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Sports as distraction? Zirin takes on Chomsky and Eagleton

Dave Zirin, whose debate with Will Leitch I wrote about recently, has a leftist take on sports, but he's a sports fan, and believes it can be redeemed.

So he's offered some pretty spirited criticisms of leftists who condemn sports as the "opiate of the people." This past June he took on British leftist Terry Eagleton, who in the Guardian suggested that football [soccer] should be abolished.

Eagleton actually gave football serious props:
If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism. And in the tussle between them, football is several light years ahead.

Modern societies deny men and women the experience of solidarity, which football provides to the point of collective delirium. Most car mechanics and shop assistants feel shut out by high culture; but once a week they bear witness to displays of sublime artistry by men for whom the word genius is sometimes no mere hype. Like a jazz band or drama company, football blends dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork, thus solving a problem over which sociologists have long agonised. Co-operation and competition are cunningly balanced. Blind loyalty and internecine rivalry gratify some of our most powerful evolutionary instincts.
Zirin's response

Zirin called Eagleton's message "an old trope for the left," suggesting sports fans are bamboozled. He continued:
We don't love sport because we are like babies suckling at the teat of constant distraction. We love it because it's exciting, interesting and at its best, rises to the level of art. Maybe Lionel Messi or Mia Hamm are actually brilliant artists who capture people's best instincts because they are inspired. By rejecting football, Eagleton also rejects what is both human and remarkable in physical feats of competition. We can stand in awe of the pyramids while understanding the slave labour and misery that comprised its construction. We can stir our soul with gospel music even while we understand that its existence owes itself to pain as much as hope. Similarly, amid the politics and pain that engulf and sometimes threaten to smother professional sport, there is also an art that can take your breath away.

But like all art, sport at its essence – what attracts us to it in the first place – holds within it a view of human potential unshackled, of what we could all be in a society that didn't grind us into dust.
Some examples

Zirin points to sports as a fulcrum for societal change:
Therefore, when we think about the black freedom struggle, our mind's eye sees Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. The story of the modern women's movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King's defeat of the male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. It explains why the Algerian football team was motivated to outplay Enlgand after watching Pontecorvo's anti-imperialist classic, The Battle of Algiers. And, of course, one of the most stirring sights of our sport in the last century: Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black-gloved podium salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Chomsky's take

In Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, one lecture (reproduced here) addresses sports.

A questioner asked:
Could you talk a bit more about the role that sports play in the society in depoliticizing people--it seems to me it's more significant than people usually assume.
"[T]here's no doubt they take up just a tremendous amount of attention," Chomsky responded.

Observing sports talk shows, Chomsky noted that callers "carry on these extremely complex discussions. And strikingly, they're not at all in awe of the experts."

He added:
Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can't get involved in them in a very serious way--so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You're trained to be obedient; you don't have an interesting job; there's no work around for you that's creative; in the cultural environment you're a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they're in the hands of the rich folk. So what's left? Well, one thing that's left is sports--so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions.

And spectator sports also have other useful functions too. For one thing, they're a great way to build up chauvinism--you start by developing these totally irrational loyalties early in life, and they translate very nicely to other areas.
Chomsky also suggested soap operas can have a similar impact, teaching passivity.

Zirin's response

In his first book, What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States (2005), Zirin responded to Chomsky's critique:
Chomsky quite correctly highlights how people use sports as a balm to protect themselves from the harsh realities of the world. He is also right that the intelligence and analysis many of us invest in sports far outstrips our dissecting of the broader world. It is truly amazing how we can be moved to fits of fury by a missed call or blown play, but remain too under-confident to raise our voices in anger when we are laid off, lose our healthcare, or suffer the slings and arrows of everyday live in the United States. The weakness in Chomsky's argument, however, is that it disregards how the very passion we invest in sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance. It can become an arena where the ideas of our society are not only presented but also challenged. just as sports can reflect the dominant ideas of our society, they can also reflect struggle. The story of the women's movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King's match against Bobby Riggs. The struggle for gay rights has to include a chapter on Martina Navratilova. When we think of the Black freedom struggle, we picture Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And, of course when remembering the movement for Black Power, we can't help but visualize one of the most stirring sights of our sports century: Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black-gloved medal-stand salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Chomsky's view also reflects a lack of understanding of why sports are, at their core, so appealing. Amid the politics and pain that engulf and sometimes threaten to smother big-time sports, there is also artistry that can take your breath away...

Sports as a whole do not represent black and white, good or bad, red state or blue state issues. Sports are neither to be defended nor vilified. Instead we need to look at sports for what they are, so we can take apart the disgusting, the beautiful, the ridiculous, and even the radical.


  1. By clicking through twice from this article you’ll get our Noticing New York take on the way that sports fans invest their “intelligence and analysis” in sports far `outstripping’ the way they could be better helping themselves and the world (and having as much competitive fun) by “dissecting of the broader world” but to get to our own piece on the subject more directly (and read why criminals are wearing Yankee garb) see the link below:

    Friday, September 24, 2010
    Sports Culture Capper: Yankees, Professional Sports and Criminals Wearing Yankee Hats

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York

    (Happy Rollerball-ing. Invictus!)


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