Sunday, February 4, 2018

Superbowl Sunday

Instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern cult of sport arose. Most of the games we now play are of ancient origin, but sport does not seem to have been taken very seriously between Roman times and the nineteenth century. Even in the English public schools the games cult did not start till the later part of the last century. Dr Arnold, generally regarded as the founder of the modern public school, looked on games as simply a waste of time. Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.  (George Orwell, "The Sporting Spirit," 1945)
That great holiday of our capitalist entertainment culture, Super Bowl Sunday (which used to be in January but has since migrated to February) has arrived. Its ritualistic over-the-top observance will undoubtedly dominate the media, (even without the more recent innovation of a presidential interview). It is, after all, a very big business. 

The first "Superbowl" was played on January 15, 1967. I remember the day.  At the time I payed no attention at all to the game itself, but I can remember lots of other people doing so. If I had had the words of Orwell's memorable essay on the tip of my tongue then, I would perhaps have expressed them They seem, if anything, more pointedly relevant now than they were even then or when Orwell himself first wrote them.

Growing up, I was more or less compelled to attend Baseball games at Yankee Stadium. Looking back at the experience, I think my main recollection would be boredom. But that was baseball, after all.  In my first year of graduate school, I and some of my classmates went to a football game - the Princeton-Harvard Game - mainly to enjoy (or at least experience ) the spectacle and soak in some Ivy League sensibility. Having enjoyed some Lower Manhattan Ticker Tape Parades for World Series winners, I can certainly appreciate the sense of civic pride some people take in their local teams' victories - especially when the things which we probably really ought to be taking civic pride in seem so much less so! Still, as pseudo-religions go the modern cult of competitive sports, seems rather more, not less, problematic all the time. 

If Orwell focused mainly on the moral costs connected with the cult of competitive sports, more recent attention has highlighted the physical costs associated especially with football. 

If competitive sports (football most especially) do physical and moral damage in the first place to their participants, what more pervasive moral damage must they do in and to a culture that thrives on them?

No comments:

Post a Comment