What Sports Are For

If you see this and think it’s about you, don’t take it personally. Talk to me about it. Post a comment. Think about it and see if you can see my side of things, mind you.

I’ve just added a quote to my quotes file, but I’m sure it will run through my mind at the office when I hear people talk for hours and hours about the basketball season now in progress. Something to think about:

…[Sports] offers people to pay attention to, that’s of no importance… that keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives, that they might have some idea of doing something about… but the point is, it does make senseL it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements… and you know, in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.

(Noam Chomsky, in the documentary Manufacturing Consent)

Chomsky’s not the only one who thinks so, of course. Many Koreans have frustratedly discussed these things with me in terms of how the Korean pro-baseball league was created in the hope of reducing domestic resistance to the dictatorship of the time.

I can’t generalize, but I do find it interesting that as Iraq is basically an unbelievable mess, it’s mainly Americans who are discussing, without end… basketball games. It makes me a little sad, even more because I don’t think they support the actions of Bush at all! Still, I’d say most of the conversations on these issues I’ve had involved Canadians, Australians, and just about anyone except Americans. No kidding, the conversation seems to be only about basketball, and not just in brief but in continuous and deep detail.

I don’t suggest they (Americans or anyone) should talk about Iraq-Iraq-IRAQ, but it does sadden me the amount of energy that goes into knowing the names of various adult men paid unimaginable sums of money to play with bouncy balls. I know that music and literature aren’t always political all the time, but unlike sports they do sometimes—or even often—touch upon politics. Unlike sports, these things CAN touch on politics.

4 thoughts on “What Sports Are For

  1. Gut reaction: “Of no importance…” compared to what? Politics, obviously, and although we self-proclaimed intellectual sorts often despair at the apathy of the masses, I wouldn’t want to live in a society of Choamsky-esque wonks either. The argument as presented by the blurb seems to say little except, “People not like me [Noam Choamsky] are idiots.” Many are, of course, but living a life of perpetual political disconent — particularly if it isn’t your natural vocation — is also pretty damn stupid.

    Sports can teach certain irrational behaviors, but it’s not as though you can find a pursuit in life that doesn’t. If one were to diagnose problems with sports I would start with the creep of professional “show-biz” egotism into all levels of competition, including that of children. I would want to observe that there is a valuable amateur ideal that can be taught through sports which can be of benefit to lots of people (not to mention inherent value of getting exercise, making friends, and so on). Pro sports doesn’t have to destroy these ideals, but it tends to under certain circumstances.

    Here’s the real question. Suppose you get what you want politically. What are you going to do then to put joy into your life? Do you like running and jumping and playing with bouncy balls? Who the fuck is Chomsky to tell you not to do it? Who the fuck is he to tell you to refuse to do it, or to watch others do it, until the perfect political ideal comes into being?

    Since when does the ability to touch on politics make a thing valuable?

    By all means criticize American obsession with the basketball finals while Nero fiddles in DC, but blaming this trait on sports as such is just silly.

  2. Well, Marvin, I’d respond with two things (given I’m pressed for time now, that’s about all I willbe able to handle: we have a gig in a couple of hours, somewhere over by Hong Ik University, and another tonight at a club).

    Anyway, the two things:

    1. I think Chomsky isn’t against people *playing sports*: when he talks about how it’s training in jingoism and it *doesn’t matter*, he’s talking about the whole industry and cultural instution that sanctifies an obsession with sports. People spend tremendous amounts of mental energy and money to keep up with sports. It used to be in wartime that someone getting into a cab might ask, “Has there been any news from the front?” but now is seems so many people only want to know who’s winning in “The Game.” The fact that “The Game” is such an institution that any male is expected to know the outcome of “The Game” without even the specification of a team or time of play, shows how much of an embedded institution it is. (I know from experience that this *is* an expectation: people so very often look at me funny for not knowing The Score of The Game.) I think there’s something to the argument that if you mark time by games and if the score of your favorite team is the first thing you check when you log online or open the paper, you’re much less likely to be poltically aware, or for that matter to value political awareness. It’s a distractive industry, and going by what I heard some people say, as a business it’s also a monopolist industry. The roots are certainly not in the government, but the fostering of it as a distractive industry is definitely something the government would do, isn’t it? Why hasn’t there been any move to break up the pro sports monopolies in America, otherwise?

