Capitalism, Sport and Resistance

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Capitalism, Sport and Resistance

Adrian Budd

South Bank University

Introduction

In the late 1970s the non-racial sports movement in South Africa adopted the slogan, coined by Hassan Howa of the South African Cricket Board, 'no normal sport in an abnormal society'. It later became a standard defence of the sporting boycott of apartheid. That black cricketers like the West Indian Alvin Kallicharan could only compete as honourary whites rather confirmed this view, as it did that of the contributors to The Politics of Sport (1986) who sought to demolish the 'myth of autonomy' of sport from wider social and political processes.1

Sport and society are clearly connected, but the question of normal sport is not straightforward. What passes for social normality is constructed historically and within the context of dominant ideas, structures, institutions and behaviours: the normality of the capitalist mode of production, with all its irrationalities, prejudices, oppressions and exploitation, produces a sport in its own image.2 This normality is not timeless or unchanging, and capitalism's unfolding contradictions are mirrored in changes in sport. Neither is sport an expression of some natural competitive spirit imputed to all of humanity by bourgeois ideology. Nor can we see sport as an extension of play without significant qualifications: sport is too heavily laden with competition, routine, success and failure to be equated with the playful pursuit of pleasure. Against the split, unintegrated, one-sided beings that the poet and historian Schiller encountered under early capitalism, he argued that play 'makes man complete'.3 This search for a more integrated self is suggestive of why sport can occasionally become a vehicle not only for the release of pent-up frustrations but also for popular resistance to dominant values and structures. But Schiller's romantic 'sentimental enthusiasm for unrealisable ideals' offers no guide to the recovery of play: reform of capitalist sport is possible but the playful pursuit of pleasure can only be fully achieved under socialism.4

Sport and money in the headlines

Leisure time under capitalism is better described as non-work time. Away from work, whether on holiday, at the cinema, or eating out, we remain dominated by big business and the search for profit. Advertisers and sponsors have long seen the advantages of association with sport but in recent years the commercialization of sport has rarely been out of the headlines, BSkyB's £624 million take-over bid for Manchester United occupying the business, politics and comment, as well as the sports, pages. The purchase of shares in other top soccer clubs by media companies is an on-going process. As international economic competition intensifies so the processes of the centralization and concentration of capital, analyzed by Marx in Capital, create larger business units. Europe's national football leagues are now dominated by 3 or 4 clubs which, while requiring adequate competition in preparation for the money-spinning televized European tournaments, resolutely oppose the financial equalization with smaller clubs that would sustain that competition for fear of failure in Europe.

A recent article in The Observer, 'a game that's no longer a game', argued that while many sports have been enriched (in the narrowest financial sense) commercialization has a pernicious effect on clubs that once served, and were supported by, local communities, from which they are increasingly alienated. The bigger British rugby union clubs recently turned professional, jettisoning the amateur-elite ethos that had been the preserve of the rich for over a century since the professional (and working class) Rugby League split off in 1895, but many now face serious financial difficulties. Meanwhile, 'two-thirds of the football clubs outside the Premiership are effectively broke, and the gap between the game's have and have nots is "turning from gap to...
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