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:


FIFA’s anti-LGBTQ World Cup cowardice is also a reminder for America

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.

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Cassiodorus's picture

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'French theory is a product of US cultural imperialism." -- Gabriel Rockhill

Gave up on that form of entertainment many years ago. Although, still enjoy
an occasional round of hummingbird territory battles on the deck.

If it weren't for the commercialization, some games can be fun to watch.
But our TV died about the same time our enthusiasm for western
civilization bit the dust. Early naughts I think.

I like your idea of thinking and regenerating. Good sports. No losers.

Thanks for the essay!

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usefewersyllables's picture

drove up to Denver on Monday night for a favorite weekly event- the drag Broadway singalong at the Denver Milk Market. It was really important to us to go show support, especially after the shootings in the Springs.

There are some very broken people out there. And here in CO, we’re stuck with this Boebert imbecile running around claiming that she “is a victim too.” Well, blowing away people who you don’t understand is now a spectacle sport here in CO, Boeby baby, and you helped make it so. You don’t need a scholarship to succeed in that sport- you just need a gun or two, lots of ammunition, and a complete lack of any respect for human life.

That is a big selling point for the MAGA types around here. Don’t like ‘em? Shoot ‘em. If the pigs can do it, you can too. It’s the Murrican way, guaranteed by the only part of the Constitution that matters. The largest caliber wins.

I mourn.

6 users have voted.

Twice bitten, permanently shy.

I have no argument against what you say here, just yes, but.

Yes, sports is like capitalism in that it produces losers while heaping inordinate praise and favor upon winners.

But sports calls the bluff of capitalism and all the nefarious forms of prejudice like racism, sexism and homophobia and offers genuine meritocracy. Unlike the IQ or SAT scores, the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of a game are, by the beauty of sport, the definitive measure of who is better at the game. Sports is a therefore a true meritocracy, the opening for Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens to confound white supremacy with the whole world watching.

Yes, spectacle sports are embedded within capitalism and its systemic exploitation through the class structure.

But its meritocratic essence allows people born into the lowest circumstances to become zillionaires, totally on the basis of winning games, because people in general enjoy watching it happen. Lebron James is well on his way to becoming a jock billionaire entirely due to his popularity.

Sports and its close cousin, entertainment, are the only exceptions to the general truth that capitalist theory is bullshit. The "market" does not reward corporate executives for their contributions to society, but it does reward performers for putting butts in seats.

As a unionist, I take a rueful pride in how the American sports unions have forced the worthless ultra rich bozos who "own" the teams to devote a defined slice of gross revenue to player compensation. I say rueful, because this has turned the jocks into capitalist entities accumulating ludicrous amounts of money. Aaron Judge's next contract will probably call for over $500 million.
As a citizen, I don't think anybody in any occupation should "earn" more than a couple million bucks a year. But, if some Wall Street asshole is making megabucks for fucking people over, I can keep my blood from boiling over if somebody who can hit the curve is making similar bread.

Regarding the travesty of Qatar, the premise of international sports is that all philosophical differences should be set aside for the playing of games. Jesse Owens won the Gold in Nazi Germany.

Jimmy Carter blew off this tradition to "boycott" the Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan, an empty gesture that presaged much of the virtue signaling of today against performers who say the wrong thing, like Kyrie Irving and Ye.

Finally, regarding capitalism and sports, the Soviet Union and the Eastern European People's Republics were deeply invested in international sports competition. An ironic twist of this screw showed significant indignation from the capitalist world over the questions of professionalism and gender assignment among athletes from behind the Iron Curtain.

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I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

Cassiodorus's picture

@fire with fire that spectacle sports offer "genuine meritocracy" while at the same time looking at some of the ingredients of this meritocracy:

1) Ability to avoid injury under the adverse circumstances of spectacle sports. So for instance the pro football rosters right now are full of injured players, involving injuries to some rather spectacular players you might otherwise see on your tee-vee. It's possible that much of the injury is avoidable, because the players are tackling each other on astroturf on top of concrete, not something I would attempt. Grass fields would give the NFL viewership a better game. Or here's an example, from women's basketball -- this NCAA season will be the one that posterity will remember because Paige Bueckers, one of the better players in women's basketball, is out for the year with an ACL tear.