    2. Nobody lives a life of continual political dissent. But cultivating awareness of what news is pretty much suppressed, and working to develop one’s critical thinking, seems to me a prerequisite for a happy life… without that, one cannot be truly happy. One can have the semblance of happiness offered to us by big media and government and corporations, but that thing’s pretty much a sham, isn’t it?

    Just my thoughts. I don’t think Chomsky’s always right, but I do think he’s right about this… or, perhaps, his comments do validly apply to the situation I’m describing.

  3. First, I’m sorry for using the F-word. That was excessive. But from the quote you give, and your analysis of it, I don’t really get the sense your comment is trying to put across. Yes, I know you’re talking about major-league sports obsession when you complain of American obsession with the basketball finals, but when you compare sports as a category to music and literature and use political awareness as a touchstone of value as such, you’re going way beyond criticizing the big-time sports industry.

    The typical defense of sports given by enthusiasts, aside from the fact that they’re fun, is that they “build character” and teach good values. Sports as indoctrination is a theme that carries all the way down to pee-wee football, soccer, and T-ball. The defense is correct in a general way, but of course it depends largely on who does the teaching or coaching and how. And it seems to me that the absolute nature of the Chomsky quote and your analysis points to a condemnation of the entire field of endeavor, not just to mass-market sports, because without context or nuance it could just as easily apply to Little League as to the LA Lakers.

    Maybe this should be an NSA topic? The truth is that I generally admire Chomsky’s analysis of mass media and politics too, but I also think that blanket condemnations like the one you quote tend to undermine rather than strengthen his case. The “sports are weapons of mass distraction” meme has become a leftist cliche that might stand some scrutiny.

  4. Marvin,

    No worries about using the F-word. I really don’t mind, I don’t even find it offensive when it’s in context in a strong argument.

    One of the things I realized is that my criticism of big-league sports focused on the passive audiences, whereas my discussion of music kind of assumed a more intelligent audience.

    Let me say now that being “obsessed” with anything is probably a bad thing, and distractive from the balance of things that a person needs to lead a happy life. This is true of sport, arts, and even politics.

    I think there’s a difference between a child who goes through little-league sports and a child who does all kinds of other marginal activities, though. If you take flute lessons all through childhood, you’re likely neither to believe that you’re gonna be a “flute star” someday, nor are you likely to be, every year, so obsessed with flute performances that you stop paying attention to any other media. There isn’t a major flute performance consumption-industry toward which you’re being pushed, and there also isn’t a real industry to provide you with flute stuff as a kid, either. Music lessons often tend to be a balanced part of other things in childhood, things like books and computers which parents provide for their children in order to help them in the life of the mind.

    And there are all kinds of sports that kids play that are also like this. My sister played girls’ soccer, which is a rather peripheral sport in North America. She played rugby, and she (along with my other sister and I) learned judo. Yes, there are girls’ nationals soccer playoffs, there are national (and international) judo competitions, and all of that. But these are all quite peripheral sports. There’s not a major consumer industry linked to them (in North America). Boys who play lacrosse or volleyball in high school aren’t any different from boys in school who play the saxophone or the cello, in my experience.

    Meanwhile, boys who played football were usually organized into a clique, an extremely exclusive one and one that tended to specialize in offensive behaviour towards almost everyone else. The same was true of the hockey boys in my school, and to a lesser extent, to kids who played basketball. The track atheletes, though, were generally normal people. They went to the track meets, ran and threw the shot puts, and then came back to school like normal people. Hell, my best friend in high school was a sprinter and I didn’t even know it until he told me he was going to miss school one day for a track meet.

