In May 1647 the supporters of Oliver Cromwell warned Parliament that “under pretence of football matches and cudgel playing and the like, have been lately suspicious meetings and assemblies at several places made up of disaffected persons” (D. Brailsford, Sport and Society, 1969, p.135). Today the ruling class need not fear subversion at Arsenal-Chelsea derbies or the dog tracks; indeed, organised sport is a necessary cement in the struggle to patch up the “nation’s morale.” A society that exudes boredom has to be able to provide its members with amusements. and you can safely bet that reading about, discussing, watching and engaging in sport wile away more hours of the day, for millions of people, than any other activity apart from eating, sleeping or working.
Sports are pursued today with the same tenacious ferocity with which wars are fought. Winning is everything, drawing is like kissing your sister and losing is nothing. In sport, as in the rat race, the aim is to accumulate assets—in society called capital; in football, baseball and rugby “points”. Playfulness, improvisation and spontaneity are increasingly abandoned in favour of obedience to strict rules, discipline, efficiency and record times. Training, especially ay the higher levels, turns people into efficient machines who know no other satisfaction than the mastering of their own bodies.
The rules of the game in capitalist society are assumed to be perfectly natural, so that success—whether in sport or work—depends fundamentally on your attitude. If you follow the rules—or play the game—compete hard and never give up, you can be a winner. The others must learn to be good losers. The sporting concepts of “fair play” and “team spirit” have their direct equivalents in the world of business, where “free enterprise”, the “national interest”, the “Dunkirk spirit” and “equality before the law” are in daily use. Both sides of industry are supposed to play the game according to a sort of sporting social contract governed by an impartial referee — the State. The fan, like the consumer and voter, has learned to take in more or less passively a product assembled by the other people—be it a sports spectacle, consumer good or candidate. All three “games” have their statistics and stars and nobody but the socialist questions all the rules.
Mass sport is the product of the reduction of working hours, urbanisation and the development of transport. Only in the last century have the activities we call sports occupied the time of any substantial section of the population. In the city states of ancient Greece or the kingdoms of mediaeval Christendom, the labour of the overwhelming majority did not provide an economic surplus large enough for more than a small elite to take part in organised games. Also, as long as most workmen were engaged in crafts or agriculture, in which they produced the whole product for the purpose of satisfying clear needs, they had less urge for systematic diversions to keep them in humour.
Team sports developed in the elite private schools of those who controlled 19th century English society and were shaped to fit the ideological and socialising needs of the class which was establishing its power at home and abroad. The split between the field and the stands developed at the same time as that between factory managers controlling production and the worker performing the fragmented tasks on the assembly line. Sport follows on directly from mechanical work, and is a factor for reducing the population to a mass and exercising discipline. When a man leaves work he finds in sport the same mentality, the same criteria, the same morality, the same movements and the same objectives—all the laws and habits required by technical organisation—which he has only just left behind at the office or factory. As in society generally, sport ignores questions of quality and focuses exclusively on what is measurable and quantifiable.
An important feature of present-day professional sport is the manipulation of athletes by doctors, psychologists, bio-chemists and trainers. In the drive to push back the limits of human capacity, technological discoveries are used to bring about organic mutations, changes in the structure of muscular growth, brain functioning, psychological equilibrium and so on. Top class distance runners think nothing of a quick change of blood before a race, thus raising the level of haemoglobin retention and endurance. For years now the sex of sportswomen suspected of being too virile has been checked with male hormonal injections and the most intimate of their metabolic functions submitted to the urine managers. In track and field circles it is next to impossible to get to the top without the use of anabolic steroids. While these add plastic muscle to the athletes frame, in many cases they have the side effect of shrinking the testes—of producing plastic supermen with no balls. The virtues of suffering and labour are inculcated into increasingly younger recruits, trained to run, jump and swim like machines and generally “produce the goods” when required.
As a noble attempt to promote friendship, understanding and reconciliation between people, sport fails with flying colours. The attitudes and norms of day to day life under capitalism carry over onto the sportsfield, with violence and deliberate brutality becoming increasingly frequent. Even chess is getting physical. A survey on the attitudes of English professional footballers was recently published, which revealed that 62 per cent thought it proper to upset a temperamental member of the opposing team; 69 per cent considered that in a match a player may attempt anything provided he is not caught; and only 16 per cent thought it necessary to behave according to the spirit of fair play. (P. McIntosh, Fair Play: Ethics in Sport and Education, 1979).
In the years that followed the Napoleonic Wars the connection between successful warfare and sport was popularised, the latter becoming an integral part of Prussian militarism. Following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 French nationalists, including the founder of the Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, sought to convince ruling elites that sport for the masses had a paramilitary value. In Britain the Conservatives introduced what was to be the Physical Training and Recreation Bill of 1937, providing physical jerks at school to get the nation in shape for the approaching slaughter. Similarly, in Canada the onset of war led to the passage of the 1943 Physical Fitness Act. In England “muscular Christians” such as Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days, forged the connection between team sports and building national consciousness. Today the institution serves the same function, with ministers for sport, “Sport for All” campaigns and the regular feasts of nationalism served up at Olympics and World Cups. Douglas MacArthur, war hero and general of the United States army, summed up the relationship on one of his lesser known lyrical poems.
Upon the fields of friendly strife
Are sown the seeds
That, upon other fields, on other days
Will bear the fruits of victory
It is through sport that workers can submerge themselves, if only as screaming fans willing “their” team to victory. Spectating (even from an armchair) acts as a kind of encounter group therapy, with each person experiencing a community absent in the routine of work under capitalism. It is much easier to get worked up about the Big match than about big unemployment or big price rises, and a temporary ‘high’ on Saturday serves as a tonic to face another week’s work. To some the Saturday game is not a matter of life and death—it is much more important than that.
The frustrations and emptiness of existence in our society encourage the development of more and more techniques of relaxation and diversion. Sport, however, cannot successfully combat these effects so long as it plays the role of temporary escape or pleasant change of pace from meaningless work. In socialism, sport as we know it will no longer exist . . . but there will be football at Craven Cottage.