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The Corruption of Sports

Among the activities through which men seek release from everyday life, games offer in many ways the purest form of escape. Like sex, drugs, and drink, they obliterate awareness of everyday reality, not by dimming that awareness but by raising it to a new intensity of concentration. Moreover, games have no side-effects, produce no hangovers or emotional complications. Games satisfy the need for free fantasy and the search for gratuitous difficulty simultaneously; they combine childlike exuberance with deliberately created complications.

By establishing conditions of equality among the players, Roger Caillois says, games attempt to substitute ideal conditions for “the normal confusion of everyday life.”1 They re-create the freedom, the remembered perfection of childhood and mark it off from ordinary life with artificial boundaries, within which the only constraints are the rules to which the players freely submit. Games enlist skill and intelligence, the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of utterly useless activities, which make no contribution to the struggle of man against nature, to the wealth or comfort of the community, or to its physical survival.

In communist and fascist countries sports have been organized and promoted by the state. In capitalist countries the uselessness of games makes them offensive to social reformers, improvers of public morals, or functionalist critics of society like Veblen, who saw in the futility of upper-class sports anachronistic survivals of militarism and tests of prowess. Yet the “futility” of play, and nothing else, explains its appeal—its artificiality, the arbitrary obstacles it sets up for no other purpose than to challenge the players to surmount them, the absence of any utilitarian or uplifting object. Games quickly lose part of their charm when pressed into the service of education, character development, or social improvement.

Modern industry having reduced most jobs to a routine, games in our society take on added meaning. Men seek in play the difficulties and demands—both intellectual and physical—which they no longer find in work. The history of culture, as Huizinga showed in his classic study of play, Homo Ludens, appears from one perspective to consist of the gradual eradication of the elements of play from all cultural forms—from religion, from the law, from warfare, above all from productive labor. The rationalization of these activities leaves little room for the spirit of arbitrary invention or the disposition to leave things to chance. Risk, daring, and uncertainty, important components of play, have little place in industry or in activities infiltrated by industrial methods, which are intended precisely to predict and control the future and to eliminate risk. Games accordingly have assumed an importance unprecedented even in ancient Greece, where so much of social life revolved around contests. Sports, which satisfy also the starved need for physical exertion—for a renewal of the sense of the physical basis of life—have become an obsession not just of the masses but of those who set themselves up as a cultural elite.

The rise of spectator sports to their present importance coincides historically with the rise of mass production, which intensifies the needs sport satisfies while at the same time creating the technical capacity to promote and market athletic contests to a vast audience. But according to a common criticism of modern sport, these same developments have destroyed the value of athletics. Commercialized play has turned into work, subordinated the athlete’s pleasure to the spectator’s and reduced the spectator himself to a state of passivity—the very antithesis of the health and vigor sport ideally promotes. The mania for winning has encouraged an exaggerated emphasis on the competitive side of sport, to the exclusion of the more modest but more satisfying experiences of cooperation and competence. The cult of victory, loudly proclaimed by such football coaches as Vince Lombardi and George Allen, has made savages of the players and rabid chauvinists of their followers. The violence and partisanship of modern sports lead some critics to insist that athletics impart militaristic values to the young, irrationally inculcate local and national pride in the spectator, and serve as one of the strongest bastions of male chauvinism.

Huizinga himself, who anticipated some of these arguments and stated them far more persuasively, argued that modern games and sports had been ruined by a “fatal shift toward overseriousness.” At the same time, he maintained that play had lost its element of ritual, had become “profane,” and consequently had ceased to have any “organic connection whatever with the structure of society.” The masses now crave “trivial recreation and crude sensationalism” and throw themselves into these pursuits with an intensity far beyond their intrinsic merit. Instead of playing with the freedom and intensity of children, they play with the “blend of adolescence and barbarity” that Huizinga calls puerilism, investing games with patriotic and martial fervor while treating serious pursuits as if they were games. “A far-reaching contamination of play and serious activity has taken place,” according to Huizinga:

The two spheres are getting mixed. In the activities of an outwardly serious nature hides an element of play. Recognized play, on the other hand, is no longer able to maintain its true play-character as a result of being taken too seriously and being technically over-organised. The indispensable qualities of detachment, artlessness, and gladness are thus lost.

An analysis of the criticism of modern sport, in its vulgar form as well as in Huizinga’s more refined version, brings to light a number of common misconceptions about modern society. A large amount of writing on sports has accumulated in recent years, and the sociology of sport has even entrenched itself as a minor branch of social science. Much of this commentary has no higher purpose than to promote athletics or to exploit the journalistic market they have created, but some of it aspires to social criticism. Those who have formulated the now familiar indictment of organized sport include the sociologist Harry Edwards; the psychologist and former tennis player Dorcas Susan Butt, who thinks sport should promote “competence” instead of competition; disillusioned professional athletes like Dave Meggyesy and Chip Oliver; and radical critics of culture and society, notably Paul Hoch and Jack Scott.2

Critics of sport, in their eagerness to uncover evidence of corruption and decline, attack intrinsic elements of athletics, elements essential to their appeal in all periods and places, on the erroneous assumption that spectatorship, violence, and competition reflect conditions peculiar to modern times. On the other hand, they overlook the distinctive contribution of contemporary society to the degradation of sport and therefore misconceive the nature of that degradation. They concentrate on issues, such as “over-seriousness,” that are fundamental to an understanding of sports, indeed to the very definition of play, but that are peripheral or irrelevant to the ways they have changed in recent history.

