Tuesday 2 March 2010

Big Bad Sport

A formal definition of sport would be the voluntary pursuit of meaningless objectives by inefficient means involving some level of physical exertion. What's the point of it? Nothing, and that's why, in the normal sense, participating can be fun. It's vaguely healthy; sociable; the exercise produces some physiological pleasure; and one can derive some mental satisfaction from minor achievements within its self-imposed discipline. Plus everyone gets to enjoy those benefits since it doesn't matter much who wins or loses (the goals are deliberately silly).

That's normal sports, like you did when you were a kid. But Big Sport is quite different from your Saturday morning junior soccer league - it's on TV, with Big Money and Big Fame riding on it, and even sometimes the pride or shame of nations! Big Sport pretty much reverses all the good things about normal sport. It's not healthy - the competitors compete to annihilate their bodies and their future health, while the spectators guzzle beer and chicken wings. The sociability is quite different, since it often takes on a tribalist tone - 'We're not here to enjoy the game. We're here to watch our team beat that one into the dust'.

Most significantly Big Sport is bad for morals, mainly because when Big Prizes are involved, the fact of winning starts to seem much more important than winning in the right way (according to all those annoying rules). While previously all players could expect to benefit from participating (i.e. it produced surplus value), this transforms the game into a zero-sum competition in which the value is introduced from outside, in limited quantities, and distributed only to the winner (the rest are losers). In addition, external Big Prizes induce players to engage in gamesmanship, crowding out the ethics and norms of fairness and sportsmanship that made participating fun in favour of strategies that maximise victory by any effective means. (Something similar happens in Big Business.) Those silly rules are quickly forgotten, judging from the massive and sophisticated use of pharmacological performance aids and the standards of 'sportsmanship' on display. The Big Sport authorities, with their own vested interests, often seem to assume the ostrich position in their search for such rule-breakers, apparently caring more about their Big Reputation and future revenues than the young lives being chewed up and spat out. Big Sport is not character building but character destroying.

Big Sport has no reason for being, except as shallow reality TV level entertainment - and this shows in the painful vacuity of Big Sport Talk. Have you noticed how nearly all the 'analysis' revolves around the 'will to win'? It's so stupid it hurts to listen to!
Sport Reporter: Are you disappointed that you didn't win?
Athlete: Yes.
SR: So, what went wrong? The other side was very strong. It was clear they wanted this victory very badly.
A: The other side played a strong game, and we had some problems - we just didn't believe we could do it.
SR: What will you do next time?
A: We have to focus all out on what we want and do all it takes. We're going to go in there believing in ourselves as champions.
Such exchanges also reveal the bizarre theological underpinnings of Big Sport: the portentous seriousness with which it takes itself could have been taken directly from medieval trial-by-combat. Winning is given a moral weight and meaning to cover up the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise; its tendencies to the moral corruption of organisers, participants and spectators; and the awful sacrifice it requires from its participants. That means that when 2 teams compete, the winner is not just the team that did best within a set of arbitrary rules, but actually superior in some wider moral sense, or else God wouldn't have let you win.

Unfortunately the moralisation of Big Sport, in addition to its Big Prizes and Big Responsibility, does not bring out the best in competitors or fans. As is so common in moral discourse everywhere, people who fail morally often try to displace the blame onto everything but themselves - injuries, spectators, umpires, cheating by the other side, the colour of their uniforms (!), etc. While when they win they are happy to take full responsibility.

Big Sport clearly has its attractions for an awful lot of people, but closer scrutiny would reveal that these are rather disreputable ones hard to be proud of: vicarious thrills, tribalist sense of belonging, etc - stuff we have in common with the other gregarious ape species. Instead, all too often, talk about Big Sport tries to pretend that it is something it isn't and provides us with any number of grandiose but incoherent pictures: the domain of heroes fighting for national honour; a catwalk for virtuous characters to parade as role-models for our children; a school of self-discipline; international understanding and peace; an economic booster; feel-good factor; or whatever. None of them hold up.