A Critique of Sport

“Sport is war minus the shooting,” wrote George Orwell.

For a long time, I have been thinking about sport and its role in society. It can be like simulated warfare, as Orwell notes, with teams commonly attacking each other, injuries abounding. It can also seem like a religious experience, with fans idolizing players and dogmatically watching every game available.

Foul Play: What's WRONG with Sport by Joe Humphreys Icon Books, 271 pp
Foul Play: What’s Wrong with Sport
by Joe Humphreys
Icon Books, 271 pp.

It seems to be a mixed bag of the best and worst in society. Sports are found nearly everywhere and played by nearly everyone at some point in their life.

These are some of the intersections that Joe Humphreys explores in his book Foul Play: What’s Wrong With Sport. Largely based on his football fandom, Humphreys describes in six chapters the virtue and vice of sport. I found the book to be a timeless expose of a world unable to face criticism. Recent news from the world of sport, like fighting between football fans at Euro 2016 or doping at the Rio Olympics, point to the continued challenges found in competitions around the world. I will explore some of the book’s topics below.

Humphreys starts his book with the effects of sport on the youngest of its participants: children. The first chapter, “Sport and Stupidity,” discusses anti-intellectualism within sport. Each sport has its own set of hazards. Hazards that organisations do not like to discuss openly.

Unlike informal play, Humphreys shows that professional sports encourage amateurs to take unnecessary risks when attempting to live up to sports superstars. In the case of American football, the NFL waged a twenty-year battle to hide the dangers of repeat concussions. These dangers are now being seen in high school athletes as well as professionals. For teenage girls in the United States, cheerleading is one of the more dangerous sports and can lead to paralysis. Dangers are exacerbated by several states unwilling to classify it as a “sport” and thereby regulate its safety.

Beyond the potential injury it glorifies, sports incentive people to make dumb decisions that may not benefit them. Take golf, for example. Unlike routine exercise, gold requires specialized equipment and course fees that cost many times more than a gym membership. And all those green, lush golf courses which are resulting in droughts when constructed in water-limited environments. As a society, we need to think long and hard on whether sports like these are beneficial.

In the second chapter, “Sport, Character and Morals”, Humphreys details the Christian roots of both the Olympics Games – re-established in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin – and the Fifa World Cup – founded by Jules Rimet. Rimet believed that “sport – and above all football – would be the means to teach the world’s masses to appreciate the Christian virtues of hard work, honesty, obedience to rules, comradeship and fair play” (pp. 48). These grand competitions on the world stage followed the trend of “Muscular Christianity” which was established in Britain during the era of Queen Victoria. From its beginnings, Humphreys describes Muscular Christianity, which transformed into modern sport through the establishment of its rules and record-keeping, as a moral experiment. A moral experiment that has gone badly wrong.

Humphreys continues the chapter by discussing the negative psycho-social behavior caused by sport. Psychologists Bredemeier and Shields found that “participation in competitive sports created ‘lower level moral reasoning in both sport and life'” (pp. 53). Team sports dilute personal responsibility and lead to pack behaviors, where no single individual feels responsibility for his actions – they were merely following orders. These negative attributes carry into family and social life.

The more serious players and fans take their given sport the more harmful it can be for their family and friends. Families are forced to move when an athlete gets traded, or worse, separated from their partner and children. Die-hard fans will do anything to not miss a game, sitting for hours watching a game remembering every single minuscule piece of data, while forgetting about the world around them. As Humphreys notes, watching sports in this way, without talking about anything except the game at hand, does not provide the bonding that children need from parents. Nor does the drinking that typically comes with it.

Bullying within sport in another common phenomenon that damages the confidence of lesser-abled children. Think about how jocks and geeks have co-existed. Sport, unlike play, is a test of the fittest, whereby difference, even if only perceived, must be eliminated. These lessons in cruelty, rather than compassion, to one another carry into adulthood and continue as long as sport is thought as “moral.”

Chapter three looks at the aspects of cheating by athletes and the judgement of fans. Fans tend to see cheating by athletes as an anomaly – bad guys who get caught and should be punished. However, as Humphreys shows, cheating is a key part of sport. The good guys who don’t cheat are the real anomaly.

Every sport has cheaters. Sprinters, baseball players and bicyclists use prohibited substances. Footballers and hockey players dive. A tennis player declines to call a ball “out”. Cheating can’t be eliminated. Worse, the honest and fair athletes are commonly chastised by teammates and fans if they hurt their own score; this incentivises dishonesty.

Just as the church claims to judge sinner from saint, sports fans sit as judges on matters of right and wrong in sport. Humphreys comments: “That sport should be associated with heightened judgementalism is hardly surprising. Sport is a theatre of exaggerated emotions, and these can be expressed in a positive or negative sense: in hero-worshipping athletes, or alternatively demonising them” (pp. 104). With instances of lavish spending, assaulting people or crude statements, it’s hard to claim that athletes should be seen as role models.

Two stadiums of worship
Two stadiums of worship

“Sports fandom is often compared to religious belief. But it would be more accurate to compare it to the wrong kind of religious belief,” (pp. 125) writes Humphreys in chapter four. Fans tend to be self-righteous about their particular team or sport, which has a tendency to lead to hatred and violence. This are the same elements found in religious belief.