2) Coping with schedules intended to push product rather than make said product look any good. The NBA season is too long, and so for instance the league once featured Kobe Bryant, a man who with his enormous ego and desire for money thought he could play twenty seasons of pro basketball, with predictable results. The last of these seasons were garbage time -- end years of Kobe Bryant spectacle were years of a guy with a sore and beat-up body whose ego made him into a ball hog taking bad shots. And ownership encouraged this!

3) Dealing with toxic team ownership, and so for instance you have the New York Knicks, whose owner once paid a superannuated Phil Jackson enormous sums of money to fall asleep at meetings. Or here's someone to study -- Tracy McGrady, one of the best basketball players of all time, a guy who never won anything of significance because throughout his career he was traded from one lousy team to the next.

4) Dealing with bad officiating. At least some of the foul and penalty calls seem arbitrary, and how good are the umpires at calling strikes and balls? There are of course, no statistics on this -- we wouldn't want to embarrass anyone.

At least in the old days of NCAA football they let their obsessions with competition rest a bit, and if the teams were even at the end of regulation, they were granted a tie.

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'French theory is a product of US cultural imperialism." -- Gabriel Rockhill


I have to admit that i purposefully omitted the obvious holes in the ideal of sport as a meritocracy. It is the idealized conception of games that make them so persistently popular to people both as spectator and as participant.

There are major exceptions: bad breaks, bad officiating and corruption.

One of the supposed charms of baseball is the amount of luck involved in determining the winner of a game. Bloop doubles, infield " hits' that travel 50 feet before coming to a dead stop in the grass, at-em balls flying off the bat at more than 100 mph directly into the glove of a fielder -- it is a rare game that does not see multiple such injustices deciding the winner.

"We wuz robbed." has its own google search response.

The 1919 World Series was fixed.

I know people who still fret about how Drew Parson committed pass interference on the "Hail Mary" pass thrown by Roger Staubach in 1976.

All these "exceptions" to the rule of fair play and an infinity of other examples are all woven into the culture of sports that stubbornly adheres to the idealized meritocracy of sport.

I certainly agree that artificial turf is a menace that injures players.

Modern technology is used relentlessly this century in a top-down war against bad officiating -- interrupting the flow of games to an absurd degree.

None of these violations of the sporting ideal has diminished the appeal of the games, and sport remains an institution that is bigger than any political philosophy -- subverting any ism that presumes to control it.

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I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

Cassiodorus's picture

@fire with fire -- how even in sports the fundamental truth is that capitalism sucks. Sure, people like sports. I only wanted people to reflect upon how their love of sports was being held hostage by the capitalists and their system.

Add to the toxic team ownership list the former owners of the Denver Broncos, who were suckered into a massive trade for Russell Wilson that will hobble the Broncos for what, five years? The Seattle Seahawks of today, the pride of the Pacific Northwest, would be a team of no interest without this trade. Add to the list of super-rich fools the Waltons, who bought the Broncos a few months later.

3 users have voted.

'French theory is a product of US cultural imperialism." -- Gabriel Rockhill

TheOtherMaven's picture

Lots of complaints about "transgender women competing in women's sports", but I haven't noticed anyone saying boo about "transgender men competing in men's sports". That even though they do exist and occasionally win.

The whole kerfuffle last spring obscured and buried an interesting observation, that competing with MTF Lia Thomas in several of those matches was FTM Iszac Henig (competing as a woman because they had elected to postpone full transition till after graduation). And in at least one race, Henig came out ahead.

So what does this mean, exactly? Who knows? Does it even mean anything? Smile

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There is no justice. There can be no peace.