly organized of professional sports, suffered from the faintly unsavory associations that seemed to surround it—its appeal to the working class and the sporting crowd, its rural origins. When a Yale alumnus complained to Walter Camp about the overemphasis on football, he could think of no better way of dramatizing the danger than to cite the example of baseball: “The language and scenes which are too often witnessed [in football games] are such as to degrade the college student and bring him down to a par with or even lower than the average professional baseball player.”

The World Series scandal of 1919 confirmed baseball’s bad reputation, but it also set in motion the reforms of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the new commissioner brought in by the owners to clean up the game and give it a better public image. Landis’s regime, the success of the eminently respectable and efficient New York Yankees, and the idolization of Babe Ruth soon made professional baseball “America’s number-one pastime.” Ruth became the first modern athlete to be sold to the public as much for his “color, personality, crowd appeal” (Grantland Rice) as for his remarkable abilities. His press agent, Christy Walsh, developer of a syndicate of ghostwriters who sold books and articles under the names of sports heroes, arranged on behalf of the “Sultan of Swat” barnstorming tours, endorsements, and movie roles, thus contributing to “the ballyhoo,” in the words of Warren Susman, “that promoted a professional athlete into a celebrity of ever exaggerated proportions.”6

In the quarter-century following World War II, entrepreneurs extended the techniques of mass promotion first perfected in the marketing of college football and professional baseball to other professional sports, notably hockey, basketball, and football. Television did for these games what mass journalism and radio had done for baseball, elevating them to new heights of popularity while at the same time reducing them to entertainment. In his recent study of sport, Michael Novak notes that television has lowered the quality of sports reporting, freeing announcers from the need to describe the course of play and encouraging them instead to adopt the style of professional entertainers.7

The invasion of sport by the “entertainment ethic,” according to Novak, breaks down the boundaries between the ritual world of play and the sordid reality from which it is designed to provide escape. Broadcasters like Howard Cosell, who embody the “virulent passion for debunking in the land,” mistakenly import critical standards more appropriate to political reporting into the coverage of sports. Newspapers report the “business side” of sports on the sports page, instead of confining it to the business section where it belongs. “It is important,” Novak argues, “…to keep sports as insulated as we can from business, entertainment, politics, and even gossip…. The preservation of parts of life not drawn up into politics and work is essential for the human spirit.” Especially when politics has become “a brutal, ugly business” and work (not sport) the opiate of the people, athletics alone in Novak’s view, offer a glimpse of the “real thing.” Games take place in a “world outside of time,” which must be sealed off from the surrounding corruption.

The anguished outcry of the true fan, who brings to sports a proper sense of awe, only to find them corrupted from within by the spread of the “entertainment ethic,” sheds more light on the degradation of sports than the strictures of left-wing critics, who wish to abolish competition, emphasize the value of sports as health-giving exercise, and promote a more “cooperative” conception of athletics—in other words, to make sports an instrument of personal and social therapy. Novak’s analysis, however, minimizes the extent of the problem and misconstrues its cause. In a society dominated by the production and consumption of images, no part of life can long remain immune from the invasion of spectacle.

Nor can this invasion be blamed on the “spirit of debunking.” It arises, in a paradoxical fashion, precisely out of the attempt to set up a separate sphere of leisure uncontaminated by the world of work and politics. While play has always, by its very nature, set itself off from workaday life, at the same time it retains an organic connection with the life of the community, by virtue of its capacity to dramatize reality and to offer a convincing representation of the community’s values. The ancient connections between games, ritual, and public festivity suggest that although games take place within arbitrary boundaries, they are nevertheless rooted in shared traditions, to which they give objective expression. Games and athletic contests offer a dramatic commentary on reality rather than an escape from it—a heightened reenactment of communal traditions, not a repudiation of them. It is only when games and sports come to be valued purely as a form of escape that they lose the capacity to provide this escape.

The appearance in history of an escapist conception of “leisure” coincides with the organization of leisure as an extension of commodity production. The same forces that have organized production as an assembly line have now organized leisure as well, reducing it to an appendage of industry. As Martha Wolfenstein observed in her essay on “fun morality,” work now tends “to be permeated with behavior formerly confined to after work hours”—the manipulation of personal relations in the interest of political or economic advantage—while play is “measured by standards of achievement previously applicable only to work.”8

Modern sport is dominated not so much by the undue emphasis on winning as on the desperate urge to avoid defeat, Coaches, not quarterbacks, often call the plays, and the managerial apparatus makes every effort to eliminate the risk and the uncertainty that contribute so centrally to the ritual and dramatic success of any contest. When sports can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, they lose the capacity to raise the spirits of players and spectators, to transport them into a higher realm. Prudence and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, come to shape sports as they shape everything else.

While he deplores the subordination of sport to entertainment, Novak takes for granted the separation of work and leisure that gives rise in the first place to this invasion of play by the standards of the workaday world. He does not see that the degradation of play originates in the degradation of work, which creates both the need and the opportunity for commercialized “recreation.” As Huizinga has shown, it is precisely when the element of play disappears from law, statecraft, and other cultural forms that men turn to play not to witness a dramatic reenactment of their common life but to find diversion and sensation.

At that point, games and sports, far from taking themselves too seriously, as Huizinga mistakenly concluded, become, on the contrary, a “thing of no consequence.” As Edgar Wind suggested in his analysis of modern art—which raised some of the same issues that are posed by the recent history of sport—the trivialization of art was already implicit in the modernist exaltation of art, which assumed that “the experience of art will be more intense if it pulls the spectator away from his ordinary habits and preoccupations.”9 The ideology of modernism tends to guarantee the socially marginal status of art at the same time that it opens art to the invasion of commercialized aesthetic fashion—a process that culminates, by a curious but inexorable logic, in the postmodernist demand for the abolition of art and its assimilation to “reality.”

The development of sport follows a similar pattern. The attempt to create a separate realm of pure play, totally isolated from work, gives rise to its opposite—the insistence, in Cosell’s words, that “sports are not separate and apart from life, a special ‘Wonderland’ where everything is pure and sacred and above criticism,” but a business, subject to the same standards and open to the same scrutiny as any other. The positions represented by Novak and Cosell are symbiotically related and arise out of the same historical development: the emergence of the spectacle as the dominant form of cultural expression. What began as an attempt not only to invest sport with religious significance but to make it into a surrogate religion in its own right ends with the demystification of sport, the assimilation of sport to show business.


Corrupt Sports: An Exchange September 29, 1977

  1. 5

    Donald Meyer, “Early Football” (unpublished paper). I am indebted to this brilliant essay not only for the observations on alumni culture but for the material on Walter Camp in the following paragraphs.

  2. 6

    Warren Susman, “Piety, Profits, and Play: the 1920’s,” in Howard H. Quint and Milton Cantor, eds., Men, Women, and Issues in American History (Dorsey Press, 1975, vol. 2), pp. 210-214.

  3. 7

    Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports (Basic Books, 1975), chapter 14.

  4. 8

    Martha Wolfenstein, “Fun Morality,” in Warren Susman ed., Culture and Commitment: 1929-1945 (Braziller, 1973), p. 91.

  5. 9

    Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (Vintage Books, 1969), p. 18.

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