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Sport and the system—whose game are we playing?

Sport offers relief and a sense of collective identity denied to us by capitalism—but bosses also use it to make profits and divide us.

Sam Ord explores the contradictions


Capitalism commercialises sport to grab profits and divide

Capitalism commercialises sport and pushes rivalry


Billions of people globally love, participate in and watch sport.

Almost half of the world’s population watched the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. And 3.57 billion tuned in to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Although these viewing numbers are huge, they’re hardly surprising. People seek the escape or temporary relief that sport can provide.

To many people sport has become a dominant part of their life, breaking up the working week. Around 14.5 million people attended a professional English league football game in 2019.

Sport offers escapism. But it also highlights physical expression and collectivity that are suppressed by the fragmentation and atomisation of capitalist society.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm put it like this. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people. The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself.”

Supporting a team or being part of a club becomes what links people together, ­regardless of class or position in society.

And competition is useful, as we keep trying to beat each other rather than unite.

Commodified

As with everything under capitalism, sport has become commodified. And because of its popularity it provides a huge market to make profits from.

This means it’s politically important to the ruling class. We consume sport provided by the industry giants who seek to suck money from us.

English Premier League teams charge up to £97 for a matchday ticket—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Merchandising, sponsorship, broadcasting, betting and so on all make sport a multi-billion pound industry.

Over the past year betting company Bet365 joint CEO Denise Coates exploited the hardships of the pandemic to grab £469 million.

Much of the revenue for the American Football league—the NFL—is generated by its television contracts. The league has signed a £81.38 billion deal with Amazon, Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN that runs until 2033.

The Super Bowl—the main event of the NFL—is plagued with advertisements.

A 30 second advertisement slot costs over £4 million.

And the marketing works—as snack food sales jumped by 10.3 ­percent to £290 million and beer sales hit £864 million for the 2019 Super Bowl. It’s easy to be dismissive of sport due to the profit hungry nature of the sporting industry.

And modern sport can easily be used for reactionary purposes.

Under the control of the ruling class, sporting events are attended by all classes.

This creates a false sense of “community”, which is often used to boost nationalism.

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It’s not unusual to see England flags flying outside houses during international competitions. The rallying behind one side creates the illusion of hometown pride or patriotism being a stronger link than class. The enemy is either another town or another nation.

And this is beneficial for the ruling classes.

Divisions between groups of workers keep attention away from the bosses and makes us easy to exploit.

Sport is centuries old, but modern organised sport as we know it today was originally developed in British public schools. Football was introduced to public schools in the 19th century, and for the first time the sport began to be codified.

Sport was used to boost rivalries firstly between different schools, then between classes. Public school teams who created the rules tried to impose them on local ­working class teams, often ending in fights.

Rivalry and competition were seen by headmasters as character building for the real world.

Pupils at these schools were educated to become leaders of the empire in order to compete with rival imperialist nations, such as France and Spain.

Regulated sport was then exported globally as a product of the empire.

Nationally based sporting events and international ­competition emerged with a rush at the end of the ­nineteenth century—and in the run-up to the First World War.

The revival of the Olympic Games came in 1896, the Tour de France in 1903, followed by the cycling race the Giro d’Italia in 1909.

Hobsbawm wrote, “British international matches pitted the nations of the British Isles against each other (in ­football: those of Britain in the 1870s, Ireland being included in the 1880s), or various parts of the British Empire (Test Matches began in 1877).

“The first international ­football match outside the British Isles confronted Austria and Hungary (1902).”

Sport strengthened valuable imperialist ties. The writer George Orwell branded it “war without weapons.”

Empire

Football across Africa and cricket in India and the Caribbean were key to win layers of the middle class to the idea of empire.

Sport was used by British military generals to create stronger, better soldiers. This idea was transported through the empire and many regiments used sport as a ­technique to recruit.

But they were also used to impose rules, as playing by Britain’s sporting rules was another way to control colonised countries.

And the ­imperialist ties remain today.

The Commonwealth Games, formerly known as the British Empire Games happen every four years.

They boost capitalist relationships with colonised countries under the guise of unity, and of pride for the remnant of the queen’s empire.

In football since the ­founding of organised teams there has been one constant—they are owned by the elite.

Mill and factory owners set up teams for workers to participate on their day off.

These teams were presented under the guise of promoting unity acting like a gift from bosses to workers.

That’s why the West Ham football club in east London has hammers on its logo—as the team was formed from ­workers at the Thames ironworks.

But the reality was different. Similarly to the Empire Games, the sport was used to encourage fitness to create stronger and better workers—and rivalry.

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Bosses used football to divide workers from different workplaces who were united by their class into pettycompetitiveness which continues today, and is central to capitalism.

Now the previous owners have been replaced with richer, more exploitative owners who similarly seek to use the sport to line their pockets.

The Berlin Summer Olympics in 1936 was used by Adolf Hitler to promote his fascist ideas of white supremacy and antisemitism. Jewish athletes were not allowed to participate in the Games.

Sexism, homophobia and police brutality was highlighted by punk group Pussy Riot at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 who claimed the event was a cover-up for human rights abuses.

The 2012 London Summer Olympics cost £11 billion despite a decade of austerity measures.

And Qatar’s ruler will look to sport-wash itself when it hosts the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Beyond the top tier established competitions and events, many people do participate and spectate on a grassroots level in local clubs and competitions.

In reaction to increasing ticket prices excluding fans from stadiums, many grassroots football teams popped up.

And a threat of a ­boycott by the Twenty’s Plenty campaign over rising away game football ticket prices resulted in prices lowered to £30 per game.

This still excludes many people and campaigners still call for a £20 cap, but it’s a significant move.

Higher

And the bigger the club, the higher the prices.

Tottenham Hotspur football club’s season ticket was an eye-watering £1,895 last season. Teams, athletes and fans are seen as a product to trade and invest in.

Capitalism will continue to use sport to its advantage.

This became clear as the ­proposed European Super League (ESL) tried to launch itself last week.

Following pressure from fans and the Premier League, all six of the founding English teams have withdrawn from the competition.

Protests targeted stadiums and training grounds attracting chants of “Scum, scum, scum, out, out, out.”

Banners read “Love for the working class game ruined by ‘gr££d’.”

Ownership by big business will inevitably lead to further commercialisation of sport.

The bigger and more popular the sport, the more profit capitalists can squeeze out from fans and participants.

For sport to have real value, capitalism has to be defeated.

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