Spoilsport: Political Training and Distraction on the Field and in the Stands

by Andrea Kannes

I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team you know? …They have nothing to do with me, I mean, why am I cheering for my team? …It doesn’t make any sense. – Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent

In America, the government and large corporations spend a significant amount of time and money each year to support the sports industry.  There is a huge profit to be made by these endeavors.  However, for these leaders of free market capitalism, there are more than just financial benefits to be reaped from the continued success of the sports industry.  The encouragement of participation in and watching of sports can be seen as a means to distract citizens from their political powerlessness and social class as well as to train them for their competitive lives spent in submission to authority.  While these political benefits may not be as overt and direct as money in the bank, they are still very much present and powerful as citizens engage in the American sporting life.

As Noam Chomsky notes in the documentary Manufacturing Consent, there are indeed additional uses for the success of sports beyond the fact that we as humans enjoy physical play, competition, and community-building.  “If you look closely at these things,” he says, “I think, typically, they do have functions and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”  Corporate sponsorship is integral to the industry as it allows for these events to occur and for the media to cover them, which further cultivates interest (1).  Sponsorship also puts a good taste in the mouth of the viewers, as they will associate their favorite activity with a brand (2). The government provides licenses to companies and leagues for sporting events to occur and may provide subsidies or sponsorships to the sports industry in various ways.

Although on the surface kicking a ball into a net may appear to be an escape from the rat race, the whole of the sports industry can be seen as serving an agenda proliferated by large corporations and the government.  In this sense, the sports industry serves a similar purpose to what Chomsky and Edward Herman say of the mass media, “It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society” (3). When we interpret sports under this model of propaganda, we are accepting a focus on the “inequality of wealth and power” as well as the symbiotic relationships between large corporations, the mass media, and the government (4). From the World Cup to the Little League World Series, the government and companies take advantage of our love of the game.

The organizations, which are led by very wealthy members of society, have an interest in keeping things the way they are – that is, they prefer to stay wealthy (5). Wealth is not just ensured by selling soft drinks and sporting equipment to the masses, but also by influencing and shaping citizens’ thoughts and behavior.   As Adorno and Horkheimer relay in “The Concept of Enlightenment,” “The countless agencies of mass production and its culture impress standardized behavior on the individual as the only natural, decent, and rational one” (6).  Standardized behavior amongst citizens allows for ease of control for those in power.  But, how could watching the game – something so simple, something that just feels “good” – be so tainted?

According to Louis Kampf in his article “A Course on Spectator Sports,” the origin of organized competitive sports started in the United States during the boom of the industrial revolution, “By 1850 it had become a diversion for the urban masses” (7).  From the beginning, organized sports were used to occupy citizens’ time and expend energy that could otherwise be spent “causing trouble,” whether politically or otherwise, in the eyes of those in power (8).  In the Enlightened State in which we very much believe ourselves to live, “anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion” (9). Thus, sports are a way to guide the behavior of the masses into a manageable state while distracting them from thinking about things such as the quality of their live and the state of affairs in the nation.  If someone is kept otherwise occupied during the day at work and at night during his “leisure” hours, he does not have time to think about his political position and he is less likely to organize in discontent amongst others.

Theorists such as Chomsky have noticed a great deal of brainpower, focus, and creativity dedicated by citizens to fandom of professional sports teams.  People are allowed to develop a confidence-boosting sense of expertise, and they even have the ability to argue about the happenings of the games with the coaches via such venues as talk radio and the Internet.  Chomsky laments: “If only… people would do the same with their politicians, if only they’d stand up to their ‘commander-in-chief’ when he lies to them, or if they’d call their ‘leaders’ when the strategy they are using is leading to obvious failure” (10).  The presumption is that there is no time to write one’s Congressman while one is busy filling out one’s March Madness office pool.  Although there may not be a group of rich white men conspiring about the MLB while sitting somewhere high up on a hill in a swanky office, the dominant culture that has developed as a result of the capitalist economic system and this distraction is supported whole-heartedly.  In “The Culture Industry,” written by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the reader is faced with the argument that, no matter what, the monopolistic nature of our capitalist society dictates that, “all mass culture. . . is identical,”(11) which includes everything from Britney Spears selling Pepsi to Derek Jeter hitting another homerun to children playing for a church’s Little Tots Basketball League.  Adorno and Horkheimer would say that sports are just another, “sensitive instrument of social control”(12).

