Sports politics for Thanksgiving
1) As we settle in for another settler-colonial holiday, it appears that the time is ripe for an intrusion of those ugly matters of politics into our entertainment fare. There will, as you all well know, be sports spectacle on your tee-vee screens today. For the purposes of this article we will be referring to "spectacle sports," namely, the sports you see on that tee-vee.
One issue of politics in sports appears to be "coming up" at this time because of the decision to hold the World Cup in a part of the world that has outlawed homosexuality:
A Web search also reveals:
So what is FIFA trying to say here with all of this anti-LGBTQ stuff? Don't dispute the host country's reactionary politics when there's oil money funding the spectacle you wanted to see?
2) One might respond to all this by arguing that "homosexuality is hardly a central political issue." But present-day spectacle sports are all suffused with gender issues, of which gender orientation is one. Spectacle sports is, among other things, predominantly male. Money and publicity inordinately go to leagues for men's competition, whereas women's leagues appear as relative financial ghettos for those athletes "unfortunate" enough to have been born female. Some spectacle sports have no female component: baseball, for instance, or American football. American football features grown men tackling each other. There's no sexuality about that? Big political to-dos are being made today about transgender women competing in women's sports. Are we to argue that sports has nothing to do with gender issues?
3) Spectacle sports is obsessed by competition, and thus by the proliferation of losers, in much the same way in which capitalism perpetuates losers. For every "sports star" you have dozens of people trying to be sports stars, and failing. Thus spectacle sports sets us up for a society with a privileged few and a not-so-privileged many, and the competition therein tends to sweep up the entire lives of the competitors, or pretty much anyone whose life is touched by the spectacle. Here one thinks of Tim Donaghy, an NBA referee who bet on games and then "sculpted" them to meet his point-spread needs. Donaghy served prison time for his activities and is now, apparently, a "pro wrestling" referee. Or perhaps one thinks of Barry Bonds, who used performance-enhancing drugs to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Bonds holds a wide variety of baseball records without, however, having any chance anymore to make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Great care is taken within capitalist society to pretend that its competitions are "fair," and in actual practice this means that "cheaters" at the capitalist game succeed to the extent to which they had head-starts when they were very young, to the extent to which they can hack the system, and to the extent to which they have allies within the system who will "cover for" them. The sweeping-up of lives in competition, with its rewards for extracurricular activity, is of course a normal part of the system of hiring and employment. So, for instance, one sees the piling-on of arbitrary job qualifications, because in many instances there are too many qualified applicants for jobs and so distinctions have to be added (possession of a college degree being the big one) to determine who gets the prize job and which multitudes do not.
Capitalist competition has also swept up education in the same way in which spectacle sports has swept up education. We now have winners and losers in elementary-school education. In the same way, one can observe promising students for college athletics, itself an out-of-control entity sweeping up what used to be called "education," being recruited out of junior high school. A good illustration of the sweeping-up phenomenon is Annette Lareau's ethnographic study Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. The problem is, of course, that entire lives from birth to death are swept up into the ethic of competition, when we might otherwise want something other than a rat race for a society.
3) With the vast sports spectacle that coats global mass media, one thinks of the young Karl Marx's statement: "Religion is the opium of the people." Marx, of course, did not live to see the religion that has been made of sports spectacle in 21st-century global society. With the young Karl Marx one needs to remember that the idea of the "opium of the people" was not taken to insult the people in any way. The people clearly need an opium. Look at how they exist!
As for the opium we'll be taking for this holiday, may I recommend: sleep. For some: meditation, or athletics of the "stay in shape now so that you can be in shape twenty years from now" sort. Regenerate. We all do better when we think, and we don't think so well when we're tired, or rushed, or stressed. And, yeah, don't starve, get enough to eat.