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Spectator Sports: What the Left Can Learn from Them

Sports fulfills emotional needs for people that those advocating social change can not afford to dismiss and that any mass social movement will have to satisfy if it is to succeed.
Micah Holmquist

Issue #51, October 2000

Earlier this year in the Atlantic Monthly, Tom Wolfe correctly pointed out that few Americans gloat about their country's perceived economic, military, and political dominance. Ever the self-conceived iconoclast, Wolfe scorns this fact. But he need only look to the Olympics for optimism. Every two years the Olympics dispels the false modesty that prevents U.S. citizens from obsessively bragging about their country's ability to dominate the world. When it comes to athletes winning medals for the Fatherland, unadulterated nationalism is the MO. A glut of t-shirts and advertisements featuring Old Glory and US Olympic champions will have already been published and sold by the time this article appears in Bad Subjects.

Rarely do Americans come together to form such a unified patriotic majority as we do during the Olympics. Another example of such patriotic spirit from the past ten years is the Gulf War. As Jim Castonguay argues in "The Gulf War TV Super Bowl", the Gulf War was partially promoted through an appeal to athleticism. But it is not just national pride — spirit, that is — which athletics promotes. Sports also promote city, state, and school pride. A governor or a mayor will publicly brag about the superiority of her or his district's team(s) to antagonize a peer from another district; however, similar boasting about a city's booming economy to a colleague whose district faces hard times would be considered beyond the pale of good taste. High schools have pep rallies for athletes but rarely for academics. It goes without saying that save for a few exceptions it is athletic victories, not great libraries or scientific breakthroughs, that sell a college's reputation and its merchandise.

As these examples illustrate, sports is a powerful "location" for fostering collective identity. Sports have certainly been more successful in creating a sense of collective identity in recent years than the left has with its themes of class, gender, race, and sex. Why? What are the implications of the popularity of sports? Is there anything progressive about the identity molded by these games? This essay will look at these questions and will argue that sports strongly encourage, if not demand, compliance with the status quo. Sports fandom is thus, at its best, a neutral phenomenon and more often than not a force discouraging social change. At the same time, however, sports fulfills emotional needs for people that those advocating social change can not afford to dismiss and that any mass social movement will have to satisfy if it is to succeed. My own story, as I will detail later, is proof of that.

Go, Team:
An Irrational but Understandable Impulse

There is a wealth of data regarding how the fate of a team can influence that team's fans. The New York Times reported this past January on a study by psychologists Paul Bernhardt and James M. Dabbs which quantified a chemical response in male sports fans that correlated with the fate of the teams they care about. Regardless of whether the fan is watching the game in person or on television, Bernhardt reports that "fans of winning teams [experience] testosterone increases, and for fans of losing teams the testosterone level dropped." These hormonal changes can be as high as 20 percent, while changes in spectators without a commitment to a particular team were statistically insignificant. Although the evidence was not as persuasive, researchers believe that a similar phenomenon also occurs among women. A 1997 study at the University of Florida on both female and male sports fans found that the brain activity of many of these fans changes when they are watching the Florida Gators play. These changes were often so dramatic that the fan had great difficulty thinking about anything else while the team was playing. There are also numerous studies showing that a fans' outlook on life is tied to their favorite team's wins or losses.

As strange as all of this probably seems to people who have never cared much about sports, many fans — including me — can recognize themselves in the studies. There is a special feeling that occurs after our team wins a big game. While we don't always despair if they lose, it is sometimes hard to imagine enjoying an evening if they lost earlier in the day. We feel like better people after our favorite team has won, while a loss prompts us to question our self-worth and value as people. None of this is necessarily healthy or rational. It is a path fraught with pain when people measure themselves based on something like sports, a thing that they can't control or influence in any significant way. Furthermore, more often than not fans see their favorite teams end most seasons on something less than a championship note. In other words, it would seem like sports fans would have plenty of reason to abandon this pursuit in favor of something that brought joy on a more regular basis or at least less disappointment.

