The Future of Sports Critique: Deconstructing Popular Perceptions & A Movement Towards Asking New Questions
This article is part book review, part manifesto. It aims to act as a catalyst for changing the dominant modes of sports criticism; the way sport is perceived by the majority of its fans and by those who condemn it.
We all know someone who adores sport; who cherishes the adrenaline of competing and the drama of fandom. We also know someone who hates sport; for its contemptuous, rich superstars and its repetitive, never-ending nature. In essence, we all know sport. It’s omnipresent in society; a global phenomenon that is in your life through constant media reports and analysis, if not through active participation in a particular discipline. Thus, regardless of your personal opinions on sport, it cannot be denied its status as a vast area of public life.
The majority of writings on sport appear to be critiques of particular athletes, teams, leagues, or competitions. Indeed, there has been some incredibly complex and thought-provoking analysis developed within these broad topics. What is a more rare occurrence in mass media, or publishing in general, is a long-form, considered critique of the very nature of sport itself. One such endeavour appeared in 2012 with the release of Marc Perelman’s wonderful and polemical essay-turned-book entitled Barbaric Sport, which offers a scathing and brilliant critique of sport in a global, contemporary context.
In the opening chapters of the book, Perelman illuminates the multiple facets of hosting international sporting events and their inevitable political functions. He pays particular attention to the staging of both the Olympic Games and the (male) soccer world cup. One of the more startling arguments made is that the infamously political Berlin Olympic Games of 1936:
‘were not instrumentalized by the Nazi government; they were not taken over or appropriated by Nazi policy. Instead the Games by nature simply were an effective instrument, an efficient tool, a great practical apparatus for pursuing racist, anti-Semetic and repressive policies against domestic opponents of the regime.’ (2)
This proposition sets the ideological tone for the rest of the book. Perelman goes on to explore the nature of the stadium as a ‘social, political, ideological’ space (47), the paradoxical importance of drug use and doping to sport, and the (homo)sexuality of sporting conduct, dedicating chapters to each. It makes for great reading, shooting thought-provoking bullets, rarely letting up. It refuses to lose its battle.
But there’s a war going on.
One criticism of Perelman’s work is that it is so negative in its analysis that you are left in no doubt of the visceral hatred he has towards sport in any form. This apparent refusal to acknowledge any potential for sport to transcend societal divisions brought about through economic or political policies weakens his argument. The result could be that the book effectively alienates the majority of sport enthusiasts (the very people he is targeting most) from considering its conclusions for too long.
I love the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don’t want to read a YouTube comment unrelentingly condemning their existence, let alone a 120 page book. What I am also a fan of, however, is critical thinking. So if someone wanted to tell me about how lyrics dealing with Los Angeles and heroin were central to the critical acclaim and commercial success of the band, with strong evidence and an interesting argument, I would be all ears.
The point being, once a piece of writing is polemical it is rightly seen as passionate, unique, but crucially, lacking in sufficient evidence.
Chapter 8 of Perelman’s work explores the indoctrination of youth by sport, and is possibly the most necessary and striking topic of the book. Comparisons of youth reactions to France’s footballing success of 1998 are poignantly compared to its anti-institutionalist stances and protests in decades gone by, a fantastic example of how sporting triumphs can act as a unifying, mass distraction to material realities. However, the chapter is littered with extremely negative language. He writes of ‘brain-rotting new technologies’ (referring to iPods and mp3 players), ‘brain-deadening gadgets’ and of being ‘imprisoned in a sporting lifestyle’ (58-59). The connotations of language such as this could very easily be detrimental to any great hopes for the youth of 2014 to “wake up” and see sport in the way Marc Perelman would like them to. Paradoxically, Perelman has told young readers that they are imprisoned in a sporting society yet their new communication technologies, which could easily be used to critique and discuss such a proposition (think podcasts, personal/communal blogging, to name but a few outlets) have only the potential to melt their brain cells rather than stimulate them.
With all of this in mind, Barbaric Sport is essential reading. This critique has aimed to highlight its quality and necessity in the current global sporting climate. Criticising its polemic nature and extreme negativity has been about tackling potential flaws in the work so new readers do not find them too off-putting. In Perelman’s defence, he is almost provoked to be extreme in his views by the vast and overbearing subject he is trying to tackle.
The lack of critique that sport receives in general is addressed in his penultimate chapter, where Perelman discusses sport as an academic discipline. He writes ‘no other globalized social phenomenon has been as exempt – if that’s the word – from criticism’ (113). Indeed, he notes a disturbing but increasingly real possibility:
‘Might universities too have bought into the essential parameters of sport: competition – output – measurement – record? Might they too have become competitive arenas, in the image of sport?’ (114)
Universities are not the only institutions guilty of using this business plan – for that’s what it is: a business plan, stemming from the current economic climate, not directly from ‘the image of sport’ itself. In his article published in Social Europe Journal, the academic William Davies notes that:
‘competitiveness has become one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary cultures, especially in the UK. We celebrate London because it is a competitive world; we worship sportsmen for having won; we turn on our televisions and watch contestants competitively cooking against each other (…) One way of understanding neoliberalism, as Foucault has best highlighted, is as the extension of competitive principles into all walks of life.’
After taking Davies’ points on board, it becomes clear that sport is one of many areas of life in which competitiveness is now a central feature. And this is the flaw that I believe Marc Perelman makes in the framing of his arguments: sport is not the source of competitiveness; neoliberalism and a globalised marketplace are truly to blame for such conditions. The nature of sport may suit particular right-wing points of view, but it is important to understand that the nature of sport is always changing: the economics and the money surrounding sport in contemporary society are the governing factors in how we understand sport as a part of our lives. It would function very differently in an alternative cultural climate.
And this is what I am proposing: a move towards critiquing the conditions of sport itself; not in isolation, but in context. Not the supposed “essence” of sport, but how it works in the very particular environments in which it exists. A move away from narrow critiques that play themselves out within binaries or other suffocating settings for debates (Perelman’s book, like the world he is condemning, is also extensively male-dominated). Some journalism on sport may be attempting this, and I welcome existing evidence of such, but a lot is empty reportage that shoves sport down our throats without giving us the chance to chew it over and spit it out if we don’t like it. New questions need to be asked of old answers. If Perelman is to be believed, academics aren’t making headway in this regard. The new online communities of fan-driven analysis seem to be the best hopes for real change in the discourse surrounding sport.
To return to Perelman, his chapter on the youth of today suggests that they are so caught up in sport that they have become far less politically minded in comparison to previous generations. Youth of today perhaps do protest, do critique, and do not conform to the established norms of their societies. With the deregulation of mass media over recent decades (another glorious staple of the neoliberal marketplace) it is no wonder that Perelman notices a vast difference between the youth of 1968 and 1998 in Paris. And perhaps it is because the agenda of news has been re-imagined to the point where sporting success (particularly national sporting success) trumps political revolt as a topic in Le Monde or in any other famous national newspaper. Just because it’s not reported doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Before formulating a ‘sport is melting our brains’ bandwagon, a critique of sport should firstly examine the likelihood of agenda setting in mainstream media being driven by profit nowadays rather than public interest. Sport isn’t the source of all evil. The privatisation of the media is the huge issue here – for it is the media that legitimizes and popularizes the narrow, closed-off ways of viewing sport. Zidane jerseys sell much better than left wing political ideologies that deconstruct the social, political, economic and cultural implications of the 1998 World Cup. And why wouldn’t they? Have you seen his first touch?