Having a favorite sport, sports team, or player is one of the few opinions one can have almost completely without embarrassment or reservation.  This identification with sports figures and other fans runs deep – even through social classes.  A Yankee fan could be someone watching the game from their luxury box or listening on a transistor radio in his or her mobile home, yet they both “belong” to the same community.  Awareness has shifted from one’s social class to one’s pick for the World Series.  Class consciousness loses its bearing, which is very beneficial to the wealthy (13).  Debates about sports can often become heated, but unless a fan researches the performance of every single player on every team and analyzes every team’s dynamics, there seem to be no significant differences to be found between the different teams in a league (14). However, local and state loyalties most commonly prevail, and thus there is a team provided for each citizen with whom to identify.  “The advantages and disadvantages debated by enthusiasts serve only to perpetuate the appearance of competition and choice,” say Adorno and Horkheimer when discussing the culture industry.  The same goes for sports as people are tricked into thinking they have significant choices.  Play becomes intellectualized and amusement “becomes an ideal” (15). Fans build a connection with their favorite teams and each other, thus creating intense meaning behind their sports.   This serves the very real human need for community, a need which tends – historically speaking – to be exploited by the elite.

Audiences of spectator sports serve as a commodity for advertisers to buy and sell.  The advertisers buy people’s capacity to do work by paying for commercial airtime during sporting events.  To advertise during sporting events is a safe way of reaching a large captive audience.  Sports, unlike other television and radio programming, are not controversial and thus more attractive to advertisers.  It is, in a sense, the audience’s “job” to absorb all of this content and file it away for future purchases.  In American society “there is no such thing as free time devoid of audience activity which is not preempted by other activities which are market-related” (16).  All so-called “leisure activities” such as miniature golf or watching a match at Wimbledon have turned into commercial and political activities.

The notion that one participates in the sporting life during his or her “free time” is laughable, as “free time” does not exist in society, as it stands today.  Most people are doing “work” all of the time, whether that “work” is interpreting advertisements to figure out what to buy, keeping track of the results of sporting events, or kicking a ball (17).  In a capitalist society, “free time” is supposed to be used to recharge our human batteries in preparation to go back to our “real work” the next day.  Recreation has become an important duty, and thus it is no longer “free” (18).  Similar to what Adorno and Horkheimer suggest about entertainment in “The Culture Industry,” sports are “the prolongation of work under late capitalism… sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor power process so that they can cope with it again” (19).  Sports and leisure then become tied up in the concept of instrumental rationality.

In his article, “Adorno on Sport,” William J. Morgan elaborates on the concept of instrumental rationality within.  He suggests that, “Sport is to be understood as a modern form of adjustment to bourgeois society…sport molds human beings to the machine” (20).  Playing and watching sports becomes the great equalizer in our society, serving as a “social lubricant” (21). Businesses buy large quantities of tickets as a treat for their employees and meetings are often held over golf games.  Quickly, sports become merely an imitation of the labor conducted during one’s official workday (22). When someone is not a sports fan, they are often looked down upon because they are not outwardly fulfilling their “duty” as an American renewing their capacity to labor.  By not being a sports fan they are not conforming to the standardized behavior set forward, which means their time and minds may be a little too free to think.  For those elite in capitalist power, this is a dangerous thing.  Just as anyone who is “disconnected from the mainstream, he is easily convicted of inadequacy” (23).

The financial benefits of the sports industry for the capitalist elite are significant, but it is important to note that another agenda at work is to “mass market legitimacy of the state and its strategic and tactical policies and actions, such as election of government officers, military thrusts against states which show signs of moving toward socialism” (24).  In addition to serving as a “leisurely” distraction, sports have also been described by Noam Chomsky as “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements – in fact, it’s training an irrational jingoism”(25). When he sees a crowd booing at the other team, what Chomsky actually sees are actions that all too closely resemble nationalism, which he finds to be very dangerous.  One cannot help but “recall the horrors of what nationalism or patriotism have led to in this country”(26).   Giant media corporations construct narratives within the various sports via newspapers and sports television; there are good guys and bad guys, triumphs and defeats.  Winning is patriotic.  Fans congregate behind the coaches, athletes, and teams as authority figures.   They are able to do things that regular people cannot do, and thus regular people look up to them (27). They are the physically talented heroes sent to fight for our cause – to beat “The Other Team.”