Yet, many don't. For several years I have considered it a mistake to care about sports with the passion I do. More than once — usually after a frustrating loss that prevented one of my teams from achieving "greatness" — I have vowed to give up my fandom, but never do. My life would probably improve if I took the energy that I devote to sports and redirected it towards such things as relationships, music and the arts, or political and social issues. It is my belief that I don't do this because I don't want to give up on the possibility of a world as simple as sports. Also, sports provides for the illusion of community with other fans.

The only sure way to win a football game is to score more points than the other team. This old joke gets at the heart of why sports is so attractive. Unlike just about everything else in life, the point of sports is understood by all and doesn't require a bit of introspection. The point is to win, and while there might be many ways to finish the race first or score more points or goals or runs, the ultimate goal is very easy to understand and quantify. Living a successful life is far more difficult. First a person has to decide what they think being successful means and then they have to figure out a plan for how to get there. If an individual decides to focus their idea of success around an abstract goal, like caring about others and having people care about them, there are few easy blueprints for how to reach such a goal. Even with more concrete goals like freedom from material wants, there is no guarantee that any plan will accomplish it. In addition, in life you can never be positive that you will be happy once you have accomplished your goal. You could discover, as many people do, that your vision of success is not everything it was cracked up to be.

manual Matters outside of the personal realm are no easier to figure out. Nobody has figured out a step-by-step guide for enacting political change, and even the outcomes of wars are ultimately unpredictable. The Vietnamese did not defeat the U.S. several decades ago because they won more battles or inflicted more damages or causalities. Rather Vietnam won, to use the terminology of sports, by default because the more militarily powerful U.S. couldn't adapt to local rules of play, decided it didn't want to play anymore, and went home pouting.

Equally telling is how fans regularly project their own values and beliefs onto their favorite teams. Michigan, my home state, has a long history of producing supposedly blue collar teams that represent the state's working class heritage. The most recent example is Michigan State University's men's basketball team who won the 2000 NCAA basketball tournament. The team was known for playing a rough and tumble game that didn't always look pretty but got the job done. The coach, Tom Izzo, hailed from an Upper Peninsula mining town and several high profile players came from the decidedly blue collar Flint. The fact that player Mateen Cleaves has a mother who is an active member of the United Auto Workers further bolstered the team's working class reputation. The MSU players embraced this reputation, and several of them compared the team to factory workers who work hard and earn everything they get.

While the team certainly has a gritty style, this logic can be taken too far. Before the NCAA final between MSU and Florida, an ESPN analyst answered questions about whether MSU would be able to hold up against Florida, a team that was thought to have a more sophisticated playing strategy. The analyst prophesied that there would be no giving up on MSU because the players had grown up playing basketball on concrete ground in Flint. The MSU fans in the audience cheered wildly when they heard this but was there any logic to the statement? Whatever else might be true of Flint, the city actually does have hardwood basketball courts, just as cities in Florida have basketball courts built on concrete and not surrounded by walls. However thin the blue-collar identity of a team may be, it is easy to embrace a team that is supposed to win by the "sweat of their brow." Taken figuratively, this is the only way that the vast majority of sports fans ever achieve success. And just as we want to believe that life can be as simple as sports, we want to believe that we can be successful at life.

Sports can also provide an intense sense of community. Fans of a particular team will often wave to or greet a complete stranger because the stranger is wearing the insignia of "their" team. Also sports is a common currency of casual conversation for many people in the U.S., especially men. A mutual desire to see a team emerge victorious may not be enough to build a friendship, but it is a good start and provides the basis for many casual interactions.

