Professionals sports, good or bad? A conversation started over noodles.
Let me start with Marx. The most infamous phrase attached to Karl Marx is his most misinterpreted line: “religion is the opiate of the masses.” For many, this line has served as definitive proof that Karl Marx hated religion and promoted its destruction. This interpretation of course misunderstands the function of opium in the 19th century. Opium, like most things, was an ambivalent commodity. Negatively, it was tool of empire and colonialism. Addiction to the substance was oppressive socially and psychologically. At the same time, in the positive light, Marx himself used opium and doctors and pharmacists would prescribe the drug; it was believed that opium had the power to heal.
Sports for all intents and purposes has become the religion of late capitalism. Game days, like the Sabbath, are holy and are free from labor. Fans diligently study statistics and pay homage to particular teams, like patron deities, by wearing jerseys and hats. The truly faithful participate in fantasy leagues, which serve as a sacrament to participate in the divine life. The negatives, like opium, are obvious: it distracts one from social life, political participation is set aside to watch the game, and the state-sanctioned violence (of sports like football) clearly does not improve our violent primal tendencies. At the same time, there are positive things about it that can be tools for the church and anti-capitalist resistance. First, the church can take a lesson from the effective marshaling of bodies into religious practices, something that in late capitalism the church is completely ineffective in doing. Like the way Marx was impressed by the bourgeois revolutions, sports can be admired for its ability to mobilize the masses. Secondly, sports is a necessary drug for long days of tedious labor. Michael Hardt has argued that the new hegemonic form of labor is immaterial labor, work that creates information, ideas, and affects. This labor, Franco Bifo Beradi has observed, creates certain psychological problems and divorces us from our bodies. Professional sports points to the incongruity that labor has in created in us with relationship to our bodies. It points to the desire to be in touch with our bodies, while at the same time keeping the distance of the television and computer screen. Just as the cry of the oppressed is not the same as organizing collective resistance, sports points to a desire for a different relationship to our bodies. We need to further explore it’s revolutionary functions. As Ani Defranco says as it is quoted at the beginning of Empire, “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”
Sport, capitalism, and religion in the US have an interesting quality of life together. To begin my initial response to the premise you have set up I would like to start with a quote from W. Benjamin that I agree with and find to be helpful:
Capitalism is a pure religious cult…within it everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult. Capitalism is the cult without dream and without mercy…Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult…An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult, not in order to repent for the guilt, but to make it universal…to include God himself in this guilt.
One of the key differences that I want to highlight between our understandings of the role sports plays in a late capitalist society is that you are viewing it as the religion; from my perspective, capitalism itself is the religion and sports is one way that the worship is enacted. It seems as if sports function as the second-order language of the capitalist religion. So I agree with how you are picturing the Sabbath, the sacrament, etc. – but I tend to see that these strangely ritual behaviors aren’t the religion itself, but what constitute the make-up of the religion. This is in the same way that attending a religious service isn’t the religion in total (though the material enactment is necessarily tied to the intention).
To illustrate the difference, it helps to frame American sports, in particular baseball, football, and basketball, as being viable: the games are played with a somewhat fair distribution of running, strength, and hand-eye coordination; the games are structured around a plan for success and the plan being enacted in various ways based on how the particular game develops. I don’t believe that Americans generally prefer sports like football to soccer simply because the scores are higher (more score, more profit). What I see taking place is that Americans enjoy watching premeditated plans molding themselves to ever-changing circumstances. Soccer, though growing in popularity has nowhere near the fan base of football, has almost in inverse logic to it: the unattainable, rather than the attainable, is the focus of attention: a game of soccer commonly has a 1-0 score because the players are facing the repetition of failure – football, baseball, and basketball are structured on complex plays (and the obvious advantage of using one’s hands).The excitement harnessed during a football, basketball, or especially baseball game is that every game is a set of familiar, yet original situations; while the plays remain the same, the unfamiliar progression provide the illusion of uncharted territory. Is this not the centerpiece of an exhaustive capitalist economy where ingenuity is always prized over eliminating rather than creating larger areas of margin?
I would also oppose your charge that professional sports do not divorce us (the culture at large) from our bodies. This calls up the notion of the fan. In professional sports, the fan’s primary role is that of a spectator. The viewer constitutes a fascinating component to the sport. What would sports look like apart from the mass media’s constant attempts to make the game itself more of an ‘experience’. This even occurs in billboards: Sprite, for instance, attempts to convince me while I drive down La Cienega that by drinking it, I will understand and, I suppose, inadvertently become the nature of Sport. Fans, opposite to your claim, further lose their immediate connection to their bodies when obsessively (for me, this qualifier is important – but I would like to challenge frequent viewers to consider themselves ‘obsessed’ rather than assume that the obsessed are actually other people) viewing a sporting event. An additional problem I see is that when the players themselves know that someone else is watching the game, this causes the player to let someone else be the viewer for them. In this, problems of individual relationships with the self/body become problematic as well. What would sports look like without the fan? My first inclination is to assume that the player would retrieve her sense of viewer-ship.
Beyond all of this, too many pastors, when splitting their duty by serving in the Congregation of Sport, interpret biblical passages based on their readings of sports events. How many times have you heard a pastor, unfortunately, relate a sermon to an infamous – or even a completely mundane play that only a fanatic would remember – situation to make sense of the spiritual relevance of a passage (some pastors of the churches I have attended and of the one I currently attend – I understand what this is like from experience). The biggest issue in this regard is not that the pastor enjoys lounging to sports, but that these sports are, if my interpretation is even somewhat correct, the direct manifestation of the capitalist religion.
What you say – that sports, like religion, point beyond itself, may well be true; but I believe that the American structure of sports ultimately points to the alienating, yet self-obsessed, nature of the religion: capitalism. If, as Defranco says, “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”, I’d like to see what she would do with a handful of wet noodles…besides pour Ragu on them and eat.
Jordan Mattox, Fuller Theological Seminary
Scott J. Cowan lives in Los Angeles and is pursuing a Masters of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. His interests in cultural criticism, philosophy, and investigating social structures in language have an influence on his approach towards theology. Other than theological studies, Scott has a background in photography and art history/theory.