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Corrupt Sports: An Exchange

In response to:

The Corruption of Sports from the April 28, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

During the past decade, Christopher Lasch has established himself as a perceptive analyst of modern American culture and politics. His writings on the history of American radicalism have combined shrewd evaluations of current politics with a thorough examination of historical antecedents. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find that his recent essay, “The Corruption of Sports” (NYR, April 28), contains a complete misreading of radical critics of the contemporary sports industry, as well as a limited analysis of the development of sport in twentieth-century America.

Lasch flays “left-wing critics of sport”—such writers as Jack Scott, Paul Hoch, Dave Meggyesy and others—for displaying a “contempt for excellence” by proposing to break down the barrier between spectator and player and replace “competitive professional sports…with a bland regimen of cooperative diversions.” He sees their critique as an example of a more general erosion of standards promoted by “the fake radicalism of the counterculture,” with which he more or less equates the sports critics.

Lasch takes these critics to task for using a few extreme statements in which “old-fashioned coaches” defend sport as a route to manliness and Americanism, to describe the entire sports profession. Yet his own treatment of the critics suffers from precisely the same equation of the fringe with the central thrust of the movement.

It is nothing but a parody of the critics to say, as Lasch does, that they “wish to abolish competition” and to eliminate standards of athletic excellence. As Jack Scott explained in a speech to a conference of athletic directors a few years ago, what he calls “the radical ethic” has “no quarrel with the…quest of excellence,” and has little use for the “counter-culture ethic” which suggests that “we replace competition and aggression with gentleness and cooperation.” “I could not possibly agree” with the denial of competition, Scott added.

As Scott’s remarks make clear, Lasch is wrong to equate the critics of sport with the “counterculture.” The radical sports movement arose not from the New Left, but from college and professional athletes themselves. In fact, there often existed in the 1960s a sharp dichotomy between student and intellectual activists and “jocks,” including those athletes who were beginning to question the organization of competitive sports.

Contrary to Lasch’s argument, the sports critics reject not competition, but the conditions under which competitive athletics take place. They found that the organization of sports stifled the inherent joy of the athletic experience, encouraged violence, hatred for the opposition and sexism, and discouraged intellectual and creative pursuits which were deemed “unmasculine” and antagonistic to their development as athletes. They were appalled by the systematic neglect and mistreatment of injuries, the failure to provide a decent education to high school and college athletes, and the racism which pervaded professional sports. These are issues on which Lasch is curiously silent, but which have been exposed not only by Scott and Meggyesy, but by such non-counterculture voices as Sports Illustrated.

Rather than striving to eliminate competition and degrade standards, a major thrust of the critics has been to broaden the possibilities for participation in sports. In two institutions where exponents of the radical sports movement became athletic directors—Oberlin and Livingston—competition and excellence were not eliminated; indeed, the performance of teams improved. What did change was that the athletes themselves were given a greater voice in determining team policies, women and minority coaches were hired, sports programs for women were expanded, and athletic facilities were opened to students of lesser abilities.

Lasch can see such developments as a decline in standards only because he reduces the multifaceted nature of sport to a single element—the display of “virtuosity” by a “superior artist” before an audience, much like a concert recital. That this is one extremely important aspect of sport is obvious. But Lasch totally eliminates other elements, such as participation in intra-mural sports, and activities such as jogging, hiking, swimming, and competitive sport whose purpose is to develop physical fitness. Because he equates the widespread demand for participation in athletics with a call for “therapy” and defines physical fitness as an “ulterior purpose” which leads to the “degradation of sport,” Lasch excludes a wide variety of activities the term “sport” encompasses today.

Lasch’s section on the historical development of sport also rests on an extremely limited point of view. He stresses the role sports played earlier in this century in the “moral rehabilitation of the ruling class,” focusing on the development of athletic programs in colleges and private schools. He ignores a growing body of literature which stresses how sport was also used as a vehicle of Americanization and a way of regulating the leisure activities of the working class.

