Adonis Diaries

De-politicizing people? Role of sports and Understanding Power

Posted on: July 17, 2014




Edited by Peter R. Mitchel and John Schoeffel,

Published by THE NEW PRESS, New York, 2002

The Footnotes to Understanding Power

WOMAN: Could you talk a bit more about the role that sports play in the society in de-politicizing people? It seems to me it’s more significant than people usually assume.

That’s an interesting one. Actually I don’t know all that much about it personally, but just looking at the phenomenon from the outside, it’s obvious that professional sports, and non-participation sports generally, play a huge role. I mean, there’s no doubt they take up just a tremendous amount of attention.

In fact, I have the habit when I’m driving of turning on these radio-calling programs, and it’s striking when you listen to the ones about sports.

They have these groups of sports reporters, or some kind of experts on a panel, and people call in and have discussions with them.

First of all, the audience obviously is devoting an enormous amount of time to it all. But the more striking fact is, the callers have a tremendous amount of expertise: they have detailed knowledge of all kinds of things, they carry on these extremely complex discussions.

And strikingly, they’re not at all in awe of the experts – which is a little unusual.

See, in most parts of the society, you’re encouraged to defer to experts: we all do it more than we should. But in this area, people don’t seem to do it – they’re quite happy to have an argument with the coach of the Boston Celtics, and tell him what he should have done, and enter into big debates with him and so on.

So the fact is that in this domain, people somehow feel quite confident, and they know a lot – there’s obviously a great deal of intelligence going into it.

Actually, it reminds me in some ways of things that you find in non-literate or non-technological cultures – what are called “primitive” cultures – where for example, you get extremely elaborate kinship systems.

Some anthropologists believe these systems have to do with incest taboos and so on, but that’s kind of unlikely, because they’re just elaborated way beyond any functional utility.

And when you look at the structure of them, they seem like a kind of mathematics. It’s as though people want to work out mathematical problems, and if they don’t have calculus and arithmetic, they work them out with other structures.

And one of the structures everybody has is relationship of kinship — so you work out your elaborate structures around that, and you develop experts, and theories, and so on.

Or another thing you sometimes find  in non-literate cultures is developments of the most extraordinary linguistic systems: often there’s tremendous sophistication about language, and people play all sorts of games with language.

So there are puberty rites where people who go through the same initiation period develop their own language that’s usually some modification of the actual language, but with quite complex mental operations differentiating it – then that’s theirs for the rest of their lives, and not other people’s.

And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don’t have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things.

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. I mean, I remember very well in high school having a sudden kind of Erlebnis, you know, a sudden insight, and asking myself, why do I care if my high school football team wins?

I don’t know anybody on the team. They don’t know me. I wouldn’t know what to say to them if I met them. Why do I care? Why do I get all excited if the football team wins and all downcast if it loses?

Anti it’s true, you do: you’re taught from childhood that you’ve got to worry about the Philadelphia Phillies, where I was. In fact, there’s apparently a psychological phenomenon of lack of self-confidence or something which affected boys of approximately my age who grew up in Philadelphia, because every sports team was always in last place, and it’s kind of a blow to your ego when that happens, people are always lording it over you.

But the point is, this sense of irrational loyalty to some sort of meaningless community is training for subordination to power, and for chauvinism.

And of course, you’re looking at gladiators, you’re looking at guys who can do things you couldn’t possibly do – like, you couldn’t pole-vault seventeen feet, or do all these crazy things these people do. But it’s a model that you’re supposed to try to emulate.

And they’re 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 and so on.

All of this stuff builds up extremely anti-social aspects of human psychology. I mean, they’re there; there’s no doubt that they’re there. But they’re emphasized, and exaggerated, and brought out by spectator sports: irrational competition, irrational loyalty to power systems, passive acquiescence to quite awful values, really.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes than this does, in addition to the fact that it just engages a lot of intelligence and keeps people away from other things.

So if you look at the whole phenomenon, it seems to me that it plays quite a substantial social role. I don’t think it’s the only thing that has this kind of effect. Soap operas, for example, do it in another domain ? they teach people other kinds of passivity and absurdity.

As a matter of fact, if you really want to do a serious media critique right across the board, these are the types of things which occupy most of the media, after all – most of it isn’t shaping the news about El Salvador for politically articulate people, it’s diverting the general population from things that really matter. So this is one respect in which the work that Ed Herman and I have done on the media is really defective – we don’t talk about it much.

But this stuff is a major part of the whole indoctrination and propaganda system, and it’s worth examining more closely. There are people who’ve written about it, Neil Postman and others – I just don’t feel enough acquaintance with it to say more.

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