Sports can unite entire cities and states. For instance, when a team is successful, its home community often gets "[insert team name] fever." This common interest allows people to feel more connected with one another. The 1968 Detroit Tigers are one concrete example of this phenomenon. In 1967 there had been a rebellion in the city and tensions between blacks and whites were still running quite high in 1968. Yet there were no major riots in the city that year, and more than one journalist commented that the city's love for the Detroit Tigers was the reason. Accounts of this period suggest that when a game was being played, it was impossible to walk down a block of Detroit without hearing the game's broadcast on at least one radio. It may be too much to say that the Tigers kept the city from exploding, but the general consensus is that they certainly helped. It's irrelevant that the unity between people being fostered by "Pennant Fever" was a false unity. Whatever material contradictions may work to create conflict in society, the empowered majority will work hard to avoid that conflict, and sports can serve as a valuable tool for preserving unity.

A Left Critique of Sports Fandom

A central problem with sports is that they're not likely to lead to any sort of movement for social change. Although sports encourage community among fans, they also lead to divisions among people. Moreover the idea of systematic change is incompatible with the ideology of sports. As discussed above, sports give fans a sense of community with other fans. This "community" may be mostly an illusion, but to whatever extent it is true, it bears mentioning that sports divide at least as much as they unite. What hope is there for internationalism as a guiding political principle amongst workers in the U.S. if working class fans of the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees see each other as being on different sides of athletic barricades?

It is revealing that in some of the most prominent cases where sports have developed political meaning, the central athletes are generally from oppressed segments of society. Mohammed Ali is associated with radical politics more than just about any other athlete in U.S. history. It is not at all controversial to say that Ali is a great representative of the struggle against racism. However, Mike Marquesee's 1999 book Redemption Song: Mohammed Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties and a recent Home Box Office television special persuasively argue that his stature in this regard is not as justified as many believe. It was hardly fair or accurate for the great pugilist to label rivals Sonny Liston as the "white man's champion" and Joe Frazier as an "Uncle Tom".

Liston and Frazier were both black and, unlike Ali, came from very poor backgrounds. Neither was as outspoken as Ali but they weren't silent on social issues either. Frazier was both vocally and financially supportive of Ali's career after he refused military induction. Even if this had not been the case, it is worth pondering whether the victory of one African American boxer over another actually had any relevance to the freedom struggles of the period. A number of prominent black radicals including Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X wrote about how they perceived the limits of Ali's ability to represent the fight against oppression. Cleaver noted the problem of Ali fighting other African Americans in his seminal work Soul on Ice. Ali's refusal to fight against the Vietnamese because "they never called me nigger" remains an unmitigated and inspiring example of resistance to imperialism, but it did not directly involve an athletic contest. When it came to athletic contests, exaggeration and simplification were always needed to justify Ali as a "freedom fighter."

A similar dynamic of simplification was at work last year when the U.S. Women's soccer team won the World Cup. Lost in all the hype about how this was a victory for women against sexism was the fact that a team made up of women was guaranteed to come out on top. The team's success was only a victory against sexism to the extent that women are defined as 'women living in the U.S.,' or if you believe the ludicrous notion that a U.S. victory somehow undermines patriarchy. It is not ridiculous to think that the media worked harder to present this team, as opposed to any other contemporary athletes, as representing progressive values.

the crowd

The U.S. media have demonstrated that they will only value female athletic skills to the extent that they support the idea that this nation is the greatest in the world. David Letterman might be a perfect example of this, as after the U.S. team beat China, he ranted in a semi-serious manner about how these women had scored a victory for the country against "communist China." Both the U.S. women's soccer team and Mohammed Ali have been framed in the public eye as being uniting forces around progressive values. But the truth is that they weren't fighting with fellow athletes to put an end to oppression, but were fighting against them to win an athletic prize. Sports' tenuous relationship to actual social change has a long history. After all, plebeians in ancient Rome were forced to fight against one another — the games of death were hardly an insurrectionary force on their own.