Lasch is certainly correct to warm against a simplistic interpretation of sport as a mirror image of social values. But he does not mention how settlement houses developed sports programs as a counterpoint to autonomous cultural activities of new immigrants, and how many corporations developed programs of organized sport to exert some control over workers’ activities on weekends, Indeed, the Mussolini government in Italy modelled its leisure organizations for Italian workers on the sports program of the Westinghouse corporation. In early twentieth-century America, sport was an arena of cultural and class conflict in ways barely suggested by Lasch’s analysis.

It seems apparent that while his immediate criticism is directed at the left critics of sport, Lasch is really after different game altogether: what he calls “the fake radicalism of the counterculture.” It is distressing that he seems to have fallen into a not uncommon pattern of using the analysis of contemporary culture and politics to refight the battles of the past. But whatever one’s view of the counterculture and the New Left of the 1960s—and we disagree emphatically with Lasch’s judgment here—is really beside the point. For in using sport to chastize old enemies, Lasch has, perhaps inevitably, distorted the politics of today. As a result, he refuses to take seriously the efforts of athletes to alter the conditions under which they work, and denies what Jack Scott calls their “commitment to excellence along with a desire to achieve that excellence by a process that will humanize rather than dehumanize man.”

Eric Foner
Department of History
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Mark Naison
Department of Afro-American Studies
Fordham University
New York City

To the Editors:

Christopher Lasch’s article on “The Corruption of Sports” was apparently a belated review of my book Rip Off The Big Game, as well as similar books by others whom Lasch calls “cultural radicals” and who wrote in the late Sixties. According to him, “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.” In particular, “a society of consumers has no need of…an ideology of manliness and marital valor,” such as Rip Off claims are predominant in big-time macho sport. Moreover, Lasch claims, “the explicit racism that once informed imperialist ideology” was already “obsolete” by the time of General MacArthur. Also obsolete were the backward-looking views of sport as a conditioning ground for the Americanism of people like Agnew and Rafferty, not to mention Nixon and Reagan.

Actually the claim that racism—explicit or not—was obsolete in American life by the early Fifties will come as a surprise to all those who participated in the civil rights, black liberation, and anti-racism movements generally, not to mention The Revolt of the Black Athlete that Harry Edwards led in the late Sixties (when, interestingly, Lasch himself was expressing strong support for the black cultural nationalism of Harold Cruse). The American Indian Movement and Puerto Rican Socialist Party members now before grand juries would be equally surprised. Women’s liberationists might likewise question the soothing bromide that the older ideologies of manliness and martial vigor are gone (and TV producers, film-makers, pornography dealers, and sports impresarios would be surprised as well). More than a million maimed and murdered Vietnamese might well question whether racism and militarism were in fact obsolete before the Vietnam war.

In the late Sixties, when the sports critiques were first put forward, the obsolescence of Nixon-Reagan values was far from obvious. It is far from obvious now. As long as the US has economic interests in places like southern Africa and Latin America, new Vietnam-type wars fueled by ideologies of racism and martial machismo (such as that propagated in big-time macho sports) are by no means unlikely. Moreover, our point about the spectator orientation toward sports which the so-called “society of consumers” fosters (and which, in refined form, Lasch is more than willing to defend) is that it contributes to the decline in health of the adult working population, and fits them into a passive role in leisure and politics which is the exact complement of the largely passive role which the fragmented, rote-like, increasingly bureaucratized, work under capitalism offers them in production. As Rip Off puts it, until we create a society in which work becomes an active, creative enterprise under the control of the producers, they will relate to leisure mostly in the role of passive consumers. I would agree—and I said it in the book—that, “Our quarrel is not with sports, but with the role that some of the most reactionary elements in capitalist society have forced them to play.” Until the society is changed significantly, I would agree that it is utopian to expect that the sports will change very much. However, I would also agree with reformers like Mark Naison that the cultural movement in sport, including greater participation by women and erstwhile spectators, and the challenges of college teams and professional players’ associations to the powers of coaches and managers, can be a significant forward step, and an important reflection, of wider social change.

I cannot subscribe to Lasch’s central premise that, “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.” This sounds properly moralistic, but I doubt if blaming the victim will pass muster as social analysis.