Take the common complaint that modern sports are “spectator-oriented rather than participant-oriented.” Spectators, on this view, are irrelevant to the success of the game. What a naïve theory of human motivation this implies! The attainment of certain skills unavoidably gives rise to an urge to show them off. At a higher level of mastery, the performer no longer wishes merely to display his virtuosity—for the true connoisseur can easily distinguish between the performer who plays to the crowd and the superior artist who matches himself against the full rigor of his art itself—but to ratify a supremely difficult accomplishment; to give pleasure; to forge a bond between himself and his audience, a shared appreciation of a ritual executed not only flawlessly but with much feeling and with a sense of style and proportion.

In all games, particularly in athletic contests, the central importance of display and representation serves as a reminder of the ancient connections between play, ritual, and drama. The players not only compete, they enact a familiar ceremony that reaffirms common values. Ceremony requires witnesses: enthusiastic spectators conversant with the rules of the performance and its underlying meaning. Far from destroying the value of sports, the attendance of spectators is often necessary to them. Indeed one of the virtues of contemporary sports lies in their resistance to the erosion of standards and their capacity to appeal to a knowledgeable audience. Norman Podhoretz has argued that the sports public remains more discriminating than the public for the arts and that in sports “excellence is relatively uncontroversial as a judgment of performance.” The public for sports still consists largely of men who took part in sports during boyhood and thus acquired a sense of the game and a capacity to make discriminating judgments.

The same can hardly be said for the audience of an artistic performance, even though amateur musicians, dancers, actors, and painters may still comprise a small nucleus of the audience. Constant experimentation in the arts, in any case, has created so much confusion about standards that the only surviving measure of excellence, for many, is novelty and shock-value, which in a jaded time often resides in a work’s sheer ugliness or banality. In sport, on the other hand, novelty and rapid shifts of fashion play only a small part in its appeal to a discriminating audience.

Yet even here, the contamination of standards has already begun. Faced with rising costs, owners seek to increase attendance at sporting events by installing exploding scoreboards, broadcasting recorded cavalry charges, giving away helmets and bats, and surrounding the spectator with cheerleaders, usherettes, and ball girls. Television has enlarged the audience for sports while lowering the quality of that audience’s understanding; at least this is the assumption of sports commentators, who direct at the audience an interminable stream of tutelage in the basics of the game, and of the promoters, who reshape one game after another to conform to the tastes of an audience supposedly incapable of grasping their finer points.

The American League’s adoption of the designated hitter rule, which relieves pitchers of the need to bat and diminishes the importance of managerial strategy, provides an especially blatant example of the dilution of sports by the requirements of mass promotion. Another example is the “Devil-Take-the-Hindmost Mile,” a track event invented by the San Francisco Examiner, in which the last runner in the early stages of the race has to drop out—a rule that encourages an early scramble to avoid disqualification but lowers the general quality of the event. When the television networks discovered surfing, they insisted that events be held according to a prearranged schedule, without regard to weather conditions. A surfer complained, “Television is destroying our sport. The TV producers are turning a sport and an art form into a circus.” The same practices produce the same effects on other sports, forcing baseball players, for example, to play World Series games on freezing October evenings. Substituting artificial surfaces for grass in tennis, which has slowed the pace of the game, placed a premium on reliability and patience, and reduced the element of tactical brilliance and over-powering speed, commends itself to television producers because it makes tennis an all-weather game and even permits it to be played indoors, in sanctuaries of sport like Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

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.”

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.

Letters

Corrupt Sports: An Exchange September 29, 1977

  1. 1

    Roger Caillois, “The Structure and Classification of Games,” in John W. Loy Jr. and Gerald S. Kenyon, Sport, Culture, and Society (Macmillan, 1969), p. 49.

  2. 2

    See Harry Edwards, The Sociology of Sport (Dorsey Press, 1973) and The Revolt of the Black Athlete (Free Press, 1969); Dorcas Susan Butt, Psychology of Sport (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976); Dave Meggyesy, Out of Their League (Ramparts, 1970); Chip Oliver, High for the Game (Morrow, 1971); Paul Hoch, Rip Off the Big Game: The Exploitation of Sports by the Power Elite (Anchor Books, 1972); Jack Scott, The Athletic Revolution (Free Press, 1971).

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

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

  9. 9

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

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