Chomsky refers to the players as, “gladiators fighting for your cause, so you’ve got to cheer them on, and you’ve got to be happy when the opposing quarterback gets carted off the field a total wreck”(28).  This type of thinking greases the wheels for the government and large corporations to employ similar tropes in situations that actually affect the country and the lives of its citizens.  It can pave the way for citizens to more easily accept the sometimes-alarming behavior of the state.  Something very powerful is tapped into when it comes to a group of people banding together in opposition to “the enemy,” and sports are a way to “arouse the desire for conquest, but they themselves cannot satisfy that desire”(29). When wars are framed in similar terms of competition, of black and white, evil and good, they are more easily justified to and digested by the people.  As William J. Morgan would add, speaking through the lens of Adorno, “The acts of greatest human violence and destructiveness have arisen not for personal aggressiveness or nastiness, but from self-transcendence in the form of seductive, mindless identification with a group” (30).

A major facilitator of this self-transcendence and identification is the discipline that sports encourage.  This discipline is both social and self-inflicted and, as Michel Foucault states, “The chief function of the disciplinary power is to train”(31).  To be a successful goalie, point guard, or shortstop, one’s body must be put through years of intense physical training.  In Discipline and Punish, Foucault suggests that the human body is an extremely political entity since, “power relations have an immediate hold upon it, they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”  The principles of discipline that Foucault speaks about in terms of prisons can be compared to the happenings on the field, for example, the soccer field: 1) Time-table for activity: the length of the halves.; 2) Temporal elaboration of the act: the set-up of the field and rules of play; 3) Correlation of the body and gesture: the maintenance of proper formation of a team running on the field and honoring of positions; 4) Body-object articulation: the position of the foot to execute different types of kicks.  Training one’s body in the name of such activities that are now wrought with societal implications becomes a political act.  Thus, the body becomes “useful” to those in power if it can run fast and score goals, but it is also useful just by being present in the stadium doing the wave – as long as that body is showing evidence of being controlled.

Another tool employed to train the behavior and thinking of citizens in the sports industry is the stadium.  Through the range of seats and ticket prices offered, stadiums also reinforce citizen’s social class.  The privileged and the less fortunate are separated in a very visual way.  Everyone is made aware of their place in society by the color and amount of cushion on their seat.  In addition to this, an eerie comparison can be made between sports stadiums and Foucault’s description of the Panopticon, a type of prison building designed in the late eighteenth century.  The Panopticon design consists of a supervisor located in a tower in the center while the “periphery building is divided into cells” which surround the tower (32).  An average sports stadium has a similar design: spectators’ seats in a circular arrangement facing the middle.  In the case of the modern sports stadium, the infamous Jumbotron serves as the central tower.  In both designs, the spectators and inmates are never sure if they are being observed, which regulates behavior.  This is also the case in a stadium, where everyone is simultaneously watching each other, while wondering if they are being watched themselves – “each inmate is perfectly individualized and constantly visible” in a certain sense (33).  This concept applies to the players on the field as well.  Since “visibility is a trap,” one must obey the social order, they must “act normal” according to the protocol of the particular sporting event.  At a Yankees game, one never knows if their face will appear on the big screen.  When this does happen, the perpetrator’s try to act appropriately, whatever that means to them during that particular moment.  This induces in the spectators and players “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (34).  Constant unverifiable visibility coupled with the presence of armed guards – also known as umpires and referees, etc. – even further solidifies the comparison between two seemingly very different spaces.

Through various discussions with friends and family, I have found out that the concepts posed in this paper are quite controversial.  This is most likely because participation in the sporting life – both playing and viewing – is of great personal value to a high percentage of American society.  For many, sports are intertwined with our memories of childhood, our family life, friendships, and personal achievements.  Physical exercise feels good and helps us stay healthy.  As humans, we cannot deny that pleasure exists in disciplining one’s self physically, which is a prevalent aspect of playing sports (35).  A certain form of pleasure, plaisir, occurs during sports playing and watching.  It is a term that was coined by Roland Barthes and mentioned in John Fiske’s article, “Productive Pleasures.”  Plaisir refers to pleasure that is “socially produced, its roots lie within dominant ideology; it is concerned with social identity, with recognition” (36).  There are many benefits to being a part of a team or group.  It is easy for someone to feel a sense of purpose when gathering around a common purpose of play, especially when the skills required of individuals fielding different positions is so highly valued.

Since the players are together so often, teams can provide family-like support and validation.  Sports teams are also a way for children to learn how to work with different personalities towards a common goal.   Rooting for your team from the bleachers with thousands of other fans during a big championship can be a moving experience.  Watching sports in groups has the potential to aid in the formation of support networks and serve as a common denominator for bonding across generations (37).  Although it does appear that large corporations and the government have much to gain from the audience of the sports industry being distracted, exploited and politically “trained,” this does not mean most sports fans are completely mindless.   There are many American intellectuals who find the time to stay politically active while maintaining an interest in The Big Game of their choice.