Paul K. Hoch
Dawson College
Department of Philosophy
Montreal, Canada

Christopher Lasch replies:

These letters contain much rhetoric designed to certify the authors’ radicalism and to create the impression that my attitude toward recent critics of sport rests on elitist disdain. There is no point in replying to this kind of innuendo. Nor will I bother with the charge that my view of history is “extremely limited,” since I do not see that the historical analysis so ineptly outlined by Foner and Naison (which by now is tiresomely familiar) has anything to do with my argument or with the rest of theirs.

At the risk of taking up more space than the letters at hand really merit, I should like to clarify three points: the ideological function of contemporary sports; current attitudes toward competition; and the attempt to transform the spectator into a participant.

With regard to racism, militarism, and machismo: the functional significance of racism in Western society is that it once provided ideological support for colonialism and for backward labor systems based on slavery or peonage. These forms of exploitation rested on the direct, unconcealed appropriation of surplus value by the master class, which justified its domination on the grounds that the lower orders, disqualified for self-government by virtue of racial inferiority or lowly birth, needed and benefited from their masters’ protection. Racism and paternalism were two sides of the same coin, the “white man’s burden.”

Capitalism has gradually substituted the free market for direct forms of domination. Within advanced countries, it has converted the serf or slave into a free worker. It has also revolutionized colonial relations. Instead of imposing military rule on their colonies, industrial nations now govern through client states, ostensibly sovereign, which keep order in their stead. Such changes have made both racist ideology and the ideology of martial conquest, appropriate to an earlier age of empire-building, increasingly anachronistic.

In the United States, the transition from Theodore Roosevelt’s jingoism to Woodrow Wilson’s liberal neocolonialism already spelled the obsolescence of the older ideology of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. The collapse of “scientific racism” in the Twenties and Thirties, the integration of the armed forces in World War II, and the attack on racial segregation in the Fifties and Sixties, all testified to a deep-seated ideological shift, rooted in changing modes of exploitation. Of course the relation between material life and ideology is never simple, least of all in the case of an ideology as irrational as racism. I don’t wish at all to belittle the tenacity of American racism or the heroism of those who have struggled against it, sometimes at the cost of their lives. The fact remains: the ideology of white supremacy, however deep its roots in American culture, no longer serves an important social function in a society the general tendency of which, indeed, is to reduce all workers, regardless of race, to proletarian status.

Martial machismo,” as Paul Hoch calls it, is equally irrelevant to an age of technological warfare. Sport, accordingly, no longer serves to perpetuate these reactionary values. The “cultural movement” in sport, appearing at the end of a long historical development of which it claims to be the vanguard, hurls itself against positions that long ago became indefensible.

What has been said about the obsolescence of racism and militarism applies also to the ideology of competitive achievement. Many critics of contemporary sport—contrary to the impression given by Foner and Naison—argue that undue emphasis on competition reflects the predatory individualism and achievement-orientation of capitalist society, which uses athletics to inculcate a ruthless desire to succeed. According to Harry Edwards, obsession with achievement represents the “dominant sports creed.” In fact, the shift from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism—from individualism to bureaucracy, from the family firm to the corporation—has made competition increasingly anachronistic and even suspect as a cultural norm. The prevalent mode of social interaction today is what David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, referred to as antagonistic cooperation, in which a cult of teamwork conceals the struggle for survival within bureaucratic organizations.

In sport, star players make a point of subordinating their interest to the team’s, and even the rivalry among teams, now drained of its capacity to call up local or regional loyalties, reduces itself (like the rivalry among the corporations themselves) to a struggle for shares of the market. The professional athlete does not care whether his team wins or loses (since losers share in the pot), as long as it stays in business.

In spite of these changes, critics of sport continue to attack what they see as an unhealthy stress on competition, achievement, and winning. Many of these critics are disillusioned athletes (as my article made clear in the first place), but that does not prevent them from drawing not only on the shallow critique of capitalism developed by the counterculture, but on older traditions of American radicalism like that of Veblen, who saw competitive sports as a mirror of competitive capitalism, and of Upton Sinclair, who wrote in 1926 that college athletics “fit college youth perfectly for that world of competitive commercialism which the alumni have created.” The point is not that recent critics condemn every single form of competition or excellence but that their critique of American society, which assumes that athletics mirror cutthroat capitalist competition, is badly out of date.