Furthermore, the logic of sports is incongruous with social change. This might seem obvious because sports are presumably passive pastimes for the vast majority of people involved — the fans. How could an activity such as watching television do much to inspire activism when the programs in question are on the surface passively apolitical? The weakness of this line of thinking is that the medical and psychological studies discussed earlier show that following a team is not a passive activity for many fans. Fans might not be athletes, but just as disciplines such as music and literature can excite their consumers, sports can occupy an important role in the lives of people who never set foot on the playing field.

What sports do do is encourage people to think within the rules. Few sports stories are more compelling than the future fate of a team that falls just short of winning the championship one year, but vows to come back and win it the next. Will they complete their mission? Did last year's loss teach them what it takes to win it all? Will they fulfill their dream, or are they destined to always be second best? Sports writers have filled countless lines of copy answering questions like these by admonishing the team to work harder. This narrow reasoning might be fine for athletes with tremendous physical talents. But when applied to people in general, this advice only supports the idea that those with the most — be it power, money, or what not — deserve everything that they have and those with less deserve their fate as well.

This way of thinking is a justification for the rules of unrestrained capitalism and all of the inequalities that go with it. Those who struggle for a more just world cannot, by definition, accept such ideas. This is because activists must convince people that fighting injustice sometimes necessitates breaking laws or fighting against them. The sports mentality says work harder if you want to succeed and do not break the rules. But the left needs to say that it is not enough to work harder within rules that have been skewed to benefit a small minority of the population. This does not mean that we should attack organized sports, but it does mean that sports analogies fail to easily translate to the larger world of social and political change.

What the Left and Sports Share

Despite their many differences, sports and the left, specifically activism based on leftist politics, have one great commonality. Both can give meaning and direction to the lives of people in search of such. The late Andrew Kopkind's superb collection The Thirty Years' Wars: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist 1965-1994 contains many examples of how social movements played a positive role in the lives of those involved in them, including Kopkind himself. The mere fact of participation in political protest can be a positive and helpful part of a person's life as last year's anti-WTO protests show. Numerous activists described that they felt, to use a traditionally liberal term, empowered by what happened. Writing in Counterpunch, Jeffrey St. Clair reported the feeling of many by saying, "there was an optimism and energy and camaraderie on the streets of Seattle that I hadn't felt in a long time."

My own life documents how activism can do this. An upsurge in student activism at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor last winter was instrumental in snapping me out of a period of depression. For the preceding fifteen months or so, I had seen little reason to continue living. There were times when I talked myself out of suicide because killing myself would have meant never getting to see my favorite teams play again. The players were that real and inspiring a force in my life. But at the same time, such motivation wasn't actually about me succeeding in life or having a reason for living.

But my mood changed dramatically in February as struggles heated up against institutionalized racism and the inhumane conditions in the factories that produce Michigan apparel. When participating in political action, I awoke each morning with a sense of purpose and direction. Working both as an activist and radical journalist, I no longer felt alienated from the people I interacted with on a daily basis and that was true regardless of whether they were activists or not. I felt connected to not only the people who were present in my life but also to people around the globe who were struggling for a just world. Sports is one of the few other outlets that has ever made me feel similarly linked to people that I did not know and probably never will. Sports have made me feel that way more consistently than anything else. Occupying a dean's office did not give me exactly the same charge that I get from watching a beloved team, but the similarities were far greater than the differences.

In preparing this essay, I stumbled across Annalee Newitz's "Inventing A Socialist Therapeutic: Recovery Culture and Utopia". In it, she argues that the left needs to create its own culture of therapy, one that does not expect people to work through all of their own problems without considering how the economic, political, and social structures of society exacerbated or are even to blame for those problems. While there is much to be said for creating such a paradigm of therapy, the experiences of many people, including myself, show that, for now, simply putting radical politics into practice can be therapy enough.

Micah Holmquist is busily completing an undergraduate degree in History at the University of Michigan. After graduation, he hopes to spend more time writing, reading, listening to music, and enjoying fine sodas while not watching sports.

Copyright © 2000 by Micah Holmquist. All rights reserved.