One similarity, highlighted by Humphreys, between sport and religion in how both are influenced by one’s birthplace. A baby born in a predominantly Christian country by Christian parents tends to ascribe to Christianity, while a Muslim country tends to raise Muslim children. Furthermore, Christians and Muslims will each speak to the dominance of their particular belief while demeaning the others as untrue or not complete. The same follows for many sports teams. Some might worry about the Catholic Church’s move to become more involved in organised sport.

When I was growing up, the local teams found in Edmonton (Oilers for hockey and Eskimos for Canadian football) were seen by everyone as the best, while the neighbouring teams found in Calgary (Flames and Stampeders) were ridiculed at every possible opportunity. No one questioned the fact that this rivalry was little more than a difference in jersey colours, as both teams were made up of professional athletes with equal skills. Almost all team sports have this “us versus them” animosity because it is supported by the sport system to keep fans engaged. Unfortunately, this division often leads to violence as often seen in football hooliganism.

In the final two chapters, Humphreys discusses the politics of sport. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp.215).

Sport is rarely open to criticism. Across the world, from Manchester, England, to Toronto, Canada, sports teams are taking every precaution to protect their brand. They do this by controlling the media, even becoming the media by creating their own media networks.

Sports brands sell themselves as competitive, entertaining, atmospheric, sentimental, a source of happiness, and a win-win pursuit. Unfortunately, these are all lies. “World” Cups that are heavily Anglocentric and not true competitions. Examples, like Major League Baseball going to court to block fans from operating fantasy leagues because they used copyrighted statistics, highlight the fact that governing bodies in sport are not “servants of the people.” Rather than finding happiness in sport, research shows that fans experience higher-than-normal levels of stress, anxiety and hopelessness due to their strict attachment to competitive sport. We need to stop buying the delusions that sport keeps selling.

The most insidious aspect of modern sport is its use as a distraction. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky claims that sport “offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance … [and] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And, in fact, it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in – they have the most exotic information and understanding about kind of arcane issues” (pp.176). Fans use enormous energy and brainpower collecting statistics on sports, but rarely apply these analytical skills to the outside world. The world might be a better place if they did.

In the final chapter of the book, “Sport, Conflict and Prejudice,” Humphreys delves into the many hypocrisies within sport, as well as its entrenched class differences, racism and sexism. Despite what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may claim, the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany did not break down barriers of race. The 1995 Rugby World Cup did not end apartheid and bring peace to South Africa. And large-scale sports tournaments are not good for a host city’s economy. Instead, these examples show how sport institutions tend to re-write history in a more favorable light, even if it’s not true. Sport doesn’t end racism or end poverty. Most of the time, as author Simon Kuper writes, “it makes no difference whatsoever” (pp. 209).

Sport is largely about keeping the status quo. Media is controlled. Regulations are discouraged. Alcohol and tobacco are campaigned for while disregarding public health.

This is the politics of sports. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp. 215).

To me, this is Big Sport. Just as Big Tobacco and other “Big” corporate interests, sport prioritizes profits over people. This is best seen in the case of sports club owners threatening to move. In my home city, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Daryl Katz, threatened to move the hockey team to Seattle if he didn’t get a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars for a new arena. In the end, he got everything he wanted from the city and provincial government, at the expense of taxpayers and to the relief of his own pocketbook. Big Sport for the win!

In recent weeks, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become famous not just for his athleticism but also for his political protests. By sitting down, rather than standing up, for the American flag and national anthem during games, Kaepernick and others have continued the debate of widespread racism in the country, including the racism found within the sports America watches. As the AJ+ video below shows, you don’t change a racist structure simply by adding athletes of colour and stir. Sports teams have a long history of stereotyping Native Americans.

Seen as microcosms of American life, many sports leagues benefit from the labour of minority groups while being run mostly by wealthy, older, white men. Sports teams are first and foremost tools for making money, from selling TV rights to memorabilia, and not about promoting social justice. Widespread homophobia in sports also attests to this, as modern sport is based on heteronormative teaching, rooted in religious ideology.

In the era of modern sport, women have largely been excluded. In recent years, women have been able to play in female offshoots of male sports leagues. See the Ladies Professional Golf Association or the Women’s National Basketball Association. These sports leagues may be a positive space for female athletes to compete, although they will also need to address many of the issues described above. In the worst scenarios, women play Lingerie Football – the sexist creation of injury-prone competition in uniforms from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, garters included.

Any progress gained in “ladies” sports has to be measured against the colossal weight of structural sexism with sport. From American football to boxing and racing, women are seen and used as little more than sexual objects in the world of male-dominated sports world. Objects to accent a game or celebration, whether on the sideline or behind the podium. Objects wearing revealing outfits to advertise products. What worse example than the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Essentially a reason to sell advertisements between photos of topless fashion models, the magazine went over 40 years without a single female athlete on its cover!

After delving into the psychology, politics and culture of sports, Joe Humphreys remains optimistic at the end of Foul Play. Like the worst forms of religion, sport has embraced fanaticism, judgementalism and irrationality, as well as a lack of self-criticism. And like religion, sport needs to change. Channeling two religious leaders – Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, and Martin Luther King Jr., who led the American civil rights movement – Humphreys sees a future where sport is taken little less seriously than it is today. A future where athletes don’t value winning above all else. A future where spectator are obsessed. A future where the innocent of play of children isn’t lost in later years. Sport needs its own reformation!

I think anyone who is open to looking at sport, for better or for worse, would appreciate reading Foul Play.

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