    Granted, my high school was a ridiculously jock-filled, and clique-ish school. Even teachers took sides on the jock divide. So in my experience, it seems like playing those sports which are lauded and praised most openly tend not to build character at all. They tend to build aggressiveness, to exacerbate the basic human tendency toward tribalism, and to make little tyrants out of the kids most successful at fitting into the social world of the sports team. It also doesn’t surprise me that those kids who excelled in sports seemed to ride through school on the strength of their jock status and finish high school with grades so poor that they routinely did an extra year of “upgrading” after graduation in order to scrape together grades high enough to warrant entry into university without a major declared (because the grade requirements were lower that way), or in the Education department (perhaps in hopes of becoming gym teachers, but likely also because at my university the admission requirements for education were among the lowest in the school).

    Does all of this indict sports? Not really. After all, it’s only my experience, and doubtless my experience was colored by the fact that it was the worst high school athletes with whom I had dealings. Doubtless there were football team members who were excellent students as well, and decently behaved on top of that. And doubtless, in addition, media colored my perceptions… movies endless invoke the jocks vs. nerds formula, and there’s no doubt on which side of the divide I would find myself.

    But I think there is something to the idea that the massively proliferated kids’-sports industries do in some way teach kids to love those sports on television so much that everything goes on hold for a while during major championships. I don’t think that major-league sports as an industry requires it. But I do think there’s a major difference between kids playing stickball in the street and then watching ball on TV, and kids getting all the equipment and then going to the mini-diamond and having mom and dad watch and cheer over a real “game” that they’re playing in, and I think the difference is maybe the way in which the “organized” pee-wee leagues are an imitation of the adults’ leagues, imposed by the adults.

    This is something I’ve been thinking about since I read some Roland Barthes this weekend. I’d finished marking my students’ essays and decided to do a little reading while we drove to Seoul. Well, the Barthes book I was reading was a translation of his Mythologies, and in it one of his short essays is a disussion of French childrens’ toys. He found that all of them with the exception of a precious few (such as blocks) were an imposition of imitations of adult French life. (This is probably true of most North American toys too.) Now, toys have long been imitative of adult life, in some ways. Dolls mimic the attributes of humans, and toy animals mimic (sometimes only in caricature) real animals, right?

    But the problem is that there is no impetus for creativity, no control over the “situation” of play for the children. Playing stickball in the street, kids have to argue about whether a ball is foul or not; there are rules to the game, but there is also negotiation, and social learning would go on. Younger kids, when playing with blocks or cars or playing some kind of weird basketball-esque shooting game they’ve made up themselves, have to decide on the rules and agreements that are part of the game together. Sometimes this involves active negotiation, sometimes fighting, but usually there is not an adult stepping in and saying, “This is the rule for this situation.” In this way, I think playing a lot of organized sports does tend to imprint on children a sense that (a) authorities should be deferred to (and with it, that rules can be broken if one is not caught by the authority in question), and (b) in the face of that, bonding with one’s team is something that must be exclusive, in defense against hostile forces from outside who want to cause shame (defeat).

    I therefore wouldn’t equate Little League with the L.A. Lakers but I would say they are part of the same system which tacitly, perhaps not on purpose, causes people to pay a lot of attention to something “unimportant to their lives”, where they *might* (MIGHT!) otherwise be paying attention to things that are important to their lives.

    Finally, in defense of the quote, I did also leave out some of it (a reminiscence about Chomsky, in high school, asking himself why the hell he found himself cheering for his school’s team when of course it had nothing at all to do with him personally). There was probably even more context in the original quotation but the editors of the documentary may have made up for that with visual context—shots of a major sports stadium took up the screen when this quote was edited in.

    In any case, I think that, Leftist Cliche or not, the idea of sports as “Weapons of Mass Distraction” is one that has, in other countries, been demonstrated as quite feasible and successful. Most of the intelligent Koreans I know with whom I’ve had discussions of politics have told me about the way baseball leagues were instituted by the government specifically for that purpose. And a couple of summers ago, the World Cup here demonstrated the same… the accidental death of two girls under an American tank drew many protests… but despite the fact the deaths occurred during World Cup, there was practically no reaction or outcry until a while after the soccer tournament was finished. Politics—both in the minds of most people, even those who were later quite angry about the accident, and in most of the media (perhaps excluding Korean-language newspapers, which I didn’t look at during the World Cup tournament—were quite literally something that had to wait till the soccer games finished.

    Anyway, this could easily be an NSA topic, but it’ll have to wait till after my trip.

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