Competition makes our society uneasy not only because it threatens bureaucratic equilibrium but because it threatens psychological equilibrium as well. People today associate rivalry with boundless aggression and find it difficult to conceive of competition that does not lead to thoughts of murder. Hence they fear every form of rivalry which is not accompanied by the disclaimer that winning and losing don’t matter or that games are unimportant anyway. The identification of competition with the wish to annihilate opponents underlies Dorcas Butt’s accusation that competitive sports have made us a nation of militarists, fascists, and predatory egoists; have encouraged “poor sportsmanship” in all social relations; and have extinguished cooperation and compassion. It underlies Paul Hoch’s plaintive cry: “Why bother scoring or winning the game at all? Wouldn’t it be enough just to enjoy it?” It underlies Jack Scott’s desire to find a proper “balance” between competition and cooperation. “Competitive sport is in trouble,” Scott says, “when the balance is tipped toward competition.” An athlete should strive for accomplishment, according to Scott, but not “at the expense of himself or others.” These words express a belief that excellence usually is achieved at the expense of others, that competition tends to become murderous unless “balanced” by cooperation, and that athletic rivalry, if it gets out of hand, gives expression to the inner rage contemporary man so desperately tries to stifle.

As for virtuosity, Foner and Naison have missed or deliberately misconstrued the point of my argument. The display of virtuosity, as I took pains to point out, is by no means the principal element in an athletic (or musical) performance. A performer who seeks merely to dazzle the audience with feats of technical brilliance plays to the lowest level of understanding, foregoing the risks that come from intense emotional engagement with the material itself. In the most satisfying kind of performance, the performer becomes unconscious of the audience and loses himself in his part. In sport, the moment that matters is what a former basketball player describes as the moment “when all those folks in the stands don’t count.” The player in question, now a scholar, left big-time sports for the reasons alluded to by Foner and Naison, but he retains more insight into the nature of games than Dave Meggyesy, Chip Oliver, and other ex-athletes. Rejecting the simple-minded radicalism according to which “commercialization” has corrupted sport, he says: “Money [in professional sports] has nothing to do with capitalism, owners, or professionalism. It’s the moment in some games where it doesn’t matter who’s watching, all that counts is that instant where how you play determines which team wins and which teams loses.”

If virtuosity were the essence of sport, we could dispense with basketball and content ourselves with displays of dunking and dribbling. But to say that real artistry consists not of dazzling technique but of teamwork, timing, a sense of the moment, an understanding of the medium, and the capacity to lose oneself in play does not of course mean that games would have the same meaning if no one watched them. It means simply that the superior performance has the quality of being unobserved. The element of performance, however, remains central to the meaning of organized sports.

No one denies the desirability of participation in sports—not because it builds strong bodies but because it brings joy and delight. But it is by watching those who have mastered a sport that we derive standards against which to measure ourselves. By entering imaginatively into their world, moreover, we experience in heightened form the pain of defeat and the triumph of persistence in the face of adversity. An athletic performance, like other performances, calls up a rich train of associations and fantasies, shaping our unconscious perceptions of life. Spectatorship is no more “passive” than daydreaming, provided the audience understands the performance and the performance is of such quality that it elicits an emotional response.

Perhaps it is precisely this emotional response that makes the critics of “passive” spectatorship uneasy. They wish to enlist sport in the service of healthy physical exercise, subduing or eliminating the element of fantasy, make believe, and play-acting that has always been associated with games. The demand for greater participation, like the distrust of competition, probably originates in a fear that unconscious impulses and fantasies will overwhelm us if we allow them expression.

In any case, the fashionable chatter about the need for greater participation in sports is entirely irrelevant to a discussion of their cultural significance. We might just as well assess the future of American music by counting the number of amateur musicians. In both cases, participation can be an eminently satisfying experience; but the level of participation in neither case tells us much about the